Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Civilized World, by Susi Wyss

Henry Holt

Many thanks to Christine at Henry Holt for offering me this ARC. I really have to apologize for the length of time it's taken me to get the review done -- I actually finished it some time ago.

 The Civilized World is really a set of short, interwoven stories that together examine the lives of six women, both in Africa and in the United States. These women have issues that threaten their sense of personal security and safety in the "civilized" world, and try to deal with them the best way they can. Many of the individual stories have been previously published as standalones, but here they come together, glimpses into different cultures are shared, and women try to understand the world in which they live.  Sometimes that's not such an easy task, and each of the main characters has several obstacles put in their respective ways that make things even tougher.

The main characters of the book are an American woman, Janice, and an African woman named Ajoa. Ajoa works for Janice as a masseuse behind the walls of Janice's Ivory Coast home.  She's also a twin, and she and her brother Kojo are living away from their homeland of Ghana. Ajoa dreams of opening a salon where women can come, relax and feel safe in each other's company.  While Ajoa works, Kojo is in with the "wrong" sort of people, and has decided that money will be made faster through theft.  Janice is single, and has lived in Africa for a while, very trusting at first until a break in at her home leaves her feeling vulnerable.  While Janice sorts out what and who will make her feel happy and safe  in Africa again (including a desire to adopt a baby), Ajoa eventually makes her way as a businesswoman, but she discovers a terrible secret that threatens her happiness. In and around these two women's stories, other women have their own issues with finding peace and safety in their own lives, both in the US and in Africa. 

It's very easy to see that there are trade-offs to be had, and while someone like Janice has been around Africa for years and in fact, is often viewed as a kind of expat know-it-all, other American women there just don't get it. Nor do they really want to, as in the case of Ophelia.  But on the flip side, there's Comfort, one of the African women in the story, who goes to the US to visit her son and his family.  She doesn't get why her son's wife Linda doesn't make his favorite foods, or doesn't stretch the baby's head in the way African women do theirs.  You get the impression that Linda doesn't feel that her baby is safe with Comfort around, but she can't take the time away from her job to be with her new infant.  The question of what is considered "civilized" bridges both cultures, and this theme is also one that runs throughout the story.

To be very honest, I'm not a huge reader or fan of women's fiction, but I do like stories set in other countries among various cultures.  I liked the way this novel was structured in terms of the short stories in which the characters crop up throughout each other's chapters. The African scenes, in terms of landscape, seemed realistic, and it's obvious that the author not only feels at home there, but loves the country and its people.  That is not surprising, since she spent a number of years there.  The political situations, the poverty, and the uncertainty of Africa's future were all touched on, but only very lightly.  In fact, this entire book seemed rather light in tone. It's quite easy to read, moves quickly, and can be finished in a matter of a couple of hours. My only complaint, really is that the author really made the African women seem so much stronger and more alive than  the American women, who in general seemed to be dull as dishwater, cranky or in Janice and Linda's case, smug and superior. I don't know if this was the author's intention, but that's how it felt to me, and I felt as though the author was moving into a stereotyping zone, not a good thing.  

I think readers of women's fiction would really enjoy this book. The author has a very quiet style of writing that might appeal to many  readers of that genre, and it's not too complicated to get through in terms of topic and theme.  I thought it was okay -- I'm one of those people who likes to get more into the politics, the poverty, the results of warfare and basically all of the seriously problematic issues, so this was much more of a gentler read than I normally prefer.  Having said that, I'm seeing 4 and 5-star reviews of this novel, so it's obviously a hit with many readers.

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