Book Review: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

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Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe

I’ve had my eye on this one for a while now, and finally pulled it off my virtual TBR shelf. Per the back cover blurb, the book has sold over twenty million copies in fifty—seven languages. Not a bad feat. Published in 1959, it’s the first of a three-volume set regarding a native man, his family, and his African village during the late eighteen-hundreds when Europeans begin migrating en masse to his land, imagining that the shores where they landed ships a hundred years earlier gave them squatter’s rights and a promise from G.

I like and appreciate that Achebe, from Nigeria, doesn’t sugar-coat the native African experience before colonization, but paints a realistic indigenous experience: tribal groups fight over land, over farming, over wives, and with wives. Young toughs think the old guys are weak and do it all wrong. Old guys laugh at young toughs who act stupid just like they did when they were young. The story centers on Okonkwo, whom I fell in love with at his first introduction. He’s strong and forthright and a force as big as Africa. Like anyone with such a huge personality, he contends with demons and breaks tribal rules, earning him a seven-year stay in his wife’s village, not an honorable disposition.

Indigenous strife gives way slowly to Anglican missionaries and their shoehorned effects into the culture. As you might expect, these are exactly the missionaries you don’t want: privileged with a righteous destiny, they arrive and ask humbly to buy a plot of land to build a house of worship. In short order, they become ruling masters and finally require all decisions and squabbles to pass through their church and court. Why wouldn’t they? They see themselves as superior in all ways. Never mind that the native population has got along just fine for thousands of years: missionaries see them as lost without help from their British saviors.

Things Fall Apart falls smack into the middle of literary fiction. British Colonial Literary Fiction? If you enjoy genre fiction and subscribe to the hook of action, action, action, the book crawls. It takes time to develop character and culture and Achebe takes his sweet time, like farming or love does before the time of missionaries. Time moves by seasons and moons, and the book reads by that calendar. You know what’s coming because you know history. Achebe, however, keeps his cards hidden, unfolding the story for the reader and participant at the same time.

I found the book to be wonderful reading, but I am always interested in history, in Africa, and in Britain. It was easy to like this book.

Four stars