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West African Authors: Wife of the Gods, an African in Greenland, A Long Way Gone

November 17, 2009

My very last term of college, I took a class called “West African Politics” with a professor from Cote d’Ivoire. It was an awesome class-the professor expected us to be prepared and intelligent, and was kind of mean to some of the poor freshman who had signed up unawares, but I learned so much. And the professor was quite cute. ;) Additionally, when I received my Peace Corps nomination, it was for francophone Africa, which is mainly the western part of the continent (I ended up not getting a medical clearance-that’s why I didn’t go). So I have a serious soft spot for those countries, and recently I’ve read books written by authors from three of them: Wife of the Gods by Kwei Quartery (Ghana), An African in Greenland by Tete-Michel Kpomassie (Togo), and A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah (Sierra Leone).

Wife of the Gods by Kwei Quartery is the first (hopefully) in a new mystery series about Detective Inspector Darko Dawson, a murder investigator based in Accra who has to travel to a smaller town in the northern Volta region because he speaks Ewe. The victim is a young HIV/AIDS worker who had been standing up to the local fetish priest and trying to help his ‘wives’ (young girls given to him by their families to supposedly curry favour with the gods, known as ‘wives of the gods’) escape. I really, really enjoyed this one. It has a relatively ‘cosy’ set-up, in that there’s a limited group of people who could be the murderer, and Dawson discovers more clues as he goes along. But Dawson himself has a bit of the noir to him-he has an anger management issue, he enjoys smoking pot the way others might have a couple beers after dinner (yes, pot is illegal in Ghana), and he has a tragedy or two in his past. Also, Dawson’s personal life, especially his wife and young son, has a bigger role in the book that in similar mysteries. Quartery has a great writing style-it flows easily, and he stays with Dawson’s perspective, so too much of the characters’ motivation isn’t revealed. Also, he really conjured up Ghana for me without exoticising it. I think I made that word up-what I mean is, while Ghana is obviously quite different from the States (or England, where most of my mysteries are set), the characters themselves adhere to more universal, human patterns. And I loved that this is a book set in an African country that deals with everyday matters. The mystery itself was quite good, with several convincing red herrings. My only complaint with the book is that the actual murderer’s motivation felt a bit thin…it wasn’t entirely made up, and I could kind of go for it, but I wasn’t completely sold. That’s a pretty small complaint, though-the book entertained me, brought me to a new country, and made me hope to see more of Dawson in the future. I highly recommend this one to those who enjoy ‘cosy’ style mysteries (I think that’s the right genre-styled on Christie or Sayers?) or enjoy international books.

An African in Greenland by Tete-Michel Kpomassie is easily the oddest travelogue I’ve read all year. Kpomassie is from Togo, and when he was a teen he read a book about Greenland and resolved to go there. The first bit of the book recounts a couple memorable childhood experiences in Togo itself and his journey to Greenland, which took several years. Kpomassie is obviously quite a storyteller, and I enjoyed this part, although I would have liked more detail about his time in Senegal, say, or his overland journey to get to the Mediterranean. I understand that that’s not the book’s focus, though. But then he gets to Greenland…and things just get weird. Kpomassie is quite candid about his own behavior, I’ll give him that. But he starts sleeping with random native women (at one point he mentions he’s hospitalised, “probably for a venereal disease”-that latter bit is a quote, because it took me off guard with its casualness), which I was really uncomfortable about. He definitely becomes part of the native Greenlander’s lives, staying with various families who offer him hospitality (and he in return helps out with food), and he tells it like he sees it, but their lives are quite raw and sad. Frankly, in between raising my eyebrows at Kpomassie’s own behavior, and wanting to cry over his descriptions of the lives of the people he meets there (especially the women’s lot and how the sled-dogs are treated), I can’t say I enjoyed this one very much. It was novel to read a travelogue by a non-Westerner, and I really liked that. But this had a Call of the Wild feel to it that just depressed me and made me deeply grateful that I never have to go to the Arctic. If after what I’ve said, the book still appeals to you, go for it! The narrative style itself is good, and the writing pulls you along. The ending is a bit abrupt, though (which is pretty common in travelogues…”Then I came home. The end” lol).

