Housegirl

Housegirl

by Michael Donkor

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Overview

Shortlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize Longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize Nominated for the Edinburgh First Book Award One of The Observer's "New Faces of Fiction" One of The Millions' "Most Anticipated Books of the Year" One of The Guardian's "Best Summer Books" (Selected by Kayo Chingonyi and Joe Dunthorne) One of Library Journal's "Most Anticipated Fall Debuts" One of The Observer's Best Books of the YearAn NPR "Staff Pick" and One of the NPR Book Concierge's "Best Books of the Year"

A Go On Girl! Book Club Selection

"Immensely readable...A refreshing story about coming of age in spite of conflicting ideas of what 'growing up' means."—Buzzfeed (The Best Books of Fall)

A moving and unexpectedly funny exploration of friendship and family, shame and forgiveness, Michael Donkor's debut novel follows three adolescent girls grappling with a shared experience: the joys and sorrows of growing up.

Belinda knows how to follow the rules. As a housegirl, she has learned 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.

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 student at her exclusive 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 is the shining example Amma needs.

So Belinda must leave Mary behind as she is summoned from Ghana to London, where she tries to impose order on her unsettling new world. As summer turns to autumn, Belinda and Amma are surprised to discover common ground. But when the cracks in their defenses open up, the secrets they have both been holding tightly threaten to seep out.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250305176
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 08/28/2018
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 1,118,991
Product dimensions: 8.10(w) x 5.20(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Michael Donkor was born in London, to Ghanaian parents. He studied English at Wadham College at the University of Oxford, undertook a masters in creative writering at Royal Holloway, and now teaches English literature to secondary school students. In 2014, his writing won him a place on the Writers' Centre Norwich Inspires Scheme, where he received a year's mentoring from Daniel Hahn. Housegirl is his first novel, and many of the issues in it are close to his heart.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

Daban, Kumasi – March 2002

Belinda fidgeted in the dimness. She sat up, drawing her knees and the skimpy bedsheets close to her chest. Outside, the Imam's rising warble summoned the town's Muslims to prayer. The dawn began to take on peaches and golds and those colours spread through the blinds, across the whitewashed walls and over the child snuffling at Belinda's side.

All those months ago, on the morning that they had started working in Aunty and Uncle's house, Belinda and Mary had been shown the servants' quarters and were told that they would have to share a bed. To begin with, Belinda had found it uncomfortable: sleeping so close to a stranger, sleeping so close to someone who was not Mother. But, as with so many other things about the house, Belinda soon adapted to it and even came to like the whistling snore Mary often made. On that bed, each and every night, Mary slept in exactly the same position; with her small body coiled and her thumb stopping her mouth. Now Belinda watched Mary roll herself up even more tightly and chew on something invisible. She thought about shifting the loosened plait that swept across Mary's forehead.

Belinda turned from Mary and moved her palms in slow circles over her temples. The headache came from having to think doubly: once for Mary, once for herself; a daily chore more draining than the plumping of Aunty and Uncle's tasselly cushions, the washing of their smalls, the preparing of their complicated breakfasts.

Dangling her legs down and easing herself to the floor, Belinda quietly made her way to the bathroom. She stepped around the controller for the air con they never used and around the remains from the mosquito coil. She brushed by the rail on which their two tabards were hung. Belinda remembered the first time Aunty had said it – 'tabard' – and how confused Mary's expression had become because of the oddness of the word and the oddness of the flowery uniform Aunty insisted they wear when they cleaned. Belinda would miss that about Mary's face: how quickly and dramatically it could change.

Under the rusting showerhead, Belinda scrubbed with the medicinal bar of Neko. Steam rose and water splashed. In her mind Belinda heard again the sentences Aunty had promised would win Mary round. She yanked at a hair sprouting from her left, darker nipple, pulling it through bubbles. The root gathered into a frightened peak. She liked the sensation.

Returning to the bedroom, in the small mirror she was ridiculous: the heaped towel like a silly crown. For a moment, she forgot the day's requirements, and flicking her heels she pranced across the thin rug. Would Amma like that? Might jokes help heal that broken London girl? Or perhaps Belinda would be too embarrassed.

