Book Review: An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma

An Orchestra of Minorities – Chigozie Obioma (Little, Brown, 2019)

This book will be released by Little, Brown and Company in January 2019. I received an Advanced Reading Copy. All opinions are my own.

When Chinonso stops on a bridge one day to prevent a woman from jumping, his life is changed forever. On impulse, he throws two chickens over the edge to show her the seriousness of her choices. When the woman, Ndali, finds him again the two fall in love with great passion.

Chinonso, however, is a poultry farmer while Ndali is a university student, the daughter of a rich man. Her family is determined to keep them apart and Chinonso decides that the only way he can convince them of his worth is to become educated himself. Giving up everything, he travels to Cyprus to pursue a new life but there finds he has been tricked and forsaken.

This description sounds like a fairly standard star-crossed, love story but there are many factors that make this novel unique. Primary among them is that the story is told from the perspective of Chinonso’s chi, his guardian spirit who has been with him since before he was born and has accompanied many other souls through history. Chinonso’s chi is telling this story to some sort of divine being, in defence of Chinonso’s actions. This aspect of the novel means there is a lot of “behind the scenes” language and setting. The chi periodically leaves the body and describes what it sees around Chinonso, which varies in different places. So there is a constant reminder that the physical world is not all that exists and that Chinonso is part of a much larger landscape and history, one that he himself is unaware of.

This is a Nigerian novel and as such exists within a culture that was often unfamiliar and different to me. Chinonso and Ndali’s relationship and the issues they face are very different than my own and this was sometimes frustrating as a reader. In one crucial scene, Chinonso attends a party that Ndali’s father is hosting. Her family does not want him there and her brother proceeds to humiliate him. This humiliation acts as a major impetus for Chinonso’s subsequent decisions in the novel. Reading the scene though I was frustrated that Chinonso doesn’t stand up for himself or simply leave the party. Clearly there are cultural forces here that I am unfamiliar with and I think it was honest to his character that he stayed.

The book’s blurb tells me that this is a contemporary twist on Homer’s Odyssey but, honestly, without being told I would not have picked up on this aspect. Whether that speaks to my own failure to recognize Greek mythology or to this being a very subtle theme, I’m not sure.

I’m seeing more and more fiction and writing coming out of Nigeria and it’s exciting to be introduced to an entirely new realm of writers. While this novel isn’t my favourite that I’ve read from Nigerian authors it is a strong story and certainly a unique one.

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