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An Orchestra of Minorities

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A contemporary twist on the Odyssey, An Orchestra of Minorities is narrated by the chi, or spirit of a young poultry farmer named Chinonso. His life is set off course when he sees a woman who is about to jump off a bridge. Horrified by her recklessness, he hurls two of his prized chickens off the bridge. The woman, Ndali, is stopped in her tracks.

Chinonso and Ndali fall in love but she is from an educated and wealthy family. When her family objects to the union on the grounds that he is not her social equal, he sells most of his possessions to attend college in Cyprus. But when he arrives in Cyprus, he discovers that he has been utterly duped by the young Nigerian who has made the arrangements for him. Penniless, homeless, we watch as he gets further and further away from his dream and from home.

464 pages, Paperback

First published January 8, 2019

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About the author

Chigozie Obioma

14 books1,209 followers
Chigozie Obioma was born in Akure, Nigeria. His debut novel, The Fishermen, is winner of the inaugural FT/Oppenheimer Award for Fiction, the NAACP Image Awards for Debut Literary Work, and the Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction (Los Angeles Times Book Prizes); and was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize 2015, as well as for several other prizes in the US and UK. Obioma was named one of Foreign Policy's 100 Leading Global Thinkers of 2015. His work has been translated into more than 25 languages and adapted into stage. He is an assistant professor of Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. His second novel, An Orchestra of Minorities, will be published in Spring 2019 by Little, Brown and Co. 

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 960 reviews
Profile Image for Emily May.
1,945 reviews291k followers
January 9, 2019
Agbatta-Alumalu, the fathers of old say that without light, a person cannot sprout shadows. My host fell in love with this woman. She came as a strange, sudden light that caused shadows to spring from everything else.

Wow. How do I even begin to review this book? All words seem inadequate. It is exceptional. It is beautiful. And it is unlike anything I've ever read before.

It's challenging, too. I don't want to sell it to readers who won't like it. It's a clever and dense literary work, heavily influenced by Nigerian cosmology. It takes some time to settle into the unusual narration - the story is narrated by Chinonso's chi (a kind of guardian spirit) - but once I did, I could not put it down.
She poked her hand into the dark and secret places of his life and touched everything in it. And in time, she became the thing his soul had been yearning after for years with tears in its eyes.

The strength of this novel, I feel, is that it is fundamentally an old and universal tale. A tale of a poor man who falls for a woman above his station and will do anything within his power to please her family and earn the right to be with her. These familiar concepts are given a distinctly Nigerian spin, making it stand out from the stories that have come before it.

As I said, it can be a tough read. The characters often switch between Nigerian Pidgin, untranslated Igbo, and the "language of the White man", but it is impressive how easily I understood everything without knowing a word of Igbo. I guess a huge part of it is the way that the author - through the chi - constructs each scene.

But it's tough for another reason, too. The chi's wisdom and wit add warmth to the story, but there is no disguising the fact that this is a dark book, full of tragedy and misfortune, including one instance of on-page rape. There is one particularly tragic event - you will know the one I mean - and it is made all the more disturbing because it is so obvious. The reader sees it coming long before Nonso does, and the way Obioma leads us up to the inevitable made me deeply anxious and upset. It is painful to witness.
Guardian spirits of mankind, have we thought about the powers that passion creates in a human being?

We are told in the beginning that Nonso's chi has come to plead for his host before the supreme Igbo god, Chukwu. We know instantly that this kind, laid-back farmer's life is about to unravel. And yet this, somehow, makes it all the more tense when we are led on the journey to find out what happened to him.

Gorgeous descriptions, Nigerian mythology, a love story that rips your heart out, and a complex and fascinating protagonist who we want so very very much to succeed-- all these things await the reader who picks up this book. If any book deserves to become a "classic", then An Orchestra of Minorities certainly does.

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Profile Image for Kevin Ansbro.
Author 5 books1,368 followers
August 20, 2022
"A story should glide like a yacht, not bump along like a supermarket trolley."

Having seen a profusion of rapturous reviews for this African tale, I had very high hopes. And what a gorgeous title too! I was beguiled and ready to be seduced. "Let me at it!" I cried.

Hurrr-rrr-chh! (A screech of brakes, or a needle skidding on vinyl).

