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Review: 'Sankofa,' by Chibundu Onuzo

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"Sankofa," by Chibundu Onuzo. (Catapult/TNS)

FICTION: A discovery in an old trunk leads to a life-changing trip.

"Sankofa" by Chibundu Onuzo; Catapult (304 pages, $26)

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Chibundu Onuzo's third novel, "Sankofa," opens in a voice and style that are unfamiliar — at least to this reader of her previous novels. The writing is clipped and mostly stripped of excess. Because the story is told from the first-person point of view — the protagonist is a 48-year-old biracial woman named Anna Graham — a lingering directness to the prose advances the plot but does little to generate enough nuance and literary heft in the novel.

If the writing style in "Sankofa" feels different — perhaps a kind of experimentation on Onuzo's part — the themes often found in her work, especially the cross-cultural, transnational ones, are still there, untouched. Those themes, especially of race and identity, take center stage from the beginning when Anna finds two notebooks and a black-and-white photograph in the lining of an old trunk owned by her recently deceased mother.

The man in the photograph, "the darkest tint in the human spectrum," is Francis K. Aggrey, Anna's father. The notebooks with journal entries also belong to him.

The discovery is life-changing, signaling a new turn ahead. Growing up with her British mother, Anna never knew her father. In the late 1960s, Francis was a young, politically curious student in London where he met and had "some sort of affair" with Anna's mother, Bronwen Bain. He eventually returned to his country, Bamana, for good, unaware that Bronwen was pregnant with his child.

Anna's shocking discovery sets off a chain reaction of events in the novel, another recognizable plot element in Onuzo's work. The momentum builds and we follow along as Anna, who is separated from a husband with whom she has a grown daughter, Rose, travels to Bamana, leaving behind a lonely life in "the cusp of the countryside [where] when the wind changed direction, you could smell the manure."

Also, a plot twist emerges: Anna's father, Francis K. Aggrey, now known as Kofi Adjei, fought to liberate his country from diamond-hungry colonizers and served as its first prime minister.

In Bamana, a fictionalized West African country, Onuzo is probably at her narrative best. We leave behind a briskly examined life in dull, racist England and find ourselves in a setting that fires up the senses and offers up an opportunity for us to get to know Anna better. Or, more so, for Anna to get to know herself better.

With limited success at first, Anna re-connects and then bonds with her father, who is both reviled and revered as Bamana's former leader; she also meets her half-siblings who reassure her that "we don't have [half] in Africa," as they welcome her into the fold. Then in a scene that borders on the surreal, Anna partakes in a ritual that releases her from the past, resulting in a kind of rebirth.

For the Akan people of Ghana, "sankofa" means not only to retrieve but also to do so in the spirit of taking something good from the past to better the future. Like her protagonist, the writer Onuzo boldly attempts this in her new novel, to some mixed results.

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Angela Ajayi is a Minneapolis-based critic and fiction writer.

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