I had a few false starts with this one. At first, I found the names very confusingly similar. I think I would have had an easier time with that if this was not an audiobook, but I suppose being unfamiliar with Nigerian names meant I really had to focus at the beginning. I think I bought this last year, and I got about an hour in a few times and felt like I was missing things. This time I went on a walk for the first hour and really tried to focus, and while I nearly walked into traffic a few times it did do the trick. After that initial hump of character introductions I was able to relax and enjoy it a bit more.
This takes place in pre-colonial Nigeria and follows a man named Okonkwo and his family. The first half of the book explains the society – their customs, games, agriculture, and traditional way of life. It’s a wonderful look into the culture, and I enjoyed the addition of local proverbs and myths.
Achebe doesn’t sugarcoat these people at all, and shows the awful as much as the beautiful. Okonkwo almost feels like he’s there to represent the problems within that society, as he’s an immensely flawed character. It’s a culture that strongly values masculinity, and Okonkwo was the son of a man who was seen as lazy and unable to provide for his family, so from a young age he became obsessed with changing his family’s reputation. This childhood fear of weakness caused him to grow into a hateful, abusive, misogynistic man.
Perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man. But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness.
It was deeper and more intimate that the fear of evil and capricious gods and of magic, the fear of the forest, and of the forces of nature, malevolent, red in tooth and claw.
Okonkwo’s fear was greater than these. It was not external but lay deep within himself.
The second half of the book deals with the arrival of the first missionaries from England. They slowly start converting villagers, a Christian church is built, and a rift begins to form in the village. It felt like the traditions that Okonkwo held so dear were starting to become old-fashioned already, so the arrival of the English was a catalyst for that change. One of the first things they did on arrival was accept those who had been shunned from the village. As an example, there was a custom to leave twin newborn babies in the forest to die, to protect the village from their evil twin vibe, but the new church accepted both them and their mothers.
It’s interesting that Achebe didn’t shy away from showing the brutal side of the culture. It would have been easy to show an idyllic community brutally wiped out by these colonialists, but his decision to provide a true picture of their life, with the cruel superstition right alongside the rich traditions, leaves the reader with a stronger impression of the injustice. These weren’t floundering uncivilized savages saved by Christianity; this was the assimilation of a culture with deep-rooted traditions and a strong sense of community and morality. At the time this was published, most of the English-written literature dealing with anything African didn’t really make an effort to make sense of the culture, so to have a story like this that humanized the people was rather important.
I found that even though this is a short novel, it did drag on a bit. It really picked up once the missionaries arrived, because there was some conflict and a plot to follow, but the majority of the novel is more of just a snapshot of life in the village. I found that aspect very interesting, but I needed more of an overarching story. Especially with an unlikable protagonist, I just needed something to latch on to.
This is the first in The African Trilogy, and I’m still deciding whether I’ll carry on. It’s quite short, so I might try the next novel, No Longer at Ease, and see if the story catches me a little more. Even though I had trouble with the names at the beginning on audio, his writing style does lend itself quite well to the format – it feels like a story a wise old man might tell a group over some drinks.