Alas, I just didn't take to it.
I know I'm a fusspot, but I really didn’t warm to it. And for that, I'm truly sorry.
The omniscient narrator (a guardian spirit) waffled on in a simplistic writing style that had me rolling my eyes and wishing we could bring a resuscitation team of literary greats back from the dead. The first few chapters were all exposition and there was nothing here that resembled an actual story. Our ethereal narrator kept repeating, "I had seen it many times." To which I retorted, "Yes, you've said it many times too, you insufferable parrot!"
And ... relax.
So, while the cosmic blather continued with little sign of anything resembling dialogue or human interaction on the horizon, I shimmied into a lifebuoy and prepared to jump ship.
Happily, a story began to emerge. And a very promising one at that: a tale of Nonso Olisa, an ill-starred Nigerian poultry farmer who falls in love with a woman who, as a result of being jilted, was intent on throwing herself off a bridge.
"Ah-ha! That's more like it!" I cheered, casting off my lifebuoy and getting myself nice and comfy with a packet of chocolate chip cookies.
Auspiciously, the author began to move through his literary gears, fashioning a contemporary Greek tragedy that suggested it might finally live up to its star billing (and what eventually happens to our unworldly chicken farmer when he relocates to Cyprus is a complete volte-face from the book's uneventful opening chapters). The scene was set and I was ready to give it a second chance.
But, d'oh! Again with the exposition! Chigozie Obiama snatches defeat from the jaws of victory by reintroducing yet more explanatory notes (groan) that are surely surplus to requirements. There was a potentially-moving human story here that needed to be told! (A thorough edit and word cull would have done this novel a power of good).
The story continued to advance like a slug through treacle and, despite his terrible woes, I lost all sympathy for the hapless main character (he was largely the architect of his own downfall). I rooted for Ndali (the lady from the bridge) much more. The pacing throughout remained leaden and I really struggled to get to the finishing line.

In my humble opinion, Salman Rushdie (Midnight’s Children) and Gabriel García Márquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude) do first-person and third-person narrative storytelling so much better.

But, as you can see by its plethora of laudatory reviews, Chigozie Obiama's book delights a great many of his readers, so I'm almost certain you should take what I've said with a pinch of salt and dive right in!
Have a lifebuoy ready, though, just in case...
Profile Image for Manny.
Author 29 books13.5k followers
January 6, 2019
If the prey do not produce their version of the tale, the predators will always be the heroes in the story of the hunt, says the quotation which opens this unusual and beautiful novel; and indeed, we come to understand that the "minorities" in its title are the prey, so often voiceless, who are now precariously recovering their ability to bear witness. I like this attitude. I like to hear about people who have been trampled on by history but fought back. Recently, I have read Sofi Oksanen's When the Doves Disappeared, which tells us about the Estonians, and I have read Romain Gary's La danse de Gengis Cohn, which tells us about the Polish Jews. I have read Jonathan Rée's I See a Voice, which tells us about the worldwide Deaf community. Now I have read Chigozie Obioma's account of the Nigerians. These people's stories have many elements in common, and one of the most obvious is that their languages have been systematically suppressed. The Soviets made Russian the language of administration and business when they were occupying Estonia. Teachers punished Deaf children who tried to use sign language. I was not surprised to read that the British punished Nigerians who used "African languages".

When one people decides to eradicate another, they sometimes just kill them, as the Germans did with the Polish Jews and the Spaniards did with the pre-Columbian inhabitants of the Caribbean islands. (You can find a great deal about this in Jens Bjørneboe's Bestialitetens historie). But most often they can't quite bring themselves to go this far, and they find they can achieve their ends almost as well by eradicating the subject people's language and culture; they are pleased to discover that some of their subjects cooperate. The thing that makes When the Doves Disappeared so horrifying is the way Edgar willingly turns himself into an efficient tool, first of the Nazis and then of the Bolsheviks. And similarly, what makes An Orchestra of Minorities so horrifying is that the truly cruel and despicable things that happen are not done by White people. They are done by Black people who have internalised the values and language of the White people and come to despise their own culture's values and language.

