(Hey – I’m no literary critic! Just want to share some of the things I see as a writer in a fellow writer’s work)
I just finished this short, powerful novel set in Nigeria in the late 1800s. The main character is a village leader, Okonko, a proud angry man with little self-knowledge. Okonko’s friends and tribal elders have to warn him to behave with compassion, but he continually ignores this wisdom because he’s afraid of appearing weak. His tragic fall is in counterpoint to the arrival of British missionaries, the resulting clash and eventual absorption of his tribe into a colonial system.
Unlike traditional Western literature, there is no real subjective viewpoint. Rather, the story is told from a sympathetic distance. The traditions and ceremonies of the tribe, as well as the day-to-day operations, have more value than the individual ego. For instance, only halfway through do we learn the romantic and dramatic story of Okonko and his second wife, Ekwefi. I could imagine this love story being more developed in a traditional Western narrative, because the individual is ascendant in our culture.
At first, I couldn’t find the thread through all the folk fables, but they culminate in the story of the Tortoise, whose greed and arrogance lead to a hard fall from heaven, mirroring Okonko’s fall.
The most suspenseful section is when Okonko and Ekwefi follow the village priestess on a frightening journey in the pitch dark night. She’s spirited away their only daughter and Ekwefi, who’s already lost nine children, is terrified she’ll lose Ezinma. Shades of Orpheus and Eurydice.
The strongest part was when Okonko returns from his seven-year exile and finds Christianity has invaded his tribe. The point of view widens to include the entire tribe’s take on these foolish but persistent do-gooders.