Described as a “novel in stories,” Susi Wyss’ The Civilized World profiles the trials and complications of five women struggling to overcome individual heartbreaks in Africa. Spanning Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, Malawi, the Central African Republic and the United States, the shifting narrators and perspectives created intricate tapestries of stories where no one word was wasted.
When Adjoa leaves Ghana to find work in the Ivory Coast, she hopes that one day she’ll return home to open a beauty parlor. Her dream comes true, though not before she suffers a devastating loss — one that will haunt her for years, and one that also deeply affects Janice, an American aid worker who no longer feels she has a place to call home. But the bustling Precious Brother Salon is not just the “cleanest, friendliest, and most welcoming in the city.” It’s also where locals catch up on their gossip; where Comfort, an imperious busybody, can complain about her American daughter-in-law, Linda; and where Adjoa can get a fresh start on life — or so she thinks, until Janice moves to Ghana and unexpectedly stumbles upon the salon.
At once deeply moving and utterly charming, The Civilized World follows five women as they face meddling mothers-in-law, unfaithful partners, and the lingering aftereffects of racism, only to learn that their cultural differences are outweighed by their common bond as women. With vibrant prose, Susi Wyss explores what it means to need forgiveness — and what it means to forgive.
The Civilized World is everything I love about literary fiction: vivid prose that reads like poetry; memorable, multifaceted characters with whom you cheer and grieve; settings so alive you can feel the grit between your teeth; language that is both accessible and beautiful. A book with words that linger, creating a world marvelously alive to you.
Told through a series of vignettes over many years, each leap finds us visiting Adjoa and Janice at another point in their storied lives. While other characters come and go, these two women — one African; one American — felt like the true main characters. They were the ones to whom I was emotionally bonded, and I couldn’t help but feel Adjoa’s hurts and frustrations. Her twin brother was someone I never “clicked” with, knowing he couldn’t possibly be up to any good, but I cared for him because Adjoa did. She’s a hardworking, tenacious and brave woman — someone you can’t help but like.
The atmosphere of The Civilized World is engrossing, and I’m a bit abashed to note that I knew (and know) little of Africa before reading this book. Though not exactly well-versed now, I’m more on my way — and definitely intrigued. This peek at life in Ghana and Malawi is unvarnished. Wyss’ work is described as “influenced by her twenty-year career managing women’s health programs in Africa, where she lived for more than eight years,” and I felt like the character of Janice — a white American — could be an extension of the author. Janice was broken, a little bit jaded — but ultimately someone I felt for. Her passages with Adjoa were easily my favorites.
At just over 250 pages, The Civilized World was a quick read that really got me thinking. Regardless of the differences that kept Adjoa and Janice separate, their bonds — the need for love; the searching for acceptance; the grief for things that were and are not now — was palpable. Though the extraneous characters didn’t mesh as well for me, I loved Ophelia’s obsession with offbeat, nonsequitor African names (like “Nobody” and “Comfort”). By turns deeply sad and uplifting, the common threads that bind these characters were fascinating.
Fans of literary fiction and those interested in Africa, female relationships, race relations and other dynamics will find a memorable, lyrical story in The Civilized World. I only used the publisher description above because it’s hard to pinpoint, to classify; it is truly a story all its own.
4 out of 5!