Jessica George’s debut novel Maame has the air of being the well-behaved little sister to Candice Carty-Williams Queenie. It’s the coming-of-age story of 25-year-old Maddie, who on the one hand seems incredibly young, inexperienced and vulnerable, and on the other already carries so much responsibility that she suffers physically and psychologically as a result. Like Queenie, Maddie goes through crises and explores her sexuality, but she is – perhaps because of the Christian upbringing in her Ghanaian family home – far less reckless. In the end, a therapist helps her handle some heavy losses.
Maddie is living in London, trying to start her professional life and live up to the responsibilities her family has thrust upon her. Maddie’s mother has long spent most of her time in Ghana managing a hotel, leaving Maddie to raise herself, especially since her older brother has also absconded. When her father becomes ill with Parkinson’s, it falls to Maddie to care for him. The family always seems to see Maddie in the role of family manager, they call her Maame, which means “mother” or “wife” in Twi.
Maddie’s mother calls regularly to ask when her daughter will finally get married and to remind her to trust in God and go to church. She then unexpectedly returns to London so that Maddie can have more time to finally find a husband. Maddie moves into a flat share, finds a new job in a publishing house that she enjoys more, and starts dating. It’s refreshing how naive and honest she is about everything, and that these qualities aren’t masked by glibness. Everything seems to get easier until a turn of fate means Maddie has to question her new life and figure things out once again.
What I appreciated most about this novel was the visibility it gave to Parkinson’s disease, and the financial, emotional and time challenges of caring for a loved one. George has put a lot of love into portraying the changing relationship between Maddie and her father. The story itself is relatively predictable and some of the dialogue with family members or friends felt a little dramatic to me. But overall, I was able to fall into the story quickly and the combination of heavy and light moments made the book enjoyable to read – there are disappointments and big worries, but then a friend is at the door, making tea or ordering food.
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