Book review – Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (1958)
I have just read a fascinating book, Things Fall Apart* by Chinua Achebe. It was published in 1958, but is set in the 1890s. The book was given to me by a friend: “I think you might enjoy this”. As usual on these occasions my heart sunk. Having a library/book trade background I’m often gifted books. I always appreciate the kind thought, but it’s a big responsibility to have to read something that I didn’t choose myself and then give the inevitable feedback.
“Well? Did you love Amish Vampires in Space? It changed my life!”. Gulp. “Well, err … um”.
It’s even more difficult when someone passes me something that they have written themselves. [Tip: Best warn them in advance, as they hand over their offering, if you intend giving your unvarnished thoughts.]
Things Fall Apart is a short read, fewer than 200 pages, but the economy of the writing is one of the book’s pleasures. Less is often more. I say that despite loving many a rambling Victorian novel.
“If you don’t like my story, write your own”
The first achievement of Achebe is that he manages to create a world so convincing that you forget it is a work of fiction – or indeed that you are reading at all. We are not outsiders looking in, nor are we students of anthropology, instead we are insiders, deeply immersed in the culture of the Igbo village of Umuofia in Nigeria; and in particularly witnessing the place that the central character (Okonkwo) has in that society. We experience the villagers traditional way of life, conflicts, politics, customs, games, grumbles, gossip, meals, agriculture, language, proverbs, myths and religion.
Perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man. But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness.
How authentic the book is to the actual time and place it was set, I have no easy way of knowing. It is a work of fiction after all, and some liberties or inaccuracies can be forgiven. The first half of the book is highly absorbing in a “I was there” sort of way (see Samuel Pepys, War and Peace, Wolf Hall and I Claudius). And I would have been content if that was all we were given. But it isn’t. In the second half of the story we witness the arrival of missionaries (colonialism) and a world that becomes much more unsettled and complicated, with shades of grey.
Is it possible to read a historical novel without putting modern judgements on the people and society that we are reading about? By contemporary western standards Umuofia is far from being a perfect society, it has a long list of faults, as well as graces. but if you sat in judgement on that society during the first half of the book, you may feel uneasy in the second half, with the arrival of the first missionaries. The new arrivals immediately identify what is acceptable (and will be allowed to remain) and what is unacceptable (and must change) in the complex and long established Igbo society. This is a society that is about to experience a rapid transformation.
The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.
This was one of the first novels by an African author to gain worldwide critical acclaim. Given the context of the times (1950s) it would have been understandable if the author had written a heroic central character living in an idyllic traditional society that was destroyed by wicked, meddling Europeans with no redeeming qualities.
Whatever the reality, that’s certainly not what is shown in this novel. Instead it is much more nuanced. The book is a dark one, not always an easy read. We are introduced to two cultures and then see them clash. First we are given an insight into a rich and complex African society prior to the arrival of Europeans. We experience it’s cruelty and generosity, beauty and ugliness. There is a wide range of characters in the village to choose from, but the author chooses to pivot his story around Okonkwo, a deeply flawed character. We may empathise, but few will like him. When the missionaries arrive it is power and another culture arrogantly imposed upon a traditional people, challenging the old order and dividing the society. Christianity and the newcomers bring different ethics, changes in trade and in the legal system and (as with all great change) new opportunities, including for certain previously disadvantaged groups.
There is no story that is not true … The world has no end, and what is good among one people is an abomination with others.
It is a sign of a fine book that after you have put it down you keep thinking about it. In this story there is the pleasure of the language, the magic of being immersed in another world, and all the issues the book raises. It has made me mull over questions of religion and spirituality, the effects of colonisation, social pressure, masculinity, tradition vs. change, the role of women in traditional societies, fear of failing, family pressure and more. “I think you might enjoy this” – “Yes, I did. Thank you!”.
* The title of Things Fall Apart is apparently taken from a famous poem by William Butler Yates, The Second Coming (1921):
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.