My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This came to my attention through my 17-year-old son who had read it at school. I read it without knowing anything about the author, just that it was set in Africa. Specifically, it turns out, the region around the river Niger (mentioned at the end of the book, so I placed it around Nigeria, but of course the river runs across a lot of Africa).
Africa is one of the very few continents I haven’t been to, though my father has worked in multiple African countries for many years so has brought back a lot of knowledge and tales. I liked my Dad talking about it because he would very much talk about he individuals and the countries he encountered as such: individuals and countries. Whereas growing up very often there is a lot of ignorance and generalisation about a huge and vast region such as that one.
One way to avoid that is of course to read African authors.
This particular novel starts with the incredibly straightforward description of an extremely complex hero/antihero. The language he writes in runs along and is dry like a person telling you a story. The main character is presented immediately as a strong and almost heroic figure. We are then presented with his very human struggles and how he overcame them. We continue and through the weaving of knowledge of how the town is run and their rapport with their gods and with their traditions and customs, we get glimpses of his character which are at times endearing (his relationship with his favourite daughter) and at times horrifying (his brutality) to the extent that we are not always happy to like him (sound familiar? some very very popular TV shows these days work around that “novel” approach).
(Highlight to read spoiler below:)
Right when we are completely immersed in their traditions and customs and everyday life, here comes the white man, the mission, religion. We then find out it is the British. We read about their behaviours, good and bad, but it is all through the original residents’ point of view. We feel without the author having to tell us about it the complete outrage of outsiders coming to tell us what we should and shouldn’t do, even though some of what the religious people do we, as westerners, cannot help but agree with (like saving babies that would otherwise be killed).
Because of that extremely careful, simply written description of the good and the bad that comes with the white man, when at the end our main character is true to himself and clashes tragically with the “new order”, we are left with a deep sense of inevitability, injustice, and sadness, even though his actions would not have been ours.
I believe this final achievement is masterful and only reachable by a true storytelling master, and I intend to read more of what he wrote.