Maame by Jessica George
Published by St. Martin's Press
Publication date: January 31, 2023
Genres: Debut, Fiction, Cultural, New Adult
Maame is an African word for “woman” and the title of Jessica George’s debut novel, but for young Maddie it feels like a yoke on her shoulders. She lives at home as the part-time caretaker for her father. Her mother manages a hostel she inherited in Ghana and only returns to England intermittently. Her older brother James has his own apartment and says he’ll help, but never does. When her mother arrives on one of her planned trips Maddie uses the event to move out and start living her own life.
Between her father’s advanced Parkinson’s and her dead-end job Maddie has yet to experience much of life in her 25 years. She takes her first steps in achieving her dreams by getting a job at a small publishing company, finding an apartment share with two other girls, and going on a date with a friendly White guy she meets. All big steps, all carefully played out by George who shows Maddie to be a young woman firmly rooted in her own head. Her conversations with herself are familiar to anyone with insecurities, but they’re made more poignant by the color of skin and its impact on every single personal professional interaction she has. Her voice in Maame is endearing, smart, and funny.
George chooses to frame Maame with starkly defined characters. Sometimes this works, but in the case of Maddie’s family it’s a deterrent. Maddie is solely responsible for her father, despite his having a wife and adult son. If she were alone, it would make the situation more understandable, but her continued self-sacrifice in the face of her family’s selfish behavior is frustrating. Her mother is particularly egregious, constantly quoting the Bible to guilt Maddie, but making no effort to take care of her own husband in any way. Feeling bad segues into annoyance as Maddie uses her limited resources again and again to support her father at the expense of her own life.
While I would have appreciated more layers from some of the other characters in the novel, Maame stands out in other ways. Namely, in evoking familiar memories of a time in life when everything is new and uncertain while also illuminating the additional burdens carried by people of color. Maame is one of those reading experiences that left me entertained and educated. I look forward to seeing what George writes next.
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