Mary shot up from beneath the covers and launched herself at Belinda's chest. Belinda pushed her off and Mary lost her balance, fell onto the bed.

'What is this? Are you a –? Are you a stupid –' Belinda lifted the towel higher. 'Grabbing for whatever you want, eh?'

'What you worried for?' Mary arched an eyebrow. 'I have seen all before. Nothing to be ashamed for. And we both knowing there is gap beneath shower door and I'm never pretending to be quiet about my watchings neither. You probably heard me while I wasdoing my staring. Even maybe you seen my tiny eye looking up,' Mary squinted hard, 'and you've never said nothing about nothing. So I think you must relax now. I only' – Mary tilted her head left, right, left – 'wanted to see how yours are different from mine.' She pulled up her vest and Belinda quickly rolled it down. A ringing quietened in Belinda's ears.

'And, and here is me ready to speak about treats for you,' Belinda began.

'You mean what? Miss Belinda?' Mary folded her arms.

'Adjei! You standing there in a silence to be so unfair. Ad?n? I want to hear of this my special thing. Tell of it!'

'Less noise, Mary! You know Aunty and Uncle they have not yet woken.'

'Then tell the secret and I will use my nicest, sweet voice.'

Belinda headed towards the mirror and adjusted its angle slightly. 'Number one is that we have a day off.'

'Wa bo dam! Day off?!'

'Aane.'

'Day. Off. Ewurade. When, when have they ever given us one of those?' Mary rubbed her hands together. 'Today no getting them nasty stringy things from the drain in the dishwasher? No scrubbing the coffee stain on Uncle's best shirt again, even though everyone knows the mark is going to live there forever and ever amen!'

Mary laughed but soon stopped to count her stubby fingers. 'You said number one. And you said treats not treat. I know the thing called plurals. You speak as if we also having two and three and four and even more. So you have to complete please, Miss Belinda. What else?'

'Many great gifts from Aunty, Uncle and their guests Nana and Doctor Otuo. Many. But, but I will let them know they should change their minds and their plan. Because why should a naughty little girl get good things?'

'That question is too easy. Nasty people get nice all the time. Look at Uncle. He is farting in the night and afternoon, and then blaming it on Gardener or anyone else passing.' Mary threw up her arms. 'But he still got treasures from the UK and this massive palace he lives in with his own generator, own two housegirls in me and you and all kinds of rich visitors coming in.'

'Ah-ah! Your Uncle never, never farted! Take that one back.'

'What else is my treat?'

'Wait and see,' Belinda said.

CHAPTER 2

Later that morning, under the fierce sun, for what felt to Belinda like hours they waited at the end of a long line outside Kumasi Zoo's gates. They stood behind three nurses who had powerful bottoms and who passed the time by repeatedly humming the old hymn about the force of God's constant love. Mary played with the green baubles Belinda had tied into her hair after she had promised to never again spy on Belinda showering. As they continued to queue, Mary crunched shards of dead banana leaves under her sandals and chattered away. Belinda tuned into and out of that overexcited flow of words: one of the larger clouds above, Mary was convinced, was shaped just like a fat man bending to touch his toes.

When they reached the stewardess in the crumbling admission booth, Belinda peeled and counted out cedis from the bundle of notes Nana and Aunty had given her. As Belinda paid, she became aware that Mary's talking had stopped. Belinda watched Mary stare at the stewardess. The cool seriousness of Mary's gaze made her seem much older than eleven. The little girl's grave eyes moved; to the young woman's hands that rested on a stack of brochures, to the polished things on the stewardess' shoulder pads, finally stopping on the stewardess' cap.

'Madam,' Mary said, suddenly beaming, 'I have to tell you, this your hat is very fine and well. So smart and proper. I like this golden edge it has a lot. Big congratulations on wearing it.'

'This is a most righteous praise.' The stewardess leaned forward, and with her face now poking out of the booth's shadows, her features were more visible to Belinda; the unusual fineness of the nose and cheekbones, the glossiness of her weave. 'What a polite and best-mannered young lady we have on our grounds this pleasant day. Wa ye ade?.'

Mary stood tall. 'The hat it looks like they made from a very beautiful and special material. Is it true? Can I please have one touch? I will not do any damages on it.'

