Lokko’s ‘Soul Sisters’ is a tale of love, race, power and secrets

The book cover for “Soul Sisters” by Lesley Lokko. 

The book cover for “Soul Sisters” by Lesley Lokko. 

Photo credit: Morgan Mbabazi

The latest novel by Ghanaian-Scottish architect, academic and author Lesley Lokko, Soul Sisters, is a rich, intergenerational tale of love, race, power and secrets, centred on the lifelong friendship between two women.

Written in 15 parts (including the prologue and epilogue) the 432-page novel published by Macmillan in 2021 is a story of an unbreakable bond and unspeakable betrayal. The compelling story, set in Southern Rhodesia, South Africa and England, spans ninety years of secrets and political ambitions that threaten to destroy their relationship. 

The novel tackles the themes of love, betrayal, tolerance, family separations, absent parenting, racism, corruption and the struggle for independence in Africa.

Scottish Catriona Jennifer (Jen) McFadden and South African-born Kemisa Mashabane, known to her friends as Kemi, have lived like sisters in the McFadden family home in Edinburgh, brought together by a shared family history stretching back for generations. Kemi was educated in Britain alongside Jen and the girls could not be closer; nor could they be more different in the paths they take in life. But the ties that bind them are strong and complicated, and a dark family secret exists in their joint history.

Southern Rhodesia

The story starts in 1921 in Matabeleland, Southern Rhodesia, where the White missionaries George McFadden, Rev Grove, and Tim Bellingham are offering spirituality to Africans. George gets involved in a love affair with an African woman and she gives birth to their baby girl Aneni.

George had left his wife Margaret and son Robert in Edinburgh. Aneni is brought from Africa to work in George’s house in Scotland after Margaret fails in her attempt to stop Aneni from living in their home.

Kemi’s mother, Florence Mashabane is put under house arrest in Salisbury, Rhodesia for inciting resistance to the white minority rule under Ian Smith’s government. Her husband Tole Mashabane, a medical doctor, is in jail with Nelson Mandela for resisting the apartheid government.

Florence is forced to send Kemi to Edinburgh to be raised in Robert McFadden’s home. Robert was a friend to Kemi’s maternal grandfather called Godspeed.

Kemi and Jen have to share a bedroom. Jen is initially against a black girl living in their home, but Kemi quickly observes that Jen is, like any other only child, is too preoccupied with her own life to notice what happens to others. Jen wishes to be seen. Despite their differences, Kemi understands the desire to be properly seen and heard only too well.

Jen threatens to break Clair MacGregor’s nose for insulting Kemi on her first day at their school, Fettes. Jen never told Kemi what Clair had said. But Claire never said it – whatever it was – again. 

Kemi felt a sudden rush of affection for her “soul sister”. It was Jen who’d come up with the term. “We’re more than real sisters. We’re soul sisters.” It was true. She was closer to Jen than anyone in the world.

When Kemi first came to live with them, Jen couldn’t stop marvelling at how different they were. One black, one white. One clever, one stupid. One, slender, one plump. One calm, one excitable. Yet it immediately became clear that the surface differences hid a closeness that neither girl had ever experienced, or hoped to experience. 

In their final year at Fettes, everyone knew Kemi would be made head girl. But Kemi surprised everyone by turning it down because she did not want to be in the limelight. Kathleen Harris was ushered in as a head girl. Jen, Kemi’s “sister”, was her deputy. But for the remainder of her time at Fettes, Jen couldn’t quite shake off the feeling of being second best, the understudy to her infinitely more talented, more deserving and certainly more diligent sister, though few would have said it out loud. 

Medicine course

Robert was pleased with Kemi’s decision to study medicine at university. But he could not stomach Jen’s plans of studying art at university. To him, art is frivolous and not an income earner.

Kemi graduated as a surgeon. While Jen graduated as an artist but struggled to find a permanent job, which meant that money for her upkeep came from a monthly stipend from her inheritance. This continued to be the source of barely suppressed tension between herself and her father. “When are you going to get a proper job?” was a constant refrain.

The other point of struggle between the “sisters” is Solam Rhoyi, who is from South Africa’s black political elite. His parents Oliver and Iketleng Rhoyi had barely spent time with one another. His father was a recently qualified lawyer and trade union organizer with a young wife and a six-year-old son when he was arrested and sentenced for life for opposing white minority rule in South Africa.

At the age of seven Solam was flown to England by his father’s friends. He ended up at the Stowe School, a boarding institution. He was 24 when his parents were released from jail, alongside Mandela. 

Solam returns to South Africa after graduating from university. Handsome, charismatic, charming, and a successful young banker, he meets both Kemi and Jen on a trip to London and sweeps them off their feet. But Solam ends up with Kemi. 

Partly influenced by her interest in Solam and partly due to the desire to embark on a journey of self-discovery, Kemi, now 31 and a cardiologist, decides to return to the country of her birth for the first time. Jen, seeking an escape from her father’s overbearing presence, decides to go with her.

In Johannesburg, Jen steals Solam’s heart and they soon get married. Unknown to Jen is that Solam, who is a womaniser, is looking for the perfect wife (trophy wife) to facilitate his soaring political ambitions.

Betrayal

Jen betrays Kemi by snatching Solam, but she later apologises to Kemi for hurting her. Kemi, who is not vengeful, moves on and gets married to Julian. However, Julian is robbed and stabbed to death. Kemi resigns from her job in England and returns to Johannesburg to live with her family.

Solam defects from the ruling party to the Democratic Party (DP). His defection shocks the nation and annoys his mother. But it all ends on a triumphant note as Solam wins the presidential elections under DP. At the age of 45 years, he becomes the youngest president of South Africa. His family is referred to as a rainbow family. 

At the end of the story, Lokko tactfully leaves the reader to figure out the family’s secret that threatens to reveal itself.

Lokko published her first novel, Sundowners, in 2004, following up with 10 more novels that include Saffron Skies (2005), Bitter Chocolate (2008), One Secret Summer (2010), A Private Affair (2011) and Little White Lies (2014).

From 2019 to 2020 Lokko, was a professor and served as Dean of Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture City College of New York, in addition to juggling teaching positions and different careers in Johannesburg, London, Accra and Edinburgh.

In 2015, Lokko established the Graduate School of Architecture at the University of Johannesburg – an African school dedicated to postgraduate architecture education. She returned to Accra in 2021 and established the African Futures Institute, a postgraduate school of architecture and public events platform.

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