For several decades now, an increasing number of African parents have been transporting their children between the West and Africa, often leaving them with relatives or in boarding schools. This is supposed to be for the ‘child’s own good’. Separated from their parents, whether in Accra or in London, these children have to negotiate the transition to adulthood often in unsupportive and confusing environments. Eleven-year-old Ajuba is one for those transported children and her story is the heart of True Murder (2009).
Ajuba is dumped at an English boarding school by her father after the breakup of her parents’ marriage. She befriends three of her classmates and the owners of the school are kind to her. It promises to be a period of peace for Ajuba, a place and space for her to come to terms with her mother’s breakdown and absence. Ajuba’s feels her loneliness and isolation keenly and this leads to a deepening friendship with Polly Venus and her glamorous but dysfunctional family. The girls, whose imaginations are taken over by the stories in the American magazine serial True Murder, stumble upon a real-life mystery in the attic of the Venus family home. During a long summer vacation, while the girls try to solve the mystery, forces close to home collide resulting in heartbreak and tragedy.
What amazed me most about this novel is its success at evoking all its different settings and atmosphere. The scenes in Ghana where Ajuba grapples with her mother’s deteriorating mental state are delicately rendered and balanced between Ajuba’s own incomprehension and the culture’s use of superstition to explain almost everything. The depictions of both boarding school life and of quaint rural England peppered with eccentric characters felt authentic and were enjoyable. It was gut-wrenching to watch the kids deal with their parents’ breakups and come to understand how insecure, utterly dependent and “acutely vulnerable” they are. Ultimately, it is Ajuba’s narration and viewpoint that glues together all the disparate cultures and themes of True Murder. She is a sympathetic, emotionally fragile yet perceptive child. And while she does experience her fair share of cultural confusion, she also nonetheless perceives, and rightly so, that what makes a child happy and secure, chiefly the love, care and attention of her parents, is universal.
True Murder is well written and its multi-layered mysteries and plot lines are totally engrossing. The characters are complex and well-developed such that one is able to detect actions that even Ajuba, the child misses. Yaba Badoe is a skilled storyteller, her style is completely seductive. This tragic tale of an eleven-year-old exile is a triumph. Highly recommended.
(Please note that True Murder is available through The Book Depository. It does not have a US publication date, yet. Readers in Ghana can purchase it at EPP Books on the Trade Fair road)