'Aba!' Belinda tugged Mary's shirt. 'We not coming here to cause a nuisance or distraction for this officer. Let us go, please.'

'Is not a problem. I see no other visitors behind you at this time,' the stewardess offered.

'See, is not a problem.' Mary imitated the stewardess' casualness perfectly, shrugged and reached out. Belinda saw how much the hat's stiffness and texture seemed to please Mary. Mary began asking the stewardess how long she had had a job at the zoo, and what her favourite and worst things about working there were and which animals were the most annoying. Belinda jiggled her shoulders and pulled at the silly flouncy dress Nana and Aunty said she should wear because it was an important occasion. But even though she knew there were things to be done and things that she wanted done quickly, Belinda let Mary carry on. It seemed only fair.

The stewardess removed her fancy hat and placed it on Mary's head at an angle. The hat was far too big. The two of them found this very amusing. Now the stewardess whistled and called for one of her colleagues – a thin man with a square afro and sore patches around his mouth – to replace her in the booth, and she then offered to give the girls a tour. Mary did a wiggling dance of joy before marching forward. Belinda pulled at her dress again but stopped herself in case she ripped it.

Belinda wished having fun was more natural for her. When Nana and Aunty had called her out to the veranda earlier in the week to have the conversation that had started everything, the two women told her her face was too long. Nana and her husband Doctor Otuo had been staying at the house for a fortnight. Throughout their visit Belinda had been intrigued by the novelty of their preferences, how happy they were when tea was the exact 'right' temperature. But, as Belinda stood at the end of the veranda on that Tuesday evening, holding her hands behind her back, she was more confused than intrigued by Nana's advice that she 'be more lightened up'. Belinda saw no reason to relax: usually, once Belinda and Mary had taken the dinner plates away and cleaned down the kitchen's granite and marble, Aunty dismissed them. Then they had two uninterrupted hours of recreation time before lights out. Belinda had never been asked to return to the table after the evening meal was over. So she assumed she had made a mistake: perhaps the egusi stew had not been seasoned properly.

Waiting to hear her fate, a little dazzled by the stars decorating the sky and the candles she and Mary had placed everywhere at Aunty's request, Belinda had tried her best to be more at ease. She placed her arms at her sides loosely and tilted her head. In response, Aunty and Nana did sharp laughs at one another. Their chunky bracelets clattered and their wicker chairs creaked. They took sips of Gulder before falling silent. Every now and again, Belinda watched the oleanders in the garden as they trembled in the breeze, but then she worried that might seem rude so she focused on the two women as much as she could. Aunty complimented Belinda's hard work and effort, which made Belinda's tabard feel less restricting.

Nana nodded, her indigo headscarf wobbling a little as she did so. 'You doing really very well here, that's true. I have seen your greatness for myself during our holidaymaking here. Even before I came to this place you should hear how your Aunty she praised you in every email she sent from her iBook PC, telling me of how she doesn't even have to lift one tiny finger ever, and of how you show a fine honour in all you do, how you making their retirement so beautiful and wonderful. I am so pleased for my dearest friend.'

'Me da ase,' Belinda said softly.

Aunty invited Belinda to sit, so Belinda did.

Nana went on, 'Especially the way you are with Mary. This sensible, calm way. I think that is really very good. You guiding her and caring for her. Is a blessed thing to watch.'

'Is so very nice to hear this. I thank God for all the blessings we receive in this house. Aunty and Uncle have shown a big kindness to me. And to Mary also. Is miracle my mother saw the small card for this job in Adum Post Office. Miracle paaa. I believe the Almighty helped them choose me.' When she finished speaking, Belinda felt breathless. Even the briefest reference to Mother could make her throat dry and strange.

For a time, no one spoke. Aunty flicked her Gulder's bottle-top. Belinda sucked in her lower lip. Eventually Nana tossed a napkin onto the table like it had offended her. 'Belinda. I will talk to you as a grown woman. Is that OK? No beating on bushes, wa te? I have to come direct to you because is the way of our people and will always be our way, wa te?'

'Aane.'