The book fights back by setting its action in the world of traditional Igbo culture, a world most of its readers will know nothing about. I certainly didn't. Characters often speak for a sentence or two in Igbo or pidgin, to remind the reader that if you're an Igbo whose family hasn't managed to find the money to send you to university, this is what it's like: you hear words, perhaps important words, in the White man's language, and you don't understand them. Most memorably, the narrator is the central character's chi. What is a chi? We don't have this concept in our spiritual universe. It is not a Christian soul or guardian angel, and it is not a Hindu atman. It is a little bit like all of these, but only a little bit. Really it is something different, and even after reading the book I have only a very partial understanding of what a chi is. It is another person, who is both part of you and not part of you, who has been alive before you were born as part of other people, and will be alive after you are dead.

So how can any of this make a book which a Westerner can find, not just worthwhile, but compelling? (I stayed up until 1 am last night finishing it). Somehow, the author has done a strange and remarkable thing. He has learned to grasp our language and culture and even love it, but without letting go of his own. He has taken this alien universe with its incomprehensible language and he has transposed it into gorgeous and poetic English. He has pushed open a door between our two world, just a crack but that is already a huge achievement, and we look through that crack and are amazed. We think: this is something completely new. I have never seen anything like it.

Thank you, Chigozie Obioma. If only there were more people like you.
Profile Image for Marchpane.
293 reviews2,102 followers
August 21, 2019
Right from the start of An Orchestra of Minorities we know that the main character Nonso, a humble poultry farmer, has done something very bad but we don’t yet know what it is. His ‘chi’, a sort of guardian spirit, is interceding with the Igbo deity on Nonso’s behalf, and this chi narrates the tale of Nonso’s downfall like a courtroom lawyer stating his case for the defence. What gradually unfolds is a love story and a tragedy shot through with Igbo cosmology and tradition.

Nonso the chicken guy meets the beautiful, educated, worldly Ndali but her wealthy parents disapprove. He decides the solution is to pursue higher education but this proves disastrous and things go from bad to worse for Nonso. Because it’s all being told retrospectively by Nonso’s chi, there’s plenty of ominous foreshadowing, and it’s ultimately quite a bleak tale.

I couldn’t quite get into An Orchestra of Minorities, and I think the reason comes down to pacing and structural issues. The first half of the book is just so slow. From about the middle it picks up, but remains uneven to the end. Obioma builds tension only to insert humdrum details at the oddest moments; he also neglects certain characters and plot points.

The book is about Nonso’s fall and I didn’t have a problem with Nonso being the main focus. But Ndali’s character was skimmed over to a ridiculous degree. When the story begins Ndali is (apparently) suicidal, but this is just the setup for a meet-cute and is never really mentioned again. It’s a glaring loose thread. Similarly, even before these two lovebirds get together, Nonso has a whole other (brief) relationship with a woman named Motu, which goes nowhere and doesn’t add much to the narrative. I expected to eventually circle back to these matters, but no.

There’s also some very heavy-handed imagery, especially involving a pet gosling that Nonso had as a child. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that something bad happened to the gosling. Nonso is constantly thinking about his gosling, remembering his gosling, dreaming about his gosling… gee, do you think this gosling represents Ndali? The ending really angered me too.

These are obviously nitpicks but they stand out because the book overall just wasn’t engaging enough, it was slow and the characters, especially the female characters, were thinly drawn. As it’s being heavily promoted my expectations were high, but it fell flat for me.
Profile Image for Fran (apologies...way behind).
628 reviews576 followers
June 11, 2018
Based upon Nigerian Igbo beliefs, each being has a "chi", a guardian spirit. A chi has gone through many cycles of reincarnation and is familiar with earthy challenges. In the present cycle of life, Chinonso Solomon Olisa is a host. His chi, the book's commentator, tries to intercede, to testify to Chukwu (Creator of All), that Nonso has committed a grave crime, but unknowingly.

