Posted by: Jeanie F | April 21, 2011

The Civilized World by Susi Wyss

Susi Wyss’s debut novel is set primarily in Africa – Ivory Coast and Ghana – with side trips to the US, Ethiopia, and other African locations. It’s written in what will undoubtedly become an even more prevalent style since A Visit from the Goon Squad won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction – connected short stories that are packaged together into a novel-length book.

The Civilized World follows the lives of five women: Adjoa, a stalward Ghanaian woman; Janice, an American living and working for the Health Service in various African locations; Ophelia, a pathetic foreign-service wife in Malawi; Comfort, another Ghanaian who travels to the US where her son is married to American Linda. These women all travel different paths in their search for security and “civilized” society but, eventually, their lives intertwine.

There is  much to like about this book, and I found that it was a book I read with enjoyment. The stories are simple, but generally interesting and even charming in places. It is reminiscent of The Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, without the mysteries.

Another advantage The Civilized World enjoys is Wyss’s obvious knowledge of her subject. She grew up in the US and the Ivory Coast; she had a lengthy career managing health programs in Africa. Many of the scenes is the book are culled from her personal experiences, and that gives each story the ring of authenticity.

Having said that, there were places where I found the book predictable and stereotypical. The American women were neurotic; the African women earthy and honest. The stories of each woman were broken into two or three sections that alternated throughout the book. I had the distinct impression that each had been written as a separate story and then cut apart to fit the format. I may be wrong about that. There were few surprises in the outcome of the individual stories; it was easy to see what was coming.

If you’re in the market for a book that will keep you diverted without packing too much of a punch – say you’re on the beach or in an airplane – you will probably enjoy this book. If you’re looking for more substance, you might be disappointed.

Grade: C


Responses

  1. So sorry this wasn’t a better read for you. I was curious.

    • I didn’t think this was a bad book – and for a first novel, it was a good start. As I said, I enjoyed reading it, but I believe it fell short of the mark the author was trying to hit.


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