The Deep Blue Between
In the late 19th century, twins Hassana and Husseina are separated at childhood as slave raiders sweep through their village in Gourma (present-day Burkina Faso). Hassana is forced to work on a farm under the odious control of Wofa Sarpong. She escapes and finds freedom and a new life in Accra. Husseina is taken across the Atlantic (the “deep blue” of the title) to Brazil. She also finds freedom, community, and religion (what eventually becomes known as Candomblé, it seems). She changes her name to Vitória, and channels the water spirit or goddess Yemanjá. The twins sense they are still connected, and feel unfulfilled until they take actions to bring themselves closer to each other. Will they find each other? That is the story arc of the novel. It is not a spoiler, really, to reveal that of course they are reunited in the end.
The main theme of this young adult novel is that these young women, brutalized by their circumstances, find plenty of room for agency and empowerment. They navigate their second-class status, as former slaves, as colonized subjects, and as women, finding passage through the narrow straits. They have rich and complex inner-lives, even as the author makes clear their days, for much of the novel, are filled with drudgery. The novel focuses on the girls as they transition to young adulthood. They get help from friends and older adults. There are some meanspirited characters, but in general the novel emphasizes the positive. There is violence, but it should not be shocking to a reader who understands the historical context of slavery. The novel very nicely passes the Bechdel test with flying colors. Boys are there, but not at all central to the story. This novel is not a marriage plot novel, and indeed the twins both reject the temptations of marriage in order to pursue their own destinies.
The novel is filled with interesting historical and social description, from what Accra, Lagos, and Bahia were like in the late 19th century, to the practice of syncretic religion in both Lagos and Bahia, to elite relationships among the literate, to the contradictions of Protestant anti-slavery missionaries evangelizing in Ghana. Merchant entrepreneurs and government bureaucrats make appearances, and the historical past is convincingly rendered. For all its centrality to the title, sailing across the sea ends up not being very central to the story, and readers might mostly remember it for the description of being seasick!
The book is told in alternating voices, first person for Hassana and third-person for Husseina/Vitória. Some readers may find the switching somewhat confusing, as the twins are also constantly referring to the absent other. In later chapters, when the twins are reunited, the switch in voice becomes even more difficult to follow. One also starts to wonder about the third-person narrator, whose voice is not present.
Some editing and story continuity could have helped. Many readers will likely lose track of where each twin is, especially in the last third as they appear to shuttle between Accra, Lagos, and Bahia with ease. Hassana’s reactions and voice when recounting her sort of strange relationship with the white “rescuer” Richard Burrt is frankly odd. The culmination of the story, as the twins meet, felt flat: for this reader, at least, there was no emotional catharsis. And after their reunion, their perceptive inner voices seem to lose steam. Their ability to communicate with each other seems to fail. The phrasing sometimes is lazy. Several days after Hassana and Vitória meet, Hassana says, “I knew you were in Brazil. Tell me about it.” Tell me about it? I wish the author had spent more time thinking about the psychology of these twins finding each other after being separated for about 15 years (the chronology is hard to follow). But kudos to the author for a somewhat complex ending, as the different personalities of the young women, Hassana the rationalist planner, Husseina/Vitória the calm believer, come into focus in their differences, with the sea between them an opportunity for passage rather than a barrier.
As I read the novel I had a nagging feeling that I was familiar with the story, and had to find my copy of The Hundred Wells of Salaga (2018, Cassava Republic Press), by the same author. Indeed, Aminah, a central character in that novel, is the older sister of the twins. The author perhaps could have been clearer about that continuity across the novels.
Reviewer: Michael Kevane, PH. D.
Department of Economics, Santa Clara University, and director of Friends of African Village Libraries
Published in Africa Access Review (2023)
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