Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach Tomlinson
Things Fall Apart is a masterful novel about an African in the years before and after the arrival of the first white missionaries and colonizers. Okonkwo, the son of a lazy and irresponsible man, makes it his mission in life to be his father's opposite: hard-working, successful and respected. Alert to slights and challenges to his authority, Okonkwo is prepared to respond with violence, which he considers the most manly way to handle a threat, whether to himself or to his village. Other villagers are more easy-going; their distinct personalities and ways of relating to each other in the pre-Christian Ibo culture of the small village of Umuofia make the novel fascinating to read. Life revolves around the seasons of planting and harvest. "Yam, the king of crops, was a very exacting king. For three or four moons it demanded hard work and constant attention from cock-crow till the chickens went back to roost." The world around the village is full of threats. "Children were warned not to whistle at night for fear of evil spirits. Dangerous animals became even more sinister and uncanny in the dark. A snake was never called by its name at night, because it would hear."
When war looms between Umuofia and another village, Okonkwo is eager to fight, but the other villagers craft a compromise. The way he handles this compromise and continues to handle it, ignoring the warnings of village elders, sets him on the path to disaster. Like a classic Greek tragedy, the tale of Okonkwo's downfall shows how a man's flaws lead inexorably to destruction. Because Things Fall Apart is, above all, the story of a particular man in a particular time and place, it absorbs the reader in a way that a more general study of nineteenth-century Africa would not. At the same time, Okonkwo's story echoes the larger tragedy of colonialism and suggests that tragic flaws in African culture made it vulnerable to colonial exploitation. (1959, most editions between 150 and 225 pages)More about Things Fall Apart at Powell's Books or Amazon.com