Book Review: Hold by Michael Donkor

HoldAbout the Book

You have to imagine. That’s how I told myself.’
‘Imagine what?’
‘Imagine that you are the kind of girl that can cope with it, even if you are not.’

Belinda knows how to follow the rules. She has learnt the right way to polish water glasses, to wash and fold a hundred handkerchiefs, and to keep a tight lid on memories of the village she left behind when she came to Kumasi to be a housegirl.  Mary is still learning the rules. Eleven years old and irrepressible, the young housegirl-in-training is the little sister Belinda never had.

Amma has had enough of the rules. A straight-A pupil at her exclusive South-London school, she has always been the pride of her Ghanaian parents. Until now. Watching their once-confident teenager grow sullen and wayward, they decide that sensible Belinda might be just the shining example Amma needs.

So Belinda is summoned from Ghana to London, to befriend a troubled girl who shows no desire for her friendship. She encounters a city as bewildering as it is exciting, and as she tries to impose order on her unsettling new world, Belinda’s phonecalls back home to Mary become a lifeline.  As the Brixton summer turns to autumn, Belinda and Amma are surprised to discover the beginnings of an unexpected kinship. But when the cracks in their defences open up, the secrets they have both been holding tight to threaten to seep out…

Format: Audiobook, hardcover, ebook (320 pp.)    Publisher: 4th Estate Books
Published: 12th July 2018                                             Genre: Literary Fiction

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My Review

The prologue opens at the funeral of an unidentified person, lodging a question in the back of the reader’s mind as the events of earlier that year (2002) unfold in the rest of the book.

Belinda and Mary are housegirls in the home of a wealthy Ghanaians couple who, following custom, the girls refer to as ‘Aunty’ and ‘Uncle’.  (Personally, I would have liked more background about the role and employment/legal status of housegirls in Ghanaian society to help me understand better the relationship.)   Belinda and Mary indulge in gentle, good-humoured bickering as they prepare and serve food to their exacting ‘Aunty’ and ‘Uncle’ alongside other daily household duties such as cleaning, laundry and shopping.  Mary, in particular, has a quirky sense of humour and an optimistic outlook on life while Belinda, a few years Mary’s senior, is conscious of her role as advisor and guide.

Soon, the two girls are separated when Belinda is sent to London to befriend Amma, the daughter of another rich Ghanaian couple, Mrs and Mrs Otuo.  Belinda’s arrival into the confusion of the airport is conveyed in an impressionistic way. ‘A gentle voice came down in a different language.  Then another.  And then another. […] Strip lighting overhead, black arrows on yellow, corridors with moving floors.  […] Queuing.  Strip lighting overhead, black arrows on yellow, corridors with moving floors.  […] The beeping.  The thing to do next: reach the gathering at the tracks that went in a big loop.  Stooped older women stood behind concerned men.  Bored toddlers harassed teddies’ limbs. Lots of tutting at watches, followed by sighing when suitcases came through the lazy mouth.’  Admit it; you’re there with Belinda at the purgatory that is Baggage Reclaim.

On the journey to her new home, Belinda wonders at the unfamiliar sights of London. ‘…London was one big black road with cars.  The motorway gradually thinned out into smaller roads, where there were stores selling rows of plastic bodies – some naked, some clothed – frozen in the middle of dances.’ 

The author takes the reader through the trajectory of the two girls’ relationship from Amma’s initial suspicion of Belinda’s motives, expressed through a sullen refusal to communicate – ‘…the idea of a visitor itched at her.  No privacy.  Someone watching, asking questions.  Someone else to think about.’ – to Belinda’s gradual breaking down of the emotional barriers Amma has erected, guided by Mary’s sage advice in their periodic funny, chatty phone calls.  ‘My sister, if one is a quiet, you have to find clever tricks for to stop them being as that.  Sneak into her to make her chat properly.’

In fact, soon the roles seem to be reversed as Amma becomes a support to Belinda as she struggles to cope with inner demons of her own.  These promising developments are swiftly halted when a revelation by Amma conflicts with everything Belinda has been taught about right and wrong.   Soon after, a tragic event sees Belinda return to Ghana and in the final section of the book the story picks up the narrative from the prologue.

The book is liberally sprinkled with Ghanaian dialect words that had me making frequent use of the glossary.  Conversations are rendered in a distinctive style that I’m aware some reviewers of West African heritage have criticised as inauthentic.  I’m in no position to judge but I would say that, authentic or not, it did give me a clear sense that I was reading about characters whose background and ethnicity is different to my own.  On that subject, I did enjoy learning about Ghanaian culture: clothing, hairstyles, social customs, entertainment, commerce and food.

Hold is a character-driven story about female friendship, exploring your own identity – cultural, sexual, social – and finding a direction in life.  I received a review copy courtesy of publishers, 4th Estate, and NetGalley, in return for an honest and unbiased review.

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In three words: Absorbing, insightful, emotional

Try something similar…Gravel Heart by Abdulrazak Gurnah (read my review here)

About the Author

Michael Donkor was born in London, to Ghanaian parents. He studied English at Wadham College, Oxford, undertook a Masters in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway and now teaches English Literature to secondary school students. Many of the issues in Hold are close to his heart, and his writing won him a place on the Writers’ Centre Norwich Inspires Scheme in 2014, where he received a year’s mentoring from Daniel Hahn.

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