There is a mythical bird called the Sankofa. It flies forward with its head facing back. It’s a poetic image, but it cannot work in real life. 

Celebrated novelist Chibundu Onuzo takes readers on a journey from London to West Africa in Sankofa (Catapult), the story of a Black woman of mixed heritage attempting to move forward through adversity while keeping one eye turned back to her past — just like the mythical bird which provides the title of the book. 

The story follows Anna Bain, who is doing her best to navigate middle age, an impending divorce from her cheating spouse and a challenging relationship with her only daughter; then, she experiences the devastating loss of her mother. While cleaning out the house of the only parent she knew, Anna discovers a 40-year-old journal written by the father who left before she was born. She is enthralled by the personal insights, tender sentiments and grand political aspiration she finds within its pages.

Unraveling the mystery of her father’s life becomes an obsession for Anna, providing a distraction from the challenges of her daily life. When she learns that her father is alive, excitement is complicated by a degree of resentment for the man who abandoned her mother so long ago. In her efforts to learn more about her father, Anna discovers that he played a significant role in the history of Bamana: first by liberating his native country from colonial rule, and later as a controversial leader of the new nation. Just when the story appears to be winding down and reaching its resolution, the book takes a sharp left and speeds off in another direction, reaching new levels of excitement and danger for Anna and leading the story to a completely unexpected conclusion.

AN EXCITING STYLISTIC DEPARTURE FROM ONUZO’S EARLIER WORK

Onuzo first gained international attention nearly a decade ago at the age of 21 when her first novel was published. As a prodigious young writer, she has faced the immense challenge of extraordinarily high critical expectations, but with each novel, she has delivered. Her second book, Welcome to Lagos, received recognition from the American Booksellers Association, Parade Magazine, Elle, The Millions and many other publications. Onuzo was awarded a Ph.D. in history from King’s College London, and her dedication to scholarship is evident in the carefully researched detail and beautifully rendered historical and geographic settings of her stories.

While her previous works have been recognized for their ability to draw the reader into a specific place, Sankofa is most notable for the complex and realistic characters that come alive on the page. Heartfelt emotion, imperfections, blemishes, worries and indecision surround the main character, her father, friends and the rest of the supporting cast. Onuzo sacrifices the allegorical, dramatized tone of her previous novels for one grounded more firmly in realism. This novel focuses on character development, and the intersection of culture, heritage and the individual. Concise, meaningful exchanges of dialogue between characters, as well as extensive internal dialogue, create a sense of movement and an engaging pace. 

EXPLORING THE CONTRADICTORY TRUTHS THAT EXIST WITHIN US ALL

Anna is a refreshingly mature protagonist who demonstrates an even temper and measured emotion in the majority of her decisions. Through this central character, the author is able to present and explore complex motivations and conflicts within the story. The level-headed personality of Anna is in contrast to that of her father, an eccentric, larger-than-life figure who demonstrates the dramatic contradictions that can live within a single person. Her father is both a savior and a monster, a man who fought for the liberty of the people of Bamana but is also accused of mercilessly ending opponents that threatened his own rule. When Anna travels to Bamana in search of her father, she realizes that the country itself contains many contradictions. Wealth, diamond mines, palaces, modern city centers and French restaurants exist alongside poverty, outdated customs, dangerous superstitions, even witchcraft and oppressive patriarchal culture. It is a place both independent and forward-thinking but also traditional and resistant to further change. 

Sankofa tells the story of a woman who must find the courage to explore her mysterious heritage and face the complicated truth that she discovers. Readers who appreciate an interesting setting and a layered, purposeful plot will be enthralled by this book. The mixed heritage of the main character, Anna, reflects not only pressing questions of race but also the complexity of emotions, motivations and identity within all of us. Our lives become a blend of the things we love and the things we resent. Sankofa is a unique depiction of the past and future, bold and beautiful, courageous and reprehensible that exist within each of us.

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About Chibundu Onuzo:

Chibundu Onuzo was born in Lagos, Nigeria and lives in London. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and regular contributor to The Guardian, she is the winner of a Betty Trask Award, has been shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize, the Commonwealth Book Prize and the RSL Encore Award. She has been longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize and Etisalat Literature Prize. The author of Welcome to Lagos, Sankofa is her third novel.