June 2023
Sharon Dodua Otoo: Ada’s Realm

Title in coloured letters on black background
© Maclehose Press

Motherhood, freedom and the legacy of colonialism are key themes explored in Sharon Dodua Otoo’s fascinating Ada’s Realm, a debut novel of immense verve and imagination that will appeal to fans of Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other.

If God were a woman, and if door knockers could talk. 

These are just two of the many and unusual hypotheses explored in Ada’s Realm, the dizzying debut novel by London-born author Sharon Dodua Otoo, available in English in Jon Cho-Polizzi’s inspired translation. Taking the reader on a journey through time and space, this is ambitious, thought-provoking and wildly imaginative literary fiction that tackles big topics with a wry grin and love of wordplay, pushing boundaries all the while.

With its fast-paced, freewheeling nature, Ada’s Realm is hard to categorise or indeed to compare. It will likely hold appeal for fans of Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other – another dazzlingly creative work that addresses similar themes and delights in its own ambitions. Both novels adopt a fragmented structure of stories that stand alone yet are connected, and while Ada’s Realm isn’t written in Evaristo’s prose poetry, its unique narrative style is equally mesmerising. From fifteenth-century West Africa to modern-day Berlin, via Victorian London and a Nazi labour camp, it orbits through different voices and settings. Where exactly God is in this structure isn’t always clear. But is She a woman? Yes, of course She is.

Ada is also a woman – or rather, not one woman, but many. She’s a young woman living in soon-to-be-colonised West Africa; the novel’s opening sentence finds her surrounded by other women, her baby dead in her arms and Portuguese ships approaching at sea. Four centuries later, she’s a brilliant mathematician: Ada Lovelace, whose formidable brain will not be enough to save her, imagined here in the throes of a dangerous affair with one Mr Dickens. Fast-forward a hundred years and Ada is an inmate of the ‘special barrack’ at Dora labour camp, a number tattooed on her arm and an endless procession of men coming through her door. And, finally, she is a tired mother-to-be, newly arrived in Berlin from Ghana and struggling to find a flat, a space for herself, a sense of her own identity.

As the novel cycles through the fates of these women who are at once different and all the same, we are guided by a disembodied voice that inhabits various unassuming objects – a lion’s head door knocker at the entrance to the Lovelace town house, the very room in which 1945-Ada is forced to work. Building on these conceptually advanced beginnings, each page is a torrent of words, vivid prose layered with snippets of poetry, rich imagery and inter-textual references. The result is both unsettling and profound, constantly demanding our trust as readers and revealing a sharp-eyed portrayal of Black and female identities throughout history. 

Sharon Dodua Otoo is not done there, however: she also examines motherhood from various angles, and threads themes of migration, repression and the legacy of colonialism through each narrative. Such a broad range can’t quite be condensed into 300 pages, meaning the novel does feel a little rushed in places – yet this is perhaps a reflection of life, and part of the book’s inimitable charm. After all, Ada’s Realm is chiefly about freedom: what that means on a personal and social level, how quickly it can be withheld, where we might seek it. Written with corresponding liberty, it is a shape-shifting smorgasbord of a novel, revelling in its own creativity and promising exciting things to come from this unique literary talent.

About the author

Eleanor Updegraff is a committed bookworm with a particular penchant for literature in translation. She makes her living from words in all forms: as a ghostwriter, German–English translator, copy-editor and book reviewer, and author of short stories and creative non-fiction. She grew up in the UK and has lived in Austria in 2015, where she’s often to be found in a coffee shop or running around a lake

Glasgow library: Borrow the original German title of Adas Raum.

London library: Borrow the original German title of Adas Raum.

E-Library: Borrow the original German title or the audio book of Adas Raum digitally.

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