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Harmattan Rain

Harmattan Rain

Author: Ayesha Harruna Attah
Publishers: Per ANKH Publishers
Pages: 434
Price: $16
ISBN: 978-2-911928-12-1

Reviewer: Tola Ositelu


 Stormy Debut
Tola Ositelu
Tola Ositelu
was born
in London to Nigerian and Ghanaian parents. She studied Law at University and is currently a solicitor in England.


Harmattan Rain is the debut novel by US based-Ghanaian author Ayesha Harruna Attah.  The story spans three generations of Ghanaian women, from the years shortly before Independence right up to the turn of the 21st century.  The book starts with Lizzie-Achiaa fleeing from her village and domineering father, with hopes of eloping with her first love and becoming a nurse in Accra.  The next 400-plus pages chronicle the ups and downs, lives and loves of Lizzie, her implacable daughter Akua-Afriyie and grand-daughter Sugri.

The premise of Harmattan Rain is a promising one but the execution fails to live up to the potential.  The novel gets off to a fairly auspicious start.  It is initially well paced and somewhat engaging but it soon loses its way.  It is not too long before Attah’s tell-tale rookie mistakes start to manifest themselves.  Much of the book screams 'unimpressive first novel'.  From the oft-horrendous editing and typos that litter the text, to the author’s insistence on stating the obvious and ignoring the subtleties of subtext. Plot progression is formulaic and predictable.  I found myself disengaged from most of the ill-developed characters with not enough reasons for me to really care about them.  

The dialogue often lacks credibility and sounds too much like something out of a poorly-written US TV-show.  Even the cadence of the language is more American-English than West African.  This works well in the latter parts of the book when Sugri is studying in New York.  Elsewhere, it seems more like Attah has lived in America for too long and might have forgotten the nuances of the English language as spoken on the West African Coast. There are plenty of stereotypes floating around too... Afrocentric Americans, lazy gatemen, hypocritical men of God.  

One of the novel’s main weaknesses is that the author cannot seem to decide whether she wants the story or the characters in the book to take centre stage.  The narrative is far too frequently bogged down with pointless detail, and characterisation is often sacrificed at the altar of plot convenience.  For instance when Lizzie runs away from home everything goes a little too smoothly.  There are none of the delays or opposition one would expect to encounter in real-life – a truculent mother-in-law notwithstanding.  She is taken in by a convent, which magically pull some strings that eventually lead to her going to nursing school, where she becomes best friends with the first girl she meets, going on to marry a promising young businessman she meets at the hospital where she works. 

The characters and their relationships are mostly one-dimensional.  We are told by the author that Lizzie and daughter Akua-Afriyie have a strained relationship and the latter estranges herself from her mother.  Yet we never really come to understand what caused such a monumental breakdown in the relationship.  True, Lizzie is not all that supportive when Akua-Afriyie becomes pregnant, yet the author wants us to believe the breakdown started long before then.  I wish Attah would have spent more time exploring this relationship and less time detailing the colour and fabric of the clothes the characters are wearing or the Feng-Shui of their living rooms.  In fact Akua-Afriyie often comes across as whimsical and unreasonable, dragging her apparently beloved father, Ernest, into the feud with her mother for no ostensible reason.   She manages to shut him out of her life for several years as well. 

Attah often has her characters doing or saying things that are neither true-to-life nor consistent with the people she wants us to believe they are.  Below is an extract from when Akua-Afriyie first sees her father after her self-imposed hiatus...

Eh Afriyie!  Is this where you’ve been hiding?’...
‘Papa, how are you?’
‘Can’t complain, Afriyie.  Ghana is difficult but somehow we’re surviving’
‘Papa, how come you never come and visit me?’ she asked.
‘I was told you weren’t seeing any visitors’ he said ‘How’s my granddaughter?’
‘She’s fine.  You should see her.  She’s this tall...’

After 5 years of Akua not seeing her father, not even after the birth of her child, I find this casual, devoid-of-awkwardness conversation, hard to swallow.

In another section of the novel, when Akua-Afriyie’s long campaign to bed her Pastor ends in humiliation she questions why God didn’t warn her that trying to seduce a clergyman was a bad idea.  This to me is a classic example of the several occasions where this book administers a slap to the face of the intelligent reader.  There are also plenty of incidental characters who I suppose are meant to enrich the tapestry of the story.  Instead Attah lacks the dexterity to bring them to life and they are more like irritating interruptions.  The ending of the novel is disappointingly abrupt. I wouldn’t have minded this so much if the novel had not been quite so long.

I would argue that the main strength of ‘Harmattan Rain’ is its in-depth exploration of Ghana’s political evolution since the pre-Independence 1950’s.  In this way it serves as a useful introduction to the country’s recent political history.  I even suspect the book was an excuse for Attah to wax-lyrical on what she thinks of the various civilian governments and military administrations that have been in power.  She’s clearly no fan of Jerry Rawlings.  Attah doesn’t manage to weave these political discussions as seamlessly into the novel as she might have intended and some of the discourse reads more like a ‘Let’s talk about political history’ lesson.  Nonetheless the information has some educational value and the novel succeeds on this front even if it doesn’t on so many others.

Harmattan Rain is not the strongest of debut novels.  It is not altogether terrible and there are segments that are quite readable.  Yet considering that the writing isn’t generally up to par it is far too long, making it a laborious read at times. On more than one occasion, I felt the time it took to finish the novel could have been better spent.  However if you have the patience and are looking for undemanding African chick-lit, with some critique on politics thrown in, ‘Harmattan Rain’ would suffice.
2 out of 5.


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