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah is another nonfiction book, this one a memoir about Beah’s experiences in war-torn Sierra Leone, including his stint as a child soldier in the national army. I read this one for the What’s in a Name? 2 challenge, since soldier is a profession. Honestly, I dreaded even beginning it-I expected to be sobbing on every page. Last year at grad school, for a workshop on international refugee law, I did a group project on the repatriation of Sierra Leone refugees, and even in college I had studied a bit about the conflict, so I already knew that this was a horrible, atrocious conflict wherein people regularly had their arms chopped off, or stepped on landmines, or were forced to rape their mothers-that kind of stuff. Fortunately, Beah tells just his own story, which involves people being killed, but doesn’t really dwell on the full extent of the atrocities. And very little of the book is actually about his time as a child soldier-most of it is either about his time before that trying to survive with a group of boys who have all lost their families and villages, wandering around the country, or after that, when he gets put in a rehabilitation program. And rape’s never even mentioned. Also, Beah’s voice is so hopeful throughout, and he has such a light touch even when telling about how he was constantly expected to take drugs and be high and kill people, that I actually really loved reading the book. And I only cried three times. So, my point is, if you’re avoiding this book, because you think it’ll be too awful to bear, I suggest you read it. Yes, there are some horrible bits, but knowledge is the first step on the road to action, and I believe that if enough of us know about the issue of child soldiers (and child prostitutes, since that’s what happens to the girls, even though it’s not mentioned in A Long Way Gone), we can begin to stop it. If you’d like to take action, the NGO Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers would be a good place to visit. But back to the book! It was wonderfully written-my only complaint is that the ending is really, really abrupt. War comes to Freetown, Beah makes it into Guinea, his goal being to make it to NYC, and the book’s done. You can read the author blurb to know a little more, but I think another chapter would have made the book perfect. Anyway, I highly recommend this to everyone.

28 Comments leave one →
  1. November 17, 2009 11:54 am

    I’d already fully committed to reading “Wife of the Gods” when I saw it in the bookstore, but you’ve definitely convinced me to give “Long Way Gone” a try too. I’ve been avoiding it for exactly the reasons you’ve stated. I’m still afraid it’ll make me sob uncontrollably, but some books are just worth it, aren’t they?

  2. November 17, 2009 11:54 am

    Really interesting trio of books there – despite you’re not liking Kpomassie’s book as much, your review still has me curious to read it along with the other two books.

  3. November 17, 2009 12:07 pm

    I like the sound of Wife of the Gods, but I think I might find the other two a bit shocking. Especially the last one, it sounds so brutal.

  4. November 17, 2009 12:33 pm

    My only encounter with Long Way Gone was that I know it was being sold in Starbucks for a while… which kind of put me off of it, to be honest! So, I’m glad to hear that you wound up finding it really insightful and that the writing was good.

    Of these three books, I’m definitely flagging Wife of the Gods for a future reading. It definitely sounds right up my alley as I love “cozy mysteries”, but I’m also always looking for more international fiction!

  5. November 17, 2009 12:45 pm

    The first two sound interesting. I’ve read too many “I’m a victim of the war” stories to be interested in Beah’s book, though.

  6. November 17, 2009 1:27 pm

    Wife of the Gods and Long Way Gone are already on my reading list. I’d never heard of African in Greenland and I’m not sure I’d be too jazzed about reading this one :) Thanks for your reviews.

  7. historyofshe permalink
    November 17, 2009 1:33 pm

    Such different books! They all seem really interesting– I’ve seen Long Way Gone in Borders but have never heard of the others. Thanks for sharing your reviews!

    There’s a group at my school that gives aid to the people in Uganda. They’ve shown quite a few videos about the children there who prompted the aid– their stories are so sad and depressing! It’s much like what you’ve described in LWG. :(

  8. Jenny permalink
    November 17, 2009 2:31 pm

    I’m an Arctic/Antarctic nut and so I’ve been wanting to read An African in Greenland for a long time. Sounds fascinating!

  9. November 17, 2009 3:44 pm

    I’ve heard of all 3 of these and really need to make a concerted effort to read at least 1 in 2010. I definitely have a goal also to read Harukami this coming year. Thank you for the great write ups on all 3!

