Booker longlist review: An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma

by Sunita

This is the fifth longlist choice I’ve read and the second by a Nigerian author. I haven’t read Obioma’s debut, which was shortlisted for the Booker a few years ago. This novel has received generally positive reviews from book critics and more mixed reviews at GR, so I wasn’t sure how I’d do with it. And it did take me a little time to get into the rhythm, because it’s a more ornate style of writing than I generally read.

The protagonist of the novel is Chinonso, a poultry farmer in a smallish city. Chinonso’s parents have died and his sister married an older man, moved to Lagos, and became mostly estranged from her family. Chinonso’s closest relative is his uncle, who lives in a different city but visits occasionally. The narrator of the novel is Chinonso’s chi, or spirit, who inhabits his body and communicates with him but cannot direct his behavior. The novel’s beginning and major sections are bracketed by the chi’s appeals to the gods to have mercy on Chinonso in the afterlife because the bad deeds he committed need to be understood in the larger context of his life and its trials.

That life is fairly uneventful until Chinonso prevents a beautiful woman from throwing herself off a bridge. She drives away but he doesn’t forget her. In the meantime he meets other women and starts to think about life beyond the chicken coops and vegetable rows. When Ndali comes back into his life they begin a relationship that is fraught from the beginning: Chinonso is a modest chicken farmer who never went to college, while Ndali is the daughter of a Chief and is studying to become a pharmacist. When their relationship progresses, Ndali brings him home to meet the family, with predictable results. Chinonso is not ashamed of who he is, but he knows it’s not enough for her ambitious and haughty father and brother, so he resolves to turn himself into someone they will accept. Ndali worries about the ramifications of his choice, but she knows it will be nearly impossible for them as things currently stand.

And thus begins Chinonso’s journey of trials and tribulations. Obioma has said he was influenced by Milton, Shakespeare and Homer, and that he wanted to write an epic tale of morality and fate that was rooted in African philosophical and spiritual traditions. I can certainly see all that in this novel, but mostly I kept thinking about the book of Job. Whatever Chinonso does turns out to have negative consequences. His two greatest decisions are to sell the farm, which is his family’s ancestral land, and to go to college in Cyprus. Cyprus becomes his undoing, for reasons beyond his control. I don’t want to give too detailed a description of the plot because I think it works best if the reader is unspoiled. But suffice it to say that everything tht could go wrong does when Chinonso makes his great journey to become an educated man. Rather than arriving at college and beginning the process of becoming an educated, cosmopolitan man who can go back to his home town and Ndali in triumph, he becomes yet another victim of a world that values him not at all. All too soon he winds up in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

When Chinonso is finally released, his naivete is gone and his optimism has curdled into a bitter desire for vengeance. That desire at times falters but never fully goes away, with disastrous consequences. His chi sees many of the pitfalls along the way and tries to counsel his human but he cannot stop him.

If you don’t take to the voice and style of the chi narrator this book is not going to work for you. I found him to be an intriguing and fresh take on the omniscient narrator format, and his digressions and ruminations on his past experiences added to the story rather than distracting me. But mileage will vary on this. I knew nothing about Igbo cosmology, but that didn’t hamper my enjoyment either, and the writing style fit the story.

The novel is definitely an epic, sweeping saga, taking the protagonist from youth and innocence through trial after trial until he is completely disillusioned and bent on retribution. It turns out that not everyone was unremittingly evil or unconcerned with his fate, but by the time he learns these facts it’s not likely that he can find a way back to his earlier self. The ending is tragic and more or less what we’d expect, although the specifics were still a shock to me, and there are key twists I didn’t see coming.

Days after finishing, I’m still thinking about this novel. It is outside my usual fare, but I thought that the author achieved what he set out to do. It is an extremely ambitious book, and the characters are more archetypes than fully realized people (as befits this kind of story in my opinion, but again, mileage will vary). It didn’t always work, but it’s an impressive achievement.