Nonso was a man of silence. He felt total emptiness and perpetual loneliness. His father died leaving him in charge of their poultry farm. His pet gosling died through an act of revenge performed by catapulting a stone. Raising fowl suited Nonso. These domestic creatures were weak animals and he enjoyed ministering to them. On the way home from market, with a new flock (his comrades) in his truck, he witnessed a young woman scaling a bridge over the Amatu River, planning her demise. Nonso instantly reacted by throwing two of his chickens from the bridge to show her what would happen if she jumped. He talked her down, after all, he understood despair. His chi suggested he proceed home. In retrospect, Nonso felt he hadn't done enough to help her. A chance meeting...a connection...lonely, uneducated farmer meets girl of his dreams...highly educated Ndali Obialor feels truly cherished...it's love! Ndali and her family live in a mansion with marble floors. Ndali, however, has a mind of her own. Chi is worried that the budding love between Nonso and Ndali will make Nonso disregard his counsel. In order to be worthy of Ndali, but against her wishes and protests, Nonso leaves his poultry farm in Nigeria and travels to north Cyprus seeking higher education and lifestyle change in the name of love.

Nonso's chi's testimony to Chukwu includes a recounting of Nonso's trials and tribulations in his quest for betterment. Chi explains that although, as a spirit being, he left his host's body in search of consultation to benefit his host, he could not interfere. "We should allow man to execute his will and be man".

"An Orchestra of Minorities" by Chigozie Obioma left me speechless, breathless and filled with awe. The prose in this work of magical realism was superb. I slowly savored this remarkable, yet harsh and devastating tale. I highly recommend this book!

Thank you Little, Brown and Company and Net Galley for the opportunity to read and review "An Orchestra of Minorities".
Profile Image for Meike.
1,472 reviews2,305 followers
September 3, 2019
Now Shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2019
I feel torn between the considerable merit of this tale about the loss of dignity and the fact that I had a very hard time finishing the book because of its repetitiveness and its excessive love for overly detailed descriptions: For what it has to say, this novel is at least 200 pages too long. Obioma tells the story of Chinonso, a young Nigerian poultry farmer, who falls in love with Ndali, a student of pharmacy. Ndali's family does not accept Chinonso because of his lack of education, so he sells all of his belongings in order to travel to Northern Cyprus - he was told that he could get a college degree there. But things do not turn out as planned...

Obioma does a fantastic job when it comes to describing the importance of personal dignity for the human soul: Again and again, Chinonso is confronted with degradation and cruelty, and he desperately tries to overcome or at least psychologically deal with it. In Nigeria, Ndali's family of social climbers does not grant him the respect he deserves for being a farmer, a sentiment which he internalizes; in Cyprus, he is a black foreigner who gets caught up in the system - thus, the book also touches upon the experiences of African immigrants. It is certainly no coincidence that Chinonso travels to Northern Cyprus, not the Republic of Cyprus: Not only did the author really meet a fellow Nigerian man in Northern Cyprus whose destiny inspired him to write this book, Chinonso also strands right at the border of the EU, but cannot cross into it (only the Republic of Cyprus is a member state).

Chinonso's travels are very loosely based on The Odyssey, but will Ndali, his Penelope, wait for him? What sets Obioma's book apart from the classic European tale is (among other things) the narrator: We hear the whole story from the point of view of Chinonso's chi, his guardian spirit which stands at the center of Igbo cosmological belief. The author has explained that he wanted to challenge the Western conception of agency: His book's central character has only limited agency, because the chi points to the dimension of destiny beyond human control. This is certainly a fascinating narrative concept (especially for Westerners like me who are largely unfamiliar with Igbo culture), but to my ears, the very particular voice of the chi which frequently breaks the narrative flow by uttering rather long general philosophical musings was sometimes a little hard to bear, especially the relentless repetition of its signature sentence: "I have seen it many times" - I admit that at some point, I wanted to slap Chinonso's chi for repeating this one sentence over and over and over again. On the other hand, Obioma intended to break with Western traditions of writing, so there is certainly the factor of Western readers struggling with his approach that influences the reading experience, and that absolutely can't be held against the author.

As the story progresses, it becomes clear why the chi insists on giving us all, and I mean ALL!, the details about its host Chinonso and what happened to him, but guys, this is one looooooooooong book that outstays its welcome - if it was shorter, I'm sure it would have a higher impact. The topic of dignity is one of the most urgent in our current political climate, it is at the core of questions like migration, the culture wars, identity politics etc.: Chinonso is just one member of the "Orchestra of Minorities" which is made up by millions of people worldwide who have to fight for their dignity. So I really wish I could have loved this novel more, but ultimately, it buried an urgent topic under too many words.
Profile Image for Alis.
55 reviews4 followers
February 1, 2019
Beautiful writing and interesting philosophy totally wasted on a book that doesn't think of women as people. Nothing but a litany of excuses for a man's violence being let loose on a woman he supposedly loves. Every terrible wrong in his life, of which she was not actor or creator, being brought to her door.