'Me I have a daughter in London. Amma. She is seventeen, very close to your own age. Maybe your Aunty has spoken of her. She is my one and only.' Nana unclasped her earrings and rattled them in her palm like dice. 'Let me tell you; she is very beautiful girl and the book-smartest you will ever find in the UK. Ewurade! Collecting only gold stars and speaking of all these clever ideas I haven't the foggiest. They even put her in South London Gazette once because of her brains!' Nana shook her head in disbelief. 'And when she has a break from doing her homeworks or doing paintings, we shop together in H&M and have nice chats. And she makes her father very proud so he doesn't even mind that he lacks a son and he never moans of how dear the private school fees are for his bank balance.'

Belinda took the napkin and folded it into quarters. 'Daznice,' she said. 'Sounds very nice for you.'

'It used to be nice.' Nana sighed, put down her Gulder. 'Past. We have to use past tense because is now lost and gone, you get me? As if in the blinking of a cloud of some smoke she has just become possessed. Not talking. Grumpy. Using just one word, two words for communication. As if she is carrying all of the world on her shoulders. Me, I am always trying to understand and asking her questions to work out what is happening to her, but I get nothing back. Only some rude cheekiness.'

'Madam. I am very sorry for this one.'

Nana hissed. 'And every stupid person in the world keeps talking to me about her hormones, hormones, hormones, but is more than this. I feel it. A mother knows. And her pain is paining me.' Aunty patted Nana's shoulder in the encouraging way that Belinda often did to Mary.

So Nana started to explain, drinking a little more and fussing whenever mosquitos came near her. When Nana spoke, she kept saying 'if' a lot, and saying it very slowly, as though Belinda had a choice to make. Nana talked and talked of her daughter's need for a good, wise, supportive friend like Belinda to help her. Smiling with excellent, gapless teeth, Nana listed the opportunities Belinda would enjoy if she came over to London to stay with them, said that Belinda could improve her education in a wonderful London school and get a future; said that, like Aunty and Uncle had, she and Doctor Otuo would send Mother a little money each month to help her because they knew Mother's shifts at the bar didn't pay enough. The talking about Mother's job at the chop bar, the thickness of Nana's perfume, the idea of moving again – all of it made Belinda feel weightless and sick; like her chest was full of strange, drifting bubbles.

For a moment, Nana turned to Aunty. The two women held hands, their rings clicking against each other and their bracelets jangling again. 'Belinda,' Aunty exhaled, 'is a total heartbreak and pain for me to let you go. Feels too soon. Like you have been here some matter of days, and already –'

'Six months and some few weeks.'

'What?'

'Mary and I have been here six months and maybe two weeks in addition.'

'Yes,' Aunty said, now touching the papery skin at her throat. 'And that is a heartbreak. But this is what my great friend says she needs and what Amma needs. So, out of a loyalty and from a care, I let you go.'

Belinda traced the silver pattern marking the napkin's edge. The cicadas played their long, dull tune. She had so many questions but found that her mouth only asked one: 'You mentioning just me. What of Mary? She stays here?'

'Yes,' Nana said without eye contact, 'she stays here.'

'Oh. Oh.' Belinda concentrated on the napkin again but its busy design became too much for her.

Nana and Aunty behaved like everything would be easy. Belinda worried it would not be. Even so, she nodded along then got down on her knees to thank them because she knew her role and place, understood how things should be. And, at their feet, she bowed her head and gave praise in quiet phrases because getting further away from what she had left in the village was more of a blessing than either Nana or Aunty could understand.

It was decided that Belinda should take Mary out for a day trip to tell her the news. Let her have a bit of sugar to help swallow the pill. It was decided that a visit to the zoo would be just right. It was decided that they had struck on a great plan. And so, in a voice faraway and unlike her own, Belinda told them Mary would like the zoo, especially seeing the monkeys, because Mary loved the cleverness of their tails.

But now, as Belinda and Mary stopped at a water fountain near the snakes' enclosure to wait for the stewardess to take a gulp, Mary seemed much more interested in ostriches than monkeys.

'So, where are they hiding?' Mary demanded, pointing at a grainy picture of the birds in the brochure.

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "Housegirl"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Michael Donkor.
Excerpted by permission of Picador.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Dedication,
Twi terms, phrases and expressions,
December 2002,
Spring,
Summer,
Autumn,
Winter,
Acknowledgements,
About the Author,
Copyright,

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