Maame, a novel by Jessica George, is an intense yet uplifting journey towards self-discovery. The novel carefully explores what it means to find one’s true self and how to deal with grief.
In January 2023, news broke that Jessica George’s debut novel, Maame, will be adapted into a TV series set in London. The news did not surprise me because my first thought after reading this novel was that it would make an interesting story on screen. How so? George’s novel was a page-turner. Maddie Wright, the protagonist, was living in constant distress and regret and I found myself rooting for her. Hence, I could see how well this plot will do on TV.
In George’s debut that is set in London, we accompany a protagonist whose life is the ultimate focus of the novel. Maddie, undeniably, is the essence of Maame. The novel sums up an individual’s journey through self-discovery. Interestingly, along the way to self-discovery, this person battles with loneliness, grief, filial duties, career stagnation, and other captivating travails.
MADDIE’S BIG STAGE
In Maame, the world is Maddie’s big stage. Albeit an empty one, that stage is waiting until she’s ready to get on. And George successfully takes readers through all the steps leading to that stage. In this novel, Maddie’s self-realization comes later than usual and she is the typical late bloomer. ‘Mum alternates between calling me one of three things: my name and all its variations included, a term of endearment, or Maame. Maame has many meanings in Twi, but in my case, it means woman,’ Maddie says.
‘I’ve been called Maame ever since I can remember and I loved being referred to as a woman when I was still a girl. I loved being viewed as a grown-up before I’d even gotten my period. But now I—’ Maddie is not able to finish her sentence before she gets cut off. This is reminiscent of how she is always at the background of things, waiting for her star to shine. She allows the world around her to control her choices in life until she discovers what she truly wants out of life.
Maddie takes the first step towards the world’s big stage by resolving to move out of her family home where she lives with her not-so-present mother and her dad who is struggling with Parkinson’s Disease. Having to care for a father without much support from other family members has imbued her with feelings of guilt. However, this guilt will rapidly turn into grief, another of this novel’s several anchors.
Earlier this year, in an interview, George mentioned that in 2020, she lost my father to complications with Parkinson’s Disease. Perhaps this first-hand experience is why she was able to convincingly convey how Maddie was feeling when her father passed away. George had mentioned that losing her father ‘was the real first tangled grief that I’d had, so in order to kind of make sense of it, I just started randomly and spontaneously writing down thoughts and feelings during the process.’ Months later, she thought, ‘I could maybe turn this into a book.’ But documenting grief George’s way wasn’t so easy for Maddie. In the novel, Maddie says:
I love my dad and spent most of my time with him, so I expected the words to pour out of me, to effortlessly flow, but my notebook is still blank. This is an impossible thing to put into words. To some, it will look like we didn’t have much of a relationship, even at the end.
George’s exploration of Maddie’s life is additionally striking when it explores Maddie’s career growth. Maddie works as a theatre director’s PA. In addition to being a target of workplace abuse, she was fired from what we learn is an awful job. Now Maddie, in addition to a grown list of problems, has to navigate being jobless. ‘God, I can’t tell Mum I’ve been fired. There exists no greater shame in her mind than forced unemployment. She’d think it was my fault because there’s always a reason someone is fired,’ Maddie says. It was in this area, more than her other struggles, that I was strongly rooting for Maddie. And fortunately, Maddie was able to triumph.
Maame also includes elements that highlight the issues relatable to the African diaspora. In her professional space in London, Maddie is often the only Black person in the room and she’s acutely aware of this. For instance, in one of her job interviews, Maddie says:
I’m the only Black person in the room when I walk in but I don’t know for sure that there are no other Black staff members. Someone could be off sick or on annual leave. Should I ask? No, of course you can’t ask. How would that sound? Do you have any questions for me, Maddie? Yes, would I be the only Black person you’ve hired? And if so, why is that?
Additionally, George explores the experiences of migrant families who are still grappling with culture shocks but are trying to stay grounded by retaining the traces of their home countries they can still keep with them. During her father’s burial in London, Maddie met an aunt who wanted her to respond to a conversation in Twi despite her evident difficulty with speaking the language because, ‘the day of her father’s funeral is no day to be lazy, is no day to speak English. He was born surrounded by those speaking in Twi and he will be buried the same.’ On one occasion, Maddie recalls when she visited her parents’ birthplace, in Ghana. Here, her cousins made fun of her British accent and called her a princess behind her back. George’s decision to incorporate these experiences that many Africans in the diaspora could relate to is another strength of her debut novel. I cannot imagine reading the story of an immigrant family without reference to the struggle that concerns retaining parts of one’s indigenous culture and tradition.
In all of its intensity, Maame has its bright and sometimes-humorous elements. Like many in the hyper-digital age, Maddie is obsessed with looking up the most random things on Google. ‘Google: Is Parkinson’s disease genetic?’ ‘Google: Stages of grief’ ‘Google: Should I date a flatmate’s casual ex?’ ‘Google: Jobs with the happiest employees.’ The list is endless. Also, on Maddie’s journey towards self-discovery, we witness amazing friendships with her best friends, Nia and Shu, who are integral to her re-birth. One time, Maddie’s therapist asked: ‘Do you have people in your life who love you with the strength of many?’
I immediately think of Nia and Shu. I think of how Nia has never directed one inch of resentment toward me for not being the kind of friend she’s been to me when her dad died…I think of Shu coming over with shit for my sadness in the middle of a weekday. She rarely takes time off work. She could have waited for the evening or the weekend but instead came as soon as she heard. Did she walk straight out of work?
For all the vulnerability that George’s debut offers, it is only right that Maddie’s story has a graceful and triumphant end. Over time, and with some assistance from the people in her life, Maddie realizes that to get to the big stage, she must let go of the person she once was. Ultimately, Maddie learns that she can and must prioritize herself rather than constantly being the strong protector and mother figure for everyone around her.
In all, I think Maame’s greatest strength is George’s seamless storytelling. Following Maddie’s life journey makes for an enjoyable reading experience that will appeal to a wide range of people: the twenty-something-year-old who is learning to figure out life would find the novel realistic and inspiring; a much older person would probably enjoy reminiscing through the story’s historical moments; and any African foreigner may relate to its cultural nuances. Regardless, readers should know that this novel is heavy on a single standout character, with other characters being peripheral. As such, readers who appreciate plot–driven narratives may find this novel limited. After all, Maddie—and not an event in history or a particular phenomenon—is very clearly the novel’s star⎈
320 pp. St. Martins Press, January 2023
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