Also posted on my Goodreads account, March 6, 2015.
While I was reading this book, I couldn't help but feel myself transferred back to my high school days... reading a book that I had little invested interest in but felt an obligation to finish. This book definitely has the feeling of the kind of book a school would choose to give their students a proper introduction to other cultures. (If you don't read about other cultures you won't be cultured enough for us to let you graduate!)
And this book is heavy with the feeling that it is trying to inform you about the wide world of peoples out there that have suffered in unimaginable ways. Now, I have no problem with a book that is written with that purpose, I have enjoyed many books like that, (Kaffir Boy, for instance). The problem I had with this book and its message, was that it portrayed it badly, in many ways.
The first thing that really bothered me was the main character, Okonkwo. If you're going to write a book where you're trying to emphasize the suffering a character is going through, you would think you'd write him as a character someone could empathize with.
Secondly, the book was quite honestly... boring. A sizable chunk of the novel is spent talking about yams, farming yams, and all the bad things that have happened to the yams and the yam farms. More detail is put into yams than character development. I understand Achebe must be trying to show a piece of the culture he grew up with... but it was honestly just boring. And I know it's possible to make farming sound interesting in books... Achebe didn't do that.
But it wasn't just the farming in the book that was boring – quite frankly not a lot of interesting things happen in this book. There are a few intriguing scenes but they are so minor, and lacking in conclusion, that they aren't enough to make up for the scenes that are dull.
The last thing that I had a big problem with was the cookie-cutter stereotypes of the characters. It is a story about how white colonizers negatively affected an African tribe. This is not a type of story I have a problem with. What I did have a problem with was how the white and African characters pretty much followed a very predictable scenario –
I find this ironic because I believe I read somewhere, that as a young man, Achebe was angry at stories of Africa depicting "savage Africans." (Such as Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.) Is he making a stab at that literature through this book? Or maybe this really was a situation he encountered in his youth?? I'm sure a lot of clashes really did happen between white colonizers/missionaries and the tribespeople of Africa. But the way it was in this book was just so predictable I could almost tell you what would happen on the next page. And it surprised me that someone who seems to have experienced this kind of situation firsthand wrote it in such a seemingly generic, predictable manner.(show spoiler)
This is a really hard book to give a bad review, too. It's easy to think that someone must be racist because of giving this book a bad review... but there are so many parts of this book that I personally think are dangerously on the edge of being racist, and work to prolong stereotypes. And to add on top of that problem – it has bad characters and is generally just boring. Perhaps, in the end, I am thinking about this book in too simple of terms, that I'm under-analyzing it. Maybe it's the sort of book where you have to look even deeper than you might think to try and get the "true message" out of it. Maybe. But then maybe there are a million other books out there that I could be better spending my time on.