Book review: Ada's Realm by Sharon Dodua Otoo
Updated: May 22
Read It. Read It! is an AKADi Magazine segment aimed at book lovers.
Our goal is to get you reading more books by Ghanaian authors, poets, illustrators or books about Ghana. We want you to share your thoughts on these books and hopefully, instead of us urging you to Read It. You’ll be telling us you’ve Read It!
In this episode, we’re reviewing ‘Ada’s Realm’ by Sharon Dodua Otoo which has been translated from German to English by Jon Cho-Polizzi.
Sharon was born in London to Ghanaian parents and has lived in both England and briefly in Ghana before moving to Germany where she lives with her sons. She is a social activist and has published several newspaper articles and two novellas in English. She wrote a short story in German which was later awarded the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize in 2016.
Read more about Sharon and her work in our 5th issue
We featured Sharon in our fifth issue: ‘Ghanaians in Literature’ where she actually hinted about creating Ada’s Realm, so it’s really nice to receive a review copy (thank you MacLehose Press/ Quercus Books) and receive the finished product.
Ada’s Realm is published by MacLehose Press – an imprint of Quercus Editions Limited and my copy has 304 pages.
Ada’s Realm is Sharon’s debut novel. You can read more about Sharon and her work in our interview with her on akadimagazine.co.uk/Issue5/ and on her website sharonotoo.com
Summary of the book
This book is an exciting exploration into four worlds through the experiences of four women that share the same name – Ada. We meet Ada number 1 in 1459 in the fishing village Totope, some 50 miles from Accra. She is a new mother but when we meet her, her newborn dying in front of her eyes.
We meet Ada number 2 during Nazi occupation in a concentration camp in Germany in 1945 where she has been forced into prostitution. And later in Stratford-le-Bow, England in 1848, Ada number 3 appears as a married woman and mother with an unbridled gift for calculating mathematical equations and is in a clandestine relationship with a famous English writer.
Our final Ada can be found in Berlin in 2019, after migrating from Ghana to the UK and then Germany. When we meet her, she is heavily pregnant and looking for somewhere to live. Apart from their names, what unites them is a golden bracelet.
What I liked
Each sub-section of the chapters moves the reader between Totope, a concentration camp in Poland and later one in Germany, and Stratford—le-Bow. And it is this movement between the different eras, and geographical areas that kept me thoroughly engaged and reminded me, a little, of my favourite author – Octavia E Butler – and her work.
In a recent webinar discussion on Zoom in the USA, Sharon explains that these worlds are: “different geographical aspects of myself”. Sharon’s parents were born and raised in Ghana, Sharon was born in England and her children were partly born in Germany and all spent their formative years in Britain.
Placing the Adas in these different worlds, surrounded by different people, languages and scenarios and connected to critical times in world history – ie the European colonisation of West Africa, and the rise of Nazism in Germany – cemented in my mind these women reflected the multiple experiences of the collective woman.
Trauma and motherhood were strong themes in this book but in my reading of the novel, I never saw the women as victims. Rather, these women were heroic, misunderstood and extremely strong.
Ada’s Realm is linguistically rich – at least four languages (Ga, Twi, German and English) appear in this book – not to mention an old English dialect too. The book was replete with Ghanaian phrases and references that most Ghanaians would be familiar with.
What I liked was that the understanding of the meanings behind the Ghanaians phrases were interwoven into the text as opposed to the author providing an obvious translation. In doing this, it forced the reader to pay attention and almost have to seek out the answers.
There is also a flexibility to how we interpret this book. Depending on which country you are in, the book has a different name. In Germany, the book is Ada’s Raum and in the UK it is Ada’s Room. But, as Sharon explained in a recent discussion, writing it in German gave her more latitude to play with its mean because Raum can refer to room, or space or the idea of taking up space.
This is also evident in the pronunciation of the name. Is it Ada as in Ada Foah – a town near Accra, or Aida – the European name?
What challenged me
As much as I enjoyed the movement between eras and time zones, I found the fluidity of time in the book had me lost at times. In some cases, knowing who was narrating would take a while to work out, particularly since the omnipresent voice was not always from Ada.
What I’d like to ask the author
This book triggered so many questions and thoughts for me linked to balancing the art of literature with preserving historical accuracy; the exploration of gender roles but if I had the chance to ask the author anything it would be who was Ada’s Realm written for?
Overall, I enjoyed the book and read it in around four days, it was so engaging. My favourite sections was moving between the important eras and how the Adas dealt with their relationships with the men in their lives. I hope you enjoyed this review and I’d love to know what you thought of Ada’s Realm too.
If you’ve read this book or any others by Sharon, tell us what you thought in the comments or at email@example.com
Watch out for our next review, which will be another new release by author Jeffery Boakye called Kofi and the Rap Battle Summer.
Until next time on Read It. Read It!, we invite you to seek out books by Ghanaian authors, poets, illustrators or books about Ghana; we encourage you to share your thoughts and hopefully, instead of us urging you to Read It. You’ll be telling us you’ve Read It!