James Ngugi, A Grain of Wheat (Heinemann, 1967)
[originally posted 22Nov2000]
Another entry (the thirty-seventh, to be precise) in Heinemann’s always above average African Writers Series. Ngugi gives us the story of Kenya on the verge of independence (the action takes place in the days before, and the day after, Uhuru). While the book’s main focus purports to be on one of his principal town’s inhabitants, Gikonyo, it soon becomes evident that the story is about the town itself. And this is where Ngugi falls short.
The structure itself could have been, handled deftly, exceptionally clever. Make Gikonyo synecdochic of the town, which is synecdochic of the region in which the town lies, which is synecdochic of all of Kenya. Unfortunately, the complexities waylay the book quickly, and while Gikonyo and his travails are never completely displaced, too much else is going on for him to be the book’s main focus. Ngugi tries to compensate by having other main characters whose struggles mirror other parts of the Kenyan experience, but the whole thing gets confusing time and again.
This is not to say the book is bad; the stories therein are engaging, and Ngugi’s style is a page-turner. There’s just a lack of continuity that can be disconcerting at times, and lengthy sections of flashback tend to leave the reader unaware of exactly what time frame he’s supposed to be thinking about some of the time. It could have used a good editor, and perhaps a little rearranging to make things clearer.
Hard to give a succinct recommendation to this one. As should be obvious from the above, it’s not an easy read, and it’s laden with symbolism, so if you’re looking for something light, this isn’t the place to stop. Still, getting through it is something of a rewarding experience, and when the symbolism is firing, it’s wonderful; each of the major characters is there for a reason, and after a few days of digestion, as the main thrusts of the book sort themselves out, it becomes clear what a powerful work this book almost is. If you’re the kind of person who can listen to a badly-recorded bootleg tape and not mind the recording quality because you get so caught up in the music itself, you’ll probably be able to appreciate this. ** ½