1960s Uncategorized

When Rain Clouds Gather by Bessie Head

When Rain Clouds Gather And Maru (VMC)

Five words from the blurb: Botswana, outsiders, help, community, farming

When Rain Clouds Gather is an African classic. It was first published in 1968 and gives an insight into life in rural Botswana. The book follows Makehaya, a South African convict who escapes across the border into Botswana. In a small village he meets Gilbert, an Englishman determined to help the local community by introducing modern farming methods. They work together to try to improve lives in this rural area, but a severe drought threatens to starve them all.

This book was very easy to read. The writing was compelling and deceptively simple, but there was depth and symbolism buried just beneath the surface:

‘Even the trees were dying, from roots upwards,’ he said. ‘Does everything die like this?’
‘No,’ she said. ‘You may see no rivers on the ground but we keep the rivers inside us. That is why all good things and all good people are called rain. Sometimes we see the rain clouds gather even though not a cloud appears in the sky. It is all in our heart.’

I was initially concerned that everything was seen through the eyes of outsiders. I longed to know what the native community thought of these newcomers and to find out what life was like before they arrived, but by the end of the book I realised that the writing encouraged me to think more about these issues than if it had been explained to me. I missed the raw emotion, but the book was probably stronger without it.

Another minor problem was that this book failed to explain the political situation of the country. Botswana became an independent country in 1966 and a knowledge of events leading up to this would increase the reader’s appreciation of the book. I read a potted history online, but still felt I was missing out on something.

Overall this is a very important book. The issues were all mine and I’d encourage everyone to read this classic piece of African literature.


2000 - 2007

Not Without Flowers by Amma Darko

Not Without Flowers

Five words from the blurb: women, Africa, dilemmas, confronting, social

Not Without Flowers gives an insight into Ghanaian culture; raising interesting discussions about polygamy, the treatment of mental health and HIV, and the difficulties faced by an ordinary family trying to raise enough money for a decent funeral.

The book begins with a distressing scene in which those with mental health problems are found chained to the floor, having been beaten by witchdoctors attempting to rid their bodies of evil spirits. It then goes on to introduce a man with five wives. He commits suicide after discovering that he has HIV and the family have to deal with the double grief of his death and his diagnosis.

I loved the way the book introduced me to many issues I was unfamiliar with. The emotions associated with polygamy were particularly interesting:

Many wives who suspect their husbands of having extra marital affairs usually pray for one thing, especially when they know they can’t stop him or what is going on. They pray that they never see nor hear nor smell the affair. She had. She had seen her, had heard her and had smelled her at her workplace and in her bedroom. But in this society where polygyny is a norm, how is a wife to receive adequate sympathy and understanding for a pain she must be suffering as a result of a husband’s unfaithfulness? The pain itself, that she is feeling, is doomed and becomes her failure. She is expected not to feel that pain at all. She is supposed to feel lucky enough to be the one wearing his ring, which should enable her to bear his little pleasures.

Unfortunately I found the book disjointed. Individual scenes were fantastic, but the plot jumped around between a large number of people and so it was impossible to bond with any individual. Things improved towards the end, but I would have preferred the story to concentrate on a fewer number of characters.

The book also contained some surrealism that I didn’t understand. Dreams seemed to come true and there were some potent symbols and visions that clearly had meanings I was unaware of. I think a greater knowledge of African mythology would improve enjoyment of this book, but I guess that will come from reading more books like this one.!

I’m pleased that I read Not Without Flowers because it introduced me to many new themes and ideas. It is a perfect choice for Ghanaian Literature Week and I recommend that you head over to Kinna’s blog in order to find out much more about literature from Ghana.


2012 Commonwealth Writer's Prize

Beneath the Darkening Sky by Majok Tulba

Beneath the Darkening Sky Shortlisted for 2013 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize

Five words from the blurb: child, soldiers, Africa, plight, resonates

Beneath the Darkening Sky is a very important book. It highlights the plight of African child soldiers; explaining how they end up carrying guns and murdering people at such a young age. It is narrated by Obinna, a nine-year-old boy who is taken from his village and forced to become a soldier. It shows how innocent children become hardened to suffering and death and how abuse slowly turns them into violent individuals.

Obinna is an engaging narrator. His thoughts and emotions jump from the page and give the reader a shocking insight into the horror these children have to endure. The way Obinna’s attitude changes over the course of the novel is cleverly done as it enables the reader to understand and empathise with someone committing atrocities – a rare and special thing to find in fiction.

The descriptions were shocking in their simplicity. The passage below is a good example of the level of violence contained in the book and the sad confusion experienced by children who have never witnessed it before:

The Captain steps away and points his shining machete at one of the boys, an older one with scars on his cheek. The boy screams like he’s won something and runs forward, his own machete raised. What’s he doing?
The boy swings his machete down, onto the old man’s neck. The old man’s head is not joined to his body. Both are lying on the ground, blood pumping out of the neck just like a goat killed for a feast. The rebels cry out in celebration. The killer boy grabs the head from the ground. The old man’s eyes are still open. Maybe he’s still alive. Maybe they can put the head back on.

Beneath the Darkening Sky is powerful book that doesn’t shy away from the truth. It can be seen as a cry for help; giving a voice to the thousands of children who aren’t allowed to choose their future. It is also a fantastic story with lots of twists and turns. If you enjoy reading about the darker side of humanity and like to experience a full range of emotions then this is the perfect choice.

Highly recommended.


