Review of The Civilized World: A Novel in Stories by Susi Wyss

civilized-world-140The Civilized World:  A Novel in Stories
by Susi Wyss (Central African Republic, 1990–92)
Henry Holt and Company
226 pages
March, 2011

Reviewed by  Mary-Ann Tirone Smith (Cameroon 1965–67)

IN HER DEBUT NOVEL, The Civilized World:  A Novel in Stories, Susi Wyss infuses her characters with the same affability and intimate pain that Alexander McCall Smith infused Precious Ramotswe, his #1 Private Lady Detective, but on a much wider and nuanced scale. Wyss has created contemporary African characters who are not look-alike, one-size-fits-all pieces of cardboard and too, American characters with equally distinguishable lives. The Americans live side-by-side with the Africans under circumstances both provocative and reasonable. Whether Ghanaian or U.S. military brat, Malawian or Washingtonian, each is a unique personality facing conflicts and heartbreaks and successes, sagas which will pull you into the page.

Here is Ophelia, newly arrived in Malawi, wife of an American Embassy drone, making plans to have a baby. She asks her cook, Rose, why she named her daughter Why.

“She wasn’t planned,” Rose explains, looking down at the floor as she always does when she addresses me. “We took precautions.” She pronounces the last word slowly, a term clearly reserved for this one topic — the story of why Why.

“We followed the nurse’s advice, but I became pregnant anyway. That’s why my husband named her Why.”

. . .  At first, I’m eager for Philip to come home so I can tell him about her curious name, but as I mull over the randomness and injustice of it all, I decide not to share it with him after all.

And of course, there is more and more that she does not share with him.

A quietly but progressively alarming tension lines the slippery paths chosen by Comfort and Linda, Adjoa and Janice, Ophelia and Grief from one carefully crafted stage to the next. Interestingly, along with the geographical displacement the characters suffer, the foibles or villainy or obliviousness of the secondary male characters are the catalysts for the protagonists’ conflicts. (Men!)  Hidden traps have been set to snap, and no matter their cultural backgrounds the characters trip them.

And how I enjoyed the feel of the thread connecting these stories stretched to the breaking point, a thread of foreboding and trepidation in knowing that Adjoa, the entrepreneur, will have to pay for living a lie; Janice, the community worker, will have to accept that to get what she wants she must give up on an idealized love that will never be; Comfort, the mother-in-law, will have an inevitable, unsolvable confrontation with Linda, the  daughter-in-law — each mired in their inability to see past the boundaries of culture and customs and traditions that separate them. These characters are sympathetic even though I wanted, at times, to step into the action and shake some sense into them.

I am compelled to admit that one of the reasons, perhaps, that I found The Civilized World so satisfying has to do with my aversion to novels that are a stew of stand-alone short stories. It’s always seemed an easy way out to me; the writer gets to skip the tedium of those freakin’ transition scenes. But I found myself so comfortably engaged with the characters, I felt no sense of annoyance at their emerging, disappearing and re-emerging in successive stories like that carnival game, Whack-A-Mole, where heads pop up  while you try to clobber them with a mallet before they drop out of sight again. Here, the making of agonizing decisions, the resulting blunders, and the futile attempts to avoid them reflect the compelling rhythm that is human nature — that is a novel.

Finally, the reason I’ve written this review with very little attention to the details of Wyss’s numerous plots does not mean that the plots aren’t creatively conceived, well paced and satisfying, but rather that the characters are  breathtakingly alive and what happens to them is all woven so tightly that plot and character become one just as the reader becomes one with the delicious intensity of The Civilized World, the countries of Africa and America each civilized in their own incredible way.

ps.  There is a reading guide in the back of the novel for you book clubbers.

Mary-Ann Tirone Smith (Cameroon 1965–67) is the author of eight novels including the first to be written by a Peace Corps Volunteer, a memoir, and most recently a collaboration with her son, Jere Smith, Dirty Water, a Red Sox Mystery.

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