“Book Review: Black Volta”
Reviewed by Kathy L. Brown
Float on a river of dark memory and broken dreams to freedom.
Meandering like the Black Volta River itself, the characters in Black Volta by Pete KJ journey through memories of past trauma and hopes for a brighter future.
Black Volta is a literary novel about two people from the United States, each at a crucial turning point in their lives. Carlos, a successful businessman, seems to be in a midlife crisis. Divorced and with his sons off to college, he has quit his job and spends his time surfing and worrying over troubling events from his youth. But he’s carried the emotional baggage of those bad decisions long enough. A trip to Ghana, the site of the long-ago disaster, could give him the catharsis he needs.
Liz, born in Ghana, has a career in hospital administration in Pittsburgh, PA, and another full-time job managing the day-to-day affairs of her siblings back in Ghana. Construction of their new family home is not just behind schedule, but it is also in a crisis that only on-site supervision from Liz can solve.
Thus, both protagonists embark on their respective journeys to Ghana and into their own pasts and relationships. Each has a concrete goal, but under the surface they also seek something more ephemeral in order to make sense of their lives and to move forward: For Carlos, it’s absolution and forgiveness; for Liz—liberation and self-actualization.
Black Volta is a beautifully written and entertaining book. Descriptions are detailed, clear, and fascinating throughout. Liz’s journey takes her deep into childhood memories, like when she encounters the Black Volta River at the lowest point in her young life. “She did not close her eyes. Everything was black. The water flowed across her eyes, numbing them with its cool blackness. She let her muscles go limp and offered no resistance. She was done.”
The story’s language is constantly evocative without being hackneyed. I particularly enjoyed Carlos’s voyage in an overcrowded, decrepit canoe on his journey across Lake Volta, the river’s source, as in the following quote: “The trees poking through the water looked like propped-up corpses. They were corpses, dead sentinels in a vast aquatic cemetery. Everything felt lifeless, as if in a sunlight Hades.”
The detailed descriptions of Puerto Rico, Ghana, and Vietnam (all places I’ve never visited!) drop the reader straight into the setting, and the insights into the immigrant experience prove truly eye-opening. It’s great fun to see Carlos and Liz’s paths cross several times before finally meeting and aiding each other on their respective journeys. All the characters feel real and their motives and actions believable.
Even as the characters move through the mundane details of their lives, I always found the story interesting. Carlos is quite complex, and, at times, tricky to peg. While I found his motive for his youthful life-altering action a bit lacking, it didn’t ultimately mar the story overall.
I’d recommend Black Volta to readers who enjoy learning about new locales as they read fiction, as well as those who enjoy watching likable, flawed humans trying to make their way through life.
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