2013 Booker Prize

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

We Need New Names Shortlisted for the 2013 Booker Prize

Five words from the blurb: shanty, dream, challenges, America, new

We Need New Names begins in Zimbabwe where 10-year-old Darling is living in a shanty town. She manages to stave off her hunger pangs by stealing guavas from the homes of rich, white people. Things look as though they might improve with the fall of white supremacy, but life for the children only becomes more harrowing. Eventually Darling manages to escape to America and the book shows how she adapts to life in a very different culture.

Unfortunately I had mixed feelings about this book. Darling’s narration was compelling, but I’m afraid the immigrant story has been done many times before and this book failed to add anything new to the genre. I found myself losing interest in Darling’s story once she’d left Africa and wish the story had concentrated on those left behind.

The book had many fantastic scenes and I especially liked the subtle way that the horrors the children faced were woven into the text. This innocence and simple acceptance of events kept the mood light and entertaining, despite the starvation, child pregnancies and murder.

The book also covered many bigger, global issues, but, although dressed in childhood charm, I occasionally felt that Darling’s comments were too wise for her age:

If you’re stealing something it’s better if it’s small and hideable or something you can eat quickly and be done with, like guavas. That way, people can’t see you with the thing to be reminded that you are a shameless thief and that you stole it from them, so I don’t know what the white people were trying to do in the first place, stealing not just a tiny piece but a whole country. Who can ever forget you stole something like that?

Overall this was a book of two halves. The first half was a refreshing new voice in African fiction; the second an average repeat of an over-told story. I’m not convinced it deserves a place on the Booker shortlist.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

 ….no one captures the simple wickedness of children better and this book is cruel and cutting in all the right places. Bookslingers

….the book could have been a bit more polished but everyone got something out of it… Bookfoolery

NoViolet Bulawayo has created a fictional world that stuns as it captivates. The Bowed Bookshelf



2000 - 2007 Fantasy Science Fiction YA

The Shadow Speaker – Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu


Five words from the blurb: 2070, mysticism, West Africa, survival, magical 

Earlier this year Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu won the World Fantasy Award for her novel, Who Fears Death. It sounded really interesting, but a few people on twitter suggested that her earlier novel, The Shadow Speaker, was even better and since it was available in my local library I decided to give it a try first.

The Shadow Speaker is a young adult fantasy set in West Africa in 2070. The world has been changed by a nuclear war that released “peace bombs” around the globe. These bombs caused the human population to mutate in a variety of different ways; the idea: to create so much diversity that no single group would be big enough to launch a war against another. Many of the population now possess magical powers – some can fly and the central character, Ejii, has the ability to hear the thoughts of plants, animals and people.

There is a lot going on in this book. African mythology is mixed with science fiction and fantasy to create something truly unique. The blend of magic with interesting predictions for the future created a book that I found very compelling and the fact it is aimed at teenagers means that it is easy to read and is the perfect introduction to African literature.

There is something for everyone in this book – there are talking cats, flesh-eating bushes, links to other worlds and a myriad of new inventions. At times there was a bit too much going on for my liking – so many new ideas on each page that I longed for a bit of calm.

My only other criticism is that the characters weren’t very well developed. There was so much world building crammed into this book that the characters remained a bit flat. They lacked an emotional depth and I failed to connect with any of them, but this wasn’t a major problem as other aspects of the book were so strong.

The best thing about The Shadow Speaker is that it contains a depth behind the words. I found this interesting blog post about the religious messages in the book and I’m sure that it contains equally insightful thoughts about many other aspects of our civilisation.

Recommended to anyone looking for something a bit different, especially if you are interested in African literature.


2011 Books in Translation

Seven Houses in France – Bernardo Atxaga

Seven Houses in France Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa

Five words from the blurb: Congo, fortune, jungle, enslaved, kidnapping

I hadn’t heard of Atxaga before this unsolicited review copy popped through my letter box, but the impressive list of awards he has won (including the Spanish National Literature Prize and a shortlisting for the European Literature Prize) grabbed my attention. The Observer also listed him as one of the top 21 writers of the 21st century, so I was keen to discover why his writing is so highly regarded.

Seven Houses in France is set in 1903 and follows a French Captain who is sent to the Congo to pillage the rain-forest of rubber, mahogany and ivory. He sends a vast amount of wealth back to France, enough to buy the seven houses mentioned in the title.

The quality of the writing was very high, but I hated the actions of the central character so much that I struggled to read it. At one point I almost gave up, but the entire book was a bit like a car crash – you know you are going to witness something horrible, but you are unable to avert your gaze.

The screeches of those vile monkeys was the worst thing about Yangambi, the worst thing about the Congo and about Africa, and he wanted to flay them with his chicotte, to whip them to the bone. He bounded down the first stretch of the path, slithering in the mud, then gradually slowed to a halt.

There were no redeeming scenes – the entire book is about one despicable man who kidnaps young girls from local villages and rapes them; a man who thinks it is entertaining to tie monkeys to posts and use them for target practice – and that is before I even mention the gathering of ivory, the enslavement of local people and all the other shockingly bad things he does without batting an eyelid.

I’m really hoping that Atxaga is being deliberately provocative with his writing; creating an obnoxious character to ensure that we become enraged by his actions. I’m sure some people will love the strong emotions produced by reading this book, but I’m afraid I can’t recommend it to anyone. It is important we know these terrible events happened, but I don’t like the images I now have in my head.


Have you read anything written by Bernardo Atxaga?

Are his other books less disturbing to read?