Book Review - Losing the Plot

Derek Owusu began writing his semi-autobiographical novel, That Reminds Me, winner of the 2020 Desmond Elliot Prize for new fiction, after suffering a mental breakdown. British-born, of Ghanaian heritage, Owusu claims he created the character “K” to explore how his own experience of foster care might have contributed to his adult diagnosis of borderline personality disorder. Like his debut, Losing the Plot is difficult to classify. It combines a potent mix of fragmented prose and poetry, side notes peppered with slang and abundant white space. 

Owusu’s latest work is inspired by his mother’s journey from Ghana to the UK and her attempts to build a life for herself in London. As the title suggests, Losing the Plot is experimental in form. There is no plot. Loosely divided into three sections, Landing, Disembarking, Customs and Immigration, the novel has a narrator, Kwesi, who employs a mix of English and Twi as he imagines his mother’s life before and after he was born. He alludes to two failed marriages, her gruelling work as a cleaner, the casual prejudice she endures and the consolations of her religion. 

When she uses Twi to swear, pray or recall her homeland, Kwesi responds in a side note with an implied translation. However, rather than providing a clear definition, these observations reveal Kwesi’s attitude towards his mother. If this were music, we might liken it to a call and response between mother and son. 

For instance, describing his mother’s plane journey to the UK: 

“The girl looks out the window and wonders which cloud holds the weight of Awurade* 

*My mum used to pray for hours. Whenever I’d get bored, I’d go into her room and watch her walking about, moving absolutely mad and punching up the air, calling out bare different names. But they all meant the same thing. Trust me, it was the same spirit, or something like it.” 

Owusu’s liberal use of untranslated Twi throughout offers a defiant Black gaze. This bold approach highlights the disorientation of immigrants struggling to learn a new language and navigate an unfamiliar culture, and gives non-Ghanaian readers a vivid sense of that alienation. Similarly, the white space surrounding the text suggests the unspoken and blank space of loneliness. 

Often Owusu’s prose dissolves into poetry and becomes more elliptical: 

“She holds and stretches her skin to see the 
hiding slick and sparkle of youth untouched 
by the childishness of ageing, so fast it 
seemed for her. She has to let it go.” 

An epilogue consists of a recorded conversation between mother and son where she fends off Kwesi’s attempts to interview her about her experiences. Her reluctance to give him straight answers is perhaps all the encouragement he needs to piece together her memories, fill in the gaps and fictionalise what he can never know. In this slender work, Owusu offers a biting glimpse of the immigrant experience relayed in a distinctive Ghanaian-British voice. 

Originally published by the Financial Times