Amari's Reviews > A Grain of Wheat

A Grain of Wheat by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
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Oct 17, 11

Read from April 30 to May 12, 2012

A masterpiece. The characters are sharply drawn and the plot is indisputably powerful. I am very moved by the depth of characterization (helped along by the seamless omniscient point of view; this gently reminds readers of the inner struggles, innate morality, and complexity of even the characters (and/or actions) we are initially eager to hate.

Perhaps I'm oversimplifying something that I don't understand fully, but I would say that the thrust of Ngugi's argument is that the political situation during the Kenyan rebellion against the UK destroyed all individuals involved, to greater or lesser extent, and that though some of the choices people made may seem reprehensible, they all had their root in some combination of the hope, selfishness, love, fear, and courage that we all harbor just beneath the surface.

I've discovered that I'm strongly drawn to literature examining important historical moments from the point of view of fictional characters, and I'm a strong believer that in impossibly inhumane situations like this one, almost any personal choice or action is in fact a forced one, a reaction -- and, as such, can be forgiven or pardoned on some level if not condoned. Today, in fact, I came across a question that Tzvetan Todorov asks in a book of his: is it true that "all traces of moral life evaporate as men become beasts locked in a merciless struggle for survival"?

Though Ngugi presents us with some confusing moments, every page of the book is absorbing and dramatic, full of a certain tension -- rather surprisingly -- a la Camus.

Two hints that do not bear directly on the work itself:

1. Like another reviewer on Goodreads, I found a brief list of characters (along with the page of first mention) to be very helpful in the first 100 pages or so. Many of the minor characters mentioned early on assume some unanticipated significance later.

2. I bought my copy of this book used and would highly recommend avoiding the old Heinemann "African Writers Series" edition. I am glad to see that Penguin has published this book (2010) and hope that it's not riddled with the same meaning-altering typos that the Heinemann is; this work deserves a well-edited publication. I am also continually puzzled by the drawing of the young white man on the cover. I can't imagine whose representation he could be, and it's a bit disturbing to keep seeing him when I open the book.
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