Some stories have a spooky way of showing up in our lives exactly when we need them; Jessica George’s debut novel, Maame, is one of those stories for me. A coming of age tale with a perfectly imperfect protagonist, Maame holds a mirror up to the lives of Black British women anxiously treading the tightrope of our twenties, with little to lean on and much to learn.
I fell in love with the main character, Maddie, from the first page. Her insecurities, people-pleasing nature and projected hyper-independence felt as familiar to me as the vibrant London backdrop against which her story is told. Though most of her problems are bigger than mine have ever been, I empathised with her in an instant. As the only daughter in a Ghanaian household, Maddie becomes Maame at a very young age; the caretaker and backbone of her family, left to support her sick father to the detriment of her own personal development.
Between family crises, an hypocritical, absent mother and unreliable big brother, Maddie must also deal with the more mundane Black British balancing act of functioning in white society while being judged by the (largely contradictory) rules of Black diasporic culture. What’s the difference between a protective fib and manipulative deception? What does depression look like? What’s the line between introvert and full-on recluse? How do you navigate a workplace in which you’re undervalued and overworked? Maddie ponders all this and more, often turning to Google when the answers aren’t readily available to her.
Eventually, her world is rocked by grief and readers witness first-hand the trickery and timelessness of loss. Her faith and purpose are called into question and she experiences alienation, catharsis and community all at once is and is catalysed towards a subtle but critical perspective shift. She begins to accept her own shortcomings and those of her loved ones, killing her heroes and demons in one fell swoop.
Maddie’s journey is loosely inspired by that of the author, who lost her own father to Parkinson’s disease in 2020. In an interview with AZ, Jess reveals she’s been writing for almost a decade. Her sixth novel written and first to be published, Maame began as a series of diary entries “to kind of deal with the grief” after her father passed away. Once fictionalised, Jessica was able to distance herself from the story so much so that she didn’t realise she’d immortalised her dad through the book until well into the editing process. She found joy in writing characters Nia and Shu, Maddie’s unproblematic best friends who “become [her] lifelines”. “They support the idea that friends can be family.” Jess says, and though strangers to each other, their unifying love for Maddie is tangible in every passage.
All of the novel’s characters are made three-dimensional through Jess’ attention to detail. Readers are exposed to the full smorgasbord of sexuality, ethnicity and personality-types with seamless authenticity. Jess revealed that she leans towards authors like Caleb Azumah Nelson, Bernadine Evaristo, Candice Carty-Williams and Agatha Christie, all of whom are similar to the Maame author in that they stay close to their subjects, dissecting the human condition to present complex, gripping and relatable narratives.
Despite the weight of the themes explored, Jess manages to keep the story infused with moments of lightness, humour and triumph throughout. The prose are frank, buttery and easily digestible, buoyed by lots of vivid, warm imagery– from summer cityscapes to flashbacks to a carefree adolescence, when going to the cornershop with friends was a fulfilling enough motive and your biggest anxiety was whether or not your parent would notice the change you took from their wallet.
Maddie, who begins the story seeking to reinvent herself is jolted towards self-acceptance and the biggest thing I took away from the book (the thing I so desperately needed to face right now) is that it’s ok to prioritise yourself and sometimes imperative, especially when you’re not sure who you are or who you’re aspiring to become. By the end of the novel, Maddie is as comfortable in herself as I became in her world. It was sad to say goodbye, but I found solace in the sense that she no longer needed me to keep track of her inner-most thoughts as she’d learned to live in the moment.
Jess hopes for the book to serve as inspiration and acknowledgement to the Maddie’s of the world; young carers dealing with burdens their peers can’t imagine, first-born Black daughters conditioned to put themselves last, confused twenty-somethings whose ambition doesn’t match the reality around them, I believe there’s a bit of Maddie in us all.
Keep up with Jess @jessicabgeorge