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Housegirl shares deep secrets with friend

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“Housegirl” by Michael Donkor

c.2018, Picador

$16.00 / $21.00 Canada

309 pages

You’re up for this.

This next thing is going to be a challenge, but you’re ready. You’ve studied it as much as you can and you’ve thought it through, you’re bringing your best talents and your keenest observation skills, and you got this. You can do it. Still, as in the new book “Housegirl” by Michael Donkor, it won’t be easy.

Mary was often too impetuous.

Belinda didn’t mind, though. Mary was still a child, not quite a teenager, and she still sucked her thumb at night. Sometimes, she was an exasperation but mostly, she was like a sister to Belinda, even though they were unrelated housegirls from small Ghanaian villages, given up by their mothers to work for wealthy people.

Given by her mother. That hurt, but it was why Belinda didn’t feel she had much choice when her employer, Aunty, gifted Belinda to her friend, Nana, with an odd assignment attached. Belinda would move to London — not to cook and clean, but to serve as a good example for Nana’s daughter, Amma, who was just a year older than Belinda, but worlds away in attitude.

It was not easy for Belinda to tell Mary that she was leaving. Mary cursed and cried but in the end, she was comforted by promises that she and Belinda would talk often on their cell phones. Belinda was sure Mary would adjust, maybe even take over the running of Aunty’s household. Mary would grow up.

In the meantime, Belinda had other worries. Nana’s husband paid for Belinda to go to school, and Nana took her shopping for new clothes. They gave her a room of her own, a bed of her own, and pretty things for decoration. But Amma was a challenge — she was sassy and cursed, lied and snuck around. Belinda liked Amma, but befriending her could be quite another thing.

Still, the two girls grew close and they began to share secrets. Belinda unburdened herself of the shameful things her mother had done. Amma told Belinda that she liked girls in that way. Both knew they’d have to rely on one another in days to come.

Neither knew their friendship would cause regrets…

Absolutely, “Housegirl” is not an easy book to read.

Parts of it are written in the Ghanaian language of Twi, and though there’s a glossary before this story starts, it’s cumbersome to constantly page back and forth.

More back-and-forth comes from character conversation in which it isn’t always clear who’s saying what, so it all ends up being a mish-mash of words. Add to that a number of odd details that seem pruriently gratuitous (do we really, for example, need to know about a character’s need for hygiene products? The answer is “no.”) and you’ve got a lot of cringing ahead.

That’s too bad; the characters are mostly very likeable, maybe even relatable, and the settings are perfectly written. That makes “Housegirl” flawed, though it’s not a terrible novel; it’s just that, if you try it, it’s going to be a challenge.

Updated 11:10 am, September 6, 2018
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