  10. November 17, 2009 7:28 pm

    I’m not a huge mystery fan so probably won’t read that one, and the travelogue doesn’t sound interesting to me. I wonder if I could handle the other — your saying that we should go read it makes me think so!

  11. November 17, 2009 8:56 pm

    I’m glad to hear your thoughts on Long Way Gone as I’ve got this one checked out from the library and have been hesitant to read it. I will be getting to this one soon so thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  12. November 17, 2009 10:19 pm

    I enjoyed Wife of the Gods as well, glad you did, too!

  13. November 18, 2009 12:56 am

    Eva, thanks for saying that A Long Way Gone isn’t too heartbreaking of a read. It’s been on my wishlist since it came out but have been chicken-y.

    But anyway, have you read What is the What? I highly recommend it. It’s a fictionalized biography of a Lost Boy in Sudan. You’ve read so many books that you probably have, but if not, I do hope you find the time to do so.

  14. November 18, 2009 5:21 am

    They all sound so fascinating. Not really the type of books I’d normally pick up (or be able to find) but I’m intrigued now..

  15. November 18, 2009 7:52 am

    I’m so glad you read and can recommend Long Way Gone. I bought it quite some time ago, but haven’t worked up the courage to read it yet. I don’t think I necessarily shy away from tough books, but I do have to “prepare” myself for them.

    And Wive of the Gods sounds so good! Honestly, I could really use a cozy mystery about now.

  16. November 18, 2009 8:26 am

    I want to read Wife Of Gods.I have to look for all these books at the library.

  17. November 18, 2009 10:02 am

    JS, I definitely think this is worth it.

    Christy, I wonder what you’ll think of it!

    Vivienne, there were definitely brutal bits, but there were a lot of non-brutal moments too. A good half of the book is about his rehabilitation, and it’s wonderful to see how the people go about it.

    Steph, lol! I don’t get into Starbucks regularly enough to notice that…it’s a pretty popular one, but I think there’s reason for it. ;)

    King Rat, I get that-I almost never read WWII books. But there isn’t a ‘woe is me’ feel to the book-it’s really matter-of-fact.

    BookshelfMonstrosity, I’m glad you enjoyed them! :)

    HistoryofShe, yeah-Uganda has the Lord’s Resistance Army which does the same thing. I wish I believed in a Medieval Hell just for all of those people.

    Jenny, I bet you’ll enjoy it then! Me, I’m not so big into polar stuff. ;)

    Kathleen, I’ve only read one Harukami book-Norwegian Wood, but I really enjoyed it! :) Are you going to try to read more international fiction next year?

    Rebecca, I really think you’ll be able to. If not, you can totally blame me. ;)

    Samantha, I did the same thing! lol I just eyed it for a week or two. I look forward to your thoughts after you’ve read it.

    Amy, I was surprised how much I enjoyed it-I’m quite picky about my mysteries! :)

    Claire, I’ve been too chickeny to read What is the What. I had a friend who was a Lost Boy of Sudan, and it just sounds so sad. But since you recommend it, I’ll put it on the list!

    Michelle, I’m lucky that my library has such a great selection. A Long Way Gone was pretty big, so maybe you’ll be able to find at least that one.

    Debi, I totally get that-I have to prepare myself for those kinds of books too. I always turn to cosy mysteries when I’m stressed-you need some Miss Marple!

    DocShona, it’s good-I hope you find it! :)

  18. November 18, 2009 11:21 am

    Okay, even with your warning, “An African in Greenland” is just too good a title to pass up.

  19. November 18, 2009 4:22 pm

    A Long Way Gone was the “common book” at Otterbein (where I teach) last year. We read it in preparation for Ishmael Beah’s campus visit in late October. I didn’t get to be there for his talk, but all the students thought it was wonderful; he’s evidently a very inspiring speaker.

  20. November 20, 2009 12:21 pm

    CB, lol-that’s why I got it from my library to begin with. :)

    Jeanne, that’s so neat!

  21. November 24, 2009 2:12 am

    I read A Long Way Gone in 2007 after seeing the author on The Daily Show of all things. I was first put off as Steph was because the book was being pushed so hard by Starbucks but hearing the author speak made me think i was avoiding the book for the wrong reason. It is weird to say i liked a book that has so much pain and sadness but i do feel it’s an important book to read. i would recommend it too!


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