Marie-Claire Amuah’s bittersweet novel, set in London and Ghana, follows the rites of passage of an ambitious young woman whose damaged childhood threatens to derail her career.
Stella and her brother, Sol, children of Ghanaian parents, grow up in south London. Their mother works long hours as an NHS neonatal nurse. Their father, a car mechanic, nurtures Sol but is violent towards his wife and daughter. Eight-year-old Stella observes: “When my dad gets angry, it is like lightning and thunder and hailstones.” He beats Stella for being “in-sol-ent” and she cannot understand why her mother and Sol fail to intervene. To compound matters, Stella has Addison’s disease, which affects her mood and energy. School and friends are Stella’s salvation until her parents’ divorce.
Amuah, a British Ghanaian barrister specialising in white-collar crime, has created an intelligent, likable narrator whom we quickly root for. Stella enrols at Bristol University: “The only black girl in a hall of two hundred people.” Here, she is ostracised when she reports the behaviour of a drunken white student who exposes himself. She decides to study law, but just as her career begins to soar her personal life implodes.
Stella’s boyfriend, Christian, seems perfect until he loses his temper. Amuah explores the blight of domestic abuse – how trauma is often intergenerational and the damage long-lasting. She also examines the effects of violence on its bystanders, too paralysed to help. Stella’s pain reveals itself in unexpected ways. She becomes increasingly superstitious, convinced her happiness depends on the daily appearance of two magpies.
There is occasionally too much explanation in the first-person narration. Amuah clearly wants to reflect Stella’s naivety when describing her childhood, but it sometimes slows the narrative. However, her interrogation of trauma is powerful and this is neatly balanced with joyful accounts of the friends’ get-togethers. Like her protagonist, Amuah takes time to find her feet and the novel’s final 100 pages are the strongest. A heartfelt debut.
One for Sorrow, Two for Joy by Marie-Claire Amuah is published by Oneworld (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply