Things Fall Apart (1958) by Chinua Achebe

ThingsFallApartIt occurred to me, shortly after I began Things Fall Apart, that this might be the first time that I’ve read a novel set in Africa written by an African. At first I thought that this was sad but probably not a big deal since I am at least trying to reverse the trend now; but after thinking about it some more I realised that in effect this means that my entire literary picture of a whole continent has been filtered through the pens of western writers.  I was surprised by how embarrassed I was by this realisation but it reminded me exactly why I wanted to take part in the Around the World in 80 Books challenge. With all this lurking at the back of my mind I begin the African leg of my reading journey in pre-colonial Nigeria.

Things Fall Apart is the story of Okwonko, the proud, forthright son of a man notorious for his laziness and drinking. Determined to shake off his father’s disgrace, Okwonko fights hard to rise to a position of leadership in his Igbo village, until he has a profitable farm, three troublesome wives, many children and an impressive reputation as a warrior. The first part of the book follows Okwonko’s rise, the second his sudden fall from grace, and the third the growing confrontation between his community and British colonisers. It’s this part of the novel that’s most unsettling I think.

“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.”

The blurb on the back of my book (the 1985 African Writers edition if you’re interested) consisted of a quote from The Observer that contained a massive spoiler so I’ll be more tactful and end my synopsis here.

Okwonko isn’t a likeable character. He’s obsessed with proving his own manliness and is dismissive of men who aren’t as strong. He beats his wives, is cruel to his children and advocates war as the only course of action in most situations. It says a lot, then, that he’s so compelling. I was grateful for those brief glimpses of light in his character (when he secretly follows his sick daughter to the cave of the oracle, for example), even though he sees them as moments of weakness in himself. By the end of the novel, as he’s doggedly trying to prevent the destruction of his world by the colonisers, I pitied him. I felt like I understood what the community meant to him and why he couldn’t let go. Achebe couches this clash of cultures in very simple, unemotive language. In fact it’s the starkness of the book that probably makes it all the more powerful.

After finishing Things Fall Apart, I decided to have a break from the challenge so I reached for the shortest book in my TBR pile: Agatha Christie’s Death Comes as the End. I didn’t know anything about it at the time but the unintended irony of this is that I now find myself reading a book about North Africa written by a Brit. Ho hum.

 

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13 thoughts on “Things Fall Apart (1958) by Chinua Achebe

  1. I can relate so strongly with the first paragraph of your post. Apart from a mere smattering of novels set in Africa, it’s largely been untouched by my reading over the years. Redressing the balance to a very Western canon of literature is a major part of my motivation to do the #AW80Books challenge. ‘Things Fall Apart’ is also in my TBR list, and I know it won’t be a comfortable read, so I’m building myself up to it!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It actually wasn’t as uncomfortable as I was expecting but it did make me question why I haven’t read many books set in Africa. I suspect it’s just never crossed my mind before now! I hope you like this when you do read it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Just finished reading this, great review and I thought exactly the same, there is a great TED talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie about ‘the danger of a single story’ that is similar to your first paragraph. she’s also a great author to read if you wanted more African authors.

    Liked by 3 people

      • YES! I was going to suggest Purple Hibiscus, which also takes place in Nigeria by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I read Things Fall Apart in high school. At the time I really liked it but I don’t remember much about Okwonko’s character. I think it was one of the first books I ever read that really delved into the damage colonialism inflicts on people (I was 14).

        Liked by 2 people

      • I really loved the book. I loved the matter of fact narration, the gentle humour and the way it dealt with big topics. It was very clever to write without judging the tribe for things we would consider inhumane, like the treatment of twins, or condemning the colonial intruders. He left us to draw our own conclusions and I liked that, a lot! Made me want to read more of his work for sure.

        Liked by 1 person

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  6. Great review! I’ve had this one on the radar for a long time – must push it up the priority list. Thinking about your comment on African writers, I have read a couple, but by Africans who’ve emigrated to the US and written about their old country from there. The same applies to Indian books – so many of the ones I’ve read have been written by Indians now living in either the US or Britain. Must do better!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s a good point about Indian books too. Most of the ones I’ve read have also been written in English by Indians living here. Real diversity is surprisingly difficult to achieve!

      Liked by 1 person

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