Things Fall Apart
by Chinua Achebe
This novel, considered a classic and an important social commentary of the time, was originally published in 1958, during a time of political turmoil in Nigeria. The story takes place in late nineteenth century Nigeria, and centers around Okwonko, an affluent and respected man in his Ibo tribe. Okwonko is driven by a desire to be nothing like his own father, a hapless lay about who died deeply in debt, and in his determination to be the man his father never was, tends towards harshness and even cruelty towards his three wives and numerous children. After years of hard work and determination, Okwonko has achieved and accumulated almost more than he dreamed of, and is on the verge of becoming a titled member of the tribe, when a terrible accident occurs, sending him and his family into exile for seven years. During that time, European missionaries arrive in Nigeria and bring with them Christianity and their own form of government, which they are determined to see adopted by the barbarian natives. By the time Okwonko comes out of exile, everything in his village has changed – and most alarming, his eldest son has converted to Christianity.
Achebe unflinchingly describes tribal life at the time, and it’s easy to see it as archaic and barbaric, its superstitious beliefs and rituals ridiculous. But that’s the way it was, and they held their beliefs as dearly and as sacred as any Christian (and can we really fail to see many Christian rituals and beliefs as superstitious and ridiculous?). At its heart, the novel is about a man who unwittingly drives his own downfall, and its a harsh criticism of European colonialism.
Very readable. It’s not a book that I would have chosen on my own to read, but it was chosen by my book club. My oldest son was assigned this novel in his senior high school English class this past year, so he and I had some good discussions about it.
The Roving Tree
by Elsie Augustave
The Roving Tree, Augustave’s debut novel, opens with the surreal scene of a young woman describing her own death shortly after giving birth. The remainder of the story is told in the voice of Iris Odys from beyond the grave.
Despite its strong opening, I found the rest of the story rather difficult. After Iris dies, she begins her story with her adoption at the age of five. Born in Haiti to a poor maid – the product of an illicit liaison between the maid and her well-to-do, married employer – Iris is doomed to a life of poverty, oppression, and mortal danger. When a white couple from America visits her village of Monn Neg for a research project and offers to take young Iris to America and give her a better life, Iris’s mother accepts.
The story then jumps very quickly from Iris at age of five, acclimating to America and to being a black Haitian child with white parents, to Iris as a young adult. The majority of the story takes place during the last couple of years of Iris’s life, during which she travels back to Haiti to bury her birth mother, and then to Africa to explore her African roots and attempt to begin a career as a dance instructor. Iris’s time in both Haiti and Africa are marked by political strife, racism, and classism. While in Africa, she stumbles into a fate similar to her birth mother’s: an illegitimate, unplanned pregnancy by a married man.
The wide gap of time missing from Iris’s story prevents the story from feeling fully developed. Additionally, Augustave’s characters seem flat and stunted, and it was thus difficult to become invested in them. I would have liked the story to delve much more deeply into Iris’s own heart and mind, rather than just using her as a vehicle of observation of people and situations outside of herself.
Nonetheless, Augustave has crafted an interesting story that explores important issues: racial identity and belonging, cultural heritage, and feelings of rootlessness that can come to international adoptees.