The Civilized World – a novel in stories by Susi Wyss, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2011
I am pleased to review this fine novel by Susi Wyss, certainly in part because she was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Central African Republic. Returned volunteers like Ms. Wyss have gone on to make significant contributions to economic development and world peace through their professional lives, but some, again like Ms. Wyss, also do so by writing so that a much wider audience can better understand Africa and our common humanity.
As the sub-title indicates this book is built on a series of stand-alone stories, but tales that eventually coalesce into a whole. It is an interesting construct for a novel, but one – at least in this case – that works quite satisfactorily. Characters are introduced and wind their way through their first narrative only to resurface in another fashion in a later story. The reader’s anticipation is piqued by each story, curious to see how the web will fit together.
Although there is a plot of redemption and forgiveness that comes to fruition in the last installment, the thrust of the novel is to dissect relationships. Furthermore, the relationships scrutinized are in Africa and thus impacted by the continent. Africa provides the cultural grist that the author uses effectively to draw her characters - both African and American – and to chronicle their interactions: Africans with Africans, Americans with Americans, and then across the cultural divide. Wyss’ characters are real, particularly Adjoa, a Ghanian entrepreneur, and Janice, an American health expert long resident in Africa. Through Adjoa’s eyes and thoughts, much of the African landscape of family and familial obligations is elucidated as she struggles with a secret she decided to safeguard. Adjoa’s perspective, and life, is different from Janice’s, but Janice is at home in Africa and is much less of a jaundiced expatriate than some other characters. Wyss’s sensitivity to the nuances of culture – the significance of a look, a gesture or phrasing is impressive. All of the well developed characters are women and sometimes their chit chat overwhelmed this male reader, but I always returned to discover how the threads would mesh. Indeed one of the strengths of the novel is the author’s depth of understanding of individual frailties and how Africa affects outsiders differently. Some hyperbole pokes gentle fun at expatriate foibles.
The stories are impeccably set in five different countries – Ivory Coast, Ghana, Central African Republic, Malawi and Ethiopia. There is also a piece about America. Clearly the author knew the places which are accurately described. Also, her use of vernacular languages was precise.
For those who want an accurate close up look at Africa, this novel is a warm and entertaining excursion into the continent.