This novella was a pleasant surprise. It’s told from the perspective of a boy who grew up in a traditional village society in Gabon, and the beginning didn’t seem to bode well due to some repetition and meandering. But it soon hits its stride, and once I realized that the style of storytelling, with a certain amount of repetition, was drawing on oral tradition, it became much more palatable.
This short book is perhaps reminiscent of someone telling stories around a fire in way the narrator moves from one subject to the next. He first builds a picture of his childhood world, recalling how the community traditionally solved problems like wives leaving their husbands (this involves large meetings between both villages, since a marriage between two people is the marriage of their families). Then he talks about his mother, a woman with a strong personality who has the misfortune of losing her husband and daughters and being accused of sorcery by her husband’s village, but refuses to give up. And then he moves on to his young life in the village and for a few years with his adult cousin in town. It isn’t strictly plot-driven and there are stories within the story, like the village legend dealing with children’s duties to their parents. But I found it to be well-told and engaging.
Interestingly, some reviewers seem to have understood this as a book about the tension between tradition and modernity. I saw it much more as an ode to the narrator’s mother and to traditional village life, with a brief foray to the city, though the end implies that the narrator will later rejoin the modern world. Nevertheless, one of its strongest passages is all about that tension between the two:
“The white man's world was like that. It made you think about things, not people. It made you forget about people. It made you want things. It made you want many things. And when you started to want many things, you had no time left for thinking about people, because you spent so much time trying to get those things you wanted. So you forgot about everyone. And you no longer cared about anyone else, and no one else cared about you. You were left alone to fend for yourself because everybody else was so busy fending for themselves too.”