BOOK CLUB: Issue 8
We like to keep a balance here with our book club, for every new and exciting book we also throw a Classic in there to keep the balance. If you’re nodding off at the thought of dull doorstoppers full of rich idiots swanning around each other’s houses, until two unbelievably privileged people decide they might as well be in love and marry, fear not. Things Fall Apart is a bedrock text of Modern African Literature and with good reason. It tells the story of one proud tribesman, Okonkwo, who rises to the top of his people, only for circumstance and his pride to lead to the downfall of his people and himself. A universal story that survives because at the heart of it is a troubled man, whom we can all recognise a deep humanity within.
The story is a simple one, as Okonkwo proves himself a skilled warrior and man of power within his village, which gives him the greatest benefits a man of his position can know. A series of misfortunes however befalls him and the tribe, and slowly the world Okonkwo has devoted himself to maintaining and protecting falls apart with the arrival of English colonisers who introduce the locals to Christianity and ‘civilisation’, whether by coercion or brute force.
One of Achebe’s greatest skills as a writer is his ability to introduce us to a world that has vanished and yet make the reader feel as if they are experiencing it right in front of them. The novel almost at times serves as a guidebook to a traditional African village and belief-system before colonialism, as if Achebe has foreseen how successful internationally his book will do and written it with an audience in mind who will be unfamiliar with everything the characters take to be ordinary life.
Let’s address the elephant in the room and acknowledge that the women in Things don’t receive the best treatment. In fact, frankly a lot of the behaviour doled out on them, particularly by Okonkwo to his wives, is purely barbaric and feels like a product of its time, a novel written in the 1950s about the 19th century. If this sounds like something that would put you off from reading it, it’s completely understandable and maybe not the best idea to seek it out. The world Achebe describes is hostile to anyone who can’t find their place, and the cool detachment from his descriptions of the violence, whilst never seeming to endorse it, can leave a bitter taste in the mouth to those affected by depictions of misogyny.
Overall, Things Fall Apart is the type of novel that has earnt its place as both an engaging character study and a piece of substantial world literature. It’s as provocative in its themes of religion, colonialism and misogyny as it was nearly seventy years ago and is likely to remain one of the most universal and accessible pieces of writing in any bookshop or library for a long time to come. Seek it out if you’ve been at all swayed.
Chinua Achebe was born in Nigeria in 1930, and quickly rose to fame when Things Fall Apart was published to international acclaim in 1958. He remained deeply critical of European depictions of Africa in literature, particularly by author Joseph Conrad, whose novel Heart of Darkness is revered even to this day for its depictions of colonial life. In later life Achebe became a tenured Professor of Languages and Literature at Bard College in the USA, before dying in 2013 at age 82.