This is nature.

This is how a man is.

This is what a man does.

On & on & on not questioning, not pushing, not offering a different vision of the world. Sexual violence against the male protagonist is elided and not looked at, yet we are shown and met to sympathize him pushing past a woman's nos to fuck her without a condom, of him obsessively and angrily fantasizing about men touching a woman he is no longer with (in tit biting detail), "his woman had yielded to another man." Forgives is available to those who have truly wronged him, but not to a woman who dares to be loved by him & not wait for him eternally.

I was drawn in by the philosophy, by the discussion of the nature of the world & of the way Igbo culture might fit into a modern context- unfortunately the narrative underneath was stale garbage retreading on the same goddamn bullshit where a women's pain is meaningless- where a woman is nothing but an object on which love in enacted- where we must start already hearing excuses for why violence against her should be forgiven.

Fuck this.

Fuck every second of reading it.
Profile Image for Hannah Greendale.
696 reviews3,263 followers
March 5, 2020
Anti-hero? Check!
Dramatic irony? Check!
Homer’s Odyssey? Not so much.
All who have been chained and beaten, whose lands have been plundered, whose civilizations have been destroyed, who have been silenced, raped, shamed, and killed. With all these people, he'd come to share a common fate. They were the minorities of this world whose only recourse was to join this universal orchestra in which all there was to do was cry and wail.
January 10, 2019
An Orchestra of Minorities is a very original story and very different from anything I have read. It’s a rich, complex tale about love, sacrifice and misfortune. The story is narrated by our main character Chinonso’s Chi, a guardian spirit. The Chi guides him and us through the story. The Chi presence, warm kindness and concern give the story a heartwarming feel through the heartbreaking parts in the story.

An Orchestra of Minorities is a complex and beautifully emotionally written story yet challenging with the density to it. I thought the characters started off interesting and engaging and I connected with the characters and wanted to get to know them better. However, things start to get a bit heavy with Igho culture, folklore and language that weighed down the story for me. I became distracted and at times sidetracked me from continuing to engage with the characters. This definitely could be the most interesting part of the story for readers however for this reader it was a bit too ambitious for me.

I read this one on my own which isn’t something I do very often but with timing I ended up reading it on my own. I wish I had read it with my sisters as it is one that would work really well as a group read to discuss it. Probably even better with an in-person group. I highly recommend for group reads.

Thank you to Hachette Canada, Little Brown and Chigozie Obioma for my ARC to read and review.
Profile Image for Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer.
1,746 reviews1,194 followers
September 3, 2019
Now shortlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize having been re-read following its longlisting.

As part of my re-read I came across two articles in the Millions by the author which I found very helpful for understanding the writing style that the author has deployed is and it’s very deliberate contrast in its expansive prose and layers of reality to what he sees as the minimalism and literalness that has come to dominate much Western literature. Both articles locate his writing firmly in a Nigerian tradition and appear a conscious effort to portray himself as a successor to Chinua Achebe. Given a number of the expansive books on the longlist I feel that the judges may agree with his take.

https://themillions.com/2015/06/the-a... which is a fascinating read and starts

In one of his essays, the late Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe stated that “no one be fooled by the fact that we write in English, for we intend to do unheard-of things with it.” That “we” is, in essence, an authoritative oratorical posture that cast him as a representative of a group, a kindred of writers who — either by design or fate — have adopted English as the language of literary composition. With these words, it seems that to Achebe the intention to do “unheard-of” things with language is a primary factor in literary creation. He is right. And this should be the most important factor

https://themillions.com/2017/02/93351... which starts

Like most other art forms, fiction has undergone many configurations over the years, but its core has remained, as always, the aesthetic pleasure of reading. When we read, we connect to the immaterial source of the story through its outstretched limbs. The “limb” or variants of it are what the writer has deemed fit for us to see, to gaze at and admire. It is not often the whole. But one of the major ways in which fiction has changed today — from the second half of the 20th century especially — is that most of its fiction reveals all its limbs to us all at once. Nothing is hidden behind the esoteric wall of mystery or metaphysics.


“A poultry farmer named Jamike Nwaorji, having groomed him for some time, having plucked excess feathers from his body, having fed him with mash and millet, having let him graze about gaily, having probably staunched a leg wounded by a stray nail, had now sealed him up in a cage. And all he could do now, all there was to do now, was cry and wail. He had now joined many others, all the people Tobe had listed who have been defrauded of their belongings –the Nigerian girl near the police station, the man at the airport, all those who have been captured against their will to do what they did not want to do either in the past or the present, all who have been forced into joining an entity they do not wish to belong to, and countless others. All who have been chained and beaten, whose lands have been plundered, whose civilisations have been destroyed, who have been silenced, raped, shamed and killed. With all these people, he’d come to share a common fate. They were the minorities of this world whose only recourse was to join this universal orchestra in which all there was to do was cry and wail.”

The author’s first book and debut novel, “The Fishermen” prize, a deeply allegorical but simply narrated story set in Nigeria, was, perhaps surprisingly, shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize. This is his second novel and more ambitious in scope.

The genesis of the novel is contained in this 2016 article written by the author for the Guardian


The author recounts his own experience as a Nigerian student in (the largely unrecognised state of Turkish) Northern Cyprus and his realisation that many if not most of the other Nigerian students there had been swindled out of money they had paid in advance for fees and accommodation; and also deceived into believing that entry to Northern Cyprus would give them jobs, prosperity and the right to move anywhere in the EU.

The author himself had been able, via his family, to pay his fees direct to the University and from his degree was able to gain a place as a Creative Writing lecturer in the US. However his experience was very much the exception and one of his fellow students Jay (who appears as a character in this book) committed suicide as a result of his despair on arriving in Cyprus and realising the way he had been deceived. The author was clearly hugely affected by this incident and wondered about the Nigerian who had carried out the swindle, who was presumably unaware that his small momentary gain had such cataclysmic consequences. The article also covers an image of Northern Cyprus which stuck with the author - trapped birds trying to escape their fate.

In interviews about the book, the author has also talked about how this incident and other things he witnessed in Cyprus caused him to examine what he sees as the great topic of literature - the contradiction between free will and fate and how he interprets them through, not so much traditional Western views, but through the prism of the ancient Igbo philosophy of his ancestors:

“I think it’s the question of fate’s unknowingness, its unquestionability, its irrationality, its madness, its unpredictability, its mercy, its brutality, its generosity, its elusiveness, its banality, its vitality, and all the things you can ascribe to it. It is the most metaphysical of all phenomena—if we can call it a phenomenon. I cannot conceive of a greater topic for great literature ............. I’m more chiefly concerned with metaphysics of existence and essence as they relate to the Igbo philosophy of being. We believe that life is in essence a dialectic between free will and destiny. It is a paradox: that you can make a choice, yet, that everything is preordained? And it is in this space that I anchor my stories.’

The novel that he produced (originally conceived as per the 2016 Guardian article, as “The Falconer”) features a young Nigerian man Chinoso - his mother having died in his childhood, the recent death of his father has left him newly orphaned and in sole charge of a the poultry farming business he and his father developed. Somewhat at a loss in live, one day he persuades a girl against committing suicide by jumping from a bridge into a torrential river, sacrificing two of his precious newly purchased birds to shock her with the physical horror of what she is contemplating.

Later the woman seeks him out and realising what he sacrificed for her, as well as being hugely affected by an incident when he shows the lengths to which he is prepared to go for what he loves, by attacking a hawk which is protecting his fowl, begins a relationship with him.

She however is studying for a Pharmacy degree and the daughter of a tribal Chief, and her family violently reject both his poverty and, more tellingly, lack of education. The latter leads him to the fateful decision to take up an invite from an old school acquaintance (one he used to bully at school) that he will arrange a place to study at a European university (in Northern Cyprus),a one thing he funds by selling his beloved poultry and his family home.

The conventional part of the narrative follows his arrival in Northern Cyprus as the scam played out on