Hold by Michael Donkor. A book review by Harriet Furze
By Ian G Evans, on 10 May 2019
Hold by Michael Donkor
Hold is the debut novel by author Michael Donkor. He was born in London and raised in a Ghanaian household.
Hold tells the story of a seventeen-year-old Ghanaian girl Belinda, who is sold by her mother as a housegirl to a wealthy Ghanaian couple, Aunty and Uncle. Belinda is diligent and polite, and a stickler for the rules. She prides herself on her ability to do her job well, bringing honour and respect to the household to which she serves. Mary, who is only eleven, is her friend and sister, and sole comrade in meeting the whims of Aunty and Uncle. She is irrepressible and requires Belinda’s sisterly guidance. However, after only six months, Belinda is shipped off to London to befriend Amma, a troubled and spoilt teenager, and tasked with the purpose of ‘fixing’ her unruly behaviour and teaching her the ways of their culture. Mary is heartbroken when Belinda leaves.
The narrative starts with a funeral procession in Ghana where Belinda is quite clearly affected by whomever has died. Donkor then proceeds to take the story back through the past year, across Ghana and London, before leading the reader back to the funeral which has occurred at the beginning. As I continued reading, this scene was forgotten and after understanding Belinda, Aunty and Uncle much more, upon returning to this scene, it turned out to be a pivotal end to an emotional and heart-rending story.
There is a carefulness and gentleness to the way in which Donkor writes, which complements Belinda’s own nature. Her momentary outbursts send a clear message that her calm, polite and respectful exterior is a facade that even she struggles to control from her darkest secrets.
Donkor managed to touch on some really complex issues in this book surrounding culture, shame, identity, sexuality, sacrifice and loss. Of how one should live alongside one’s culture and how one needs to have the courage to live and love for oneself and support others around them. There is a clear lack of emotional support surrounding Donkor’s characters, and the constant effort to show pride in the face of their fellow Ghanaians means they are unable to show emotions or support each other when required. Amma’s ability to freely show her emotions by acting up and making public scenes at important cultural events and in public spaces is the reason the Otuo’s ask Belinda to come to London in the first place as her emotional behaviour is seen to be bringing disrespect to the family. When Belinda returns to Ghana, Aunty and Uncle are more concerned with funeral arrangements and the outcome of the eulogy rather than for Belinda’s emotional state. Interestingly, the only person who seems to be able to emotionally support others is Amma. By the end it is Amma that is left supporting Belinda and, despite all that Belinda stands for, through her diligence and respectfulness, Belinda is less prepared to deal with the emotional turmoil when it comes to it. Perhaps this is because those like Mary and Amma are more able to openly express their emotions as part of their general interactions.
It was interesting to see how Donkor incorporated Twi expressions throughout the speech. A glossary is provided but unfortunately not all the terms and phrases were accounted for, so at times a little guesswork was required and therefore some uncertainty as to whether I had interpreted the phrases correctly. Whilst there weren’t too many to confuse the story, there was a need to keep flipping between the prose and the glossary, which, for me, broke up the narrative on occasion. Despite this, Donkor’s inclusion of these expressions helped to cement the authenticity of the Ghanaian culture throughout the novel.
One of the striking things I noticed about this novel is that almost all of the characters are female. Whilst there are two male characters within the novel, Uncle and Dr. Otuo, they have such small parts to play that they are almost non-existent. This is so refreshing and makes it much more accessible for younger audiences because the story is so relatable, although its female-centricity could also make its reach limiting to teenage girls and YA audiences only.
My only criticism of the novel was that I didn’t feel Donkor’s characters were developed fully. Only on reaching the end of the novel did I start to feel as if I were truly understanding these characters, especially Belinda and Amma, and would have liked to have seen how their relationship continued to develop after such a traumatic event. Both Belinda and Amma wear each other down as they slowly start revealing their worries, anxieties and issues to each other, which they don’t share with anyone else, but I wasn’t truly convinced of the strength of their relationship and, as such, struggled to understand how close they actually were by the end. To me, their relationship seemed more of an appreciation and bond because of their issues rather than an actual friendship. I would have also liked to have seen how Amma’s own situation developed and whether she confronted her family about her sexuality.
Overall, Donkor’s coming-of-age novel was beautifully written, funny and moving. However, if the issues raised had had more time and space to have been developed further, this novel had the potential to be exceptional. Donkor is truly an author to watch in the future.
Hold is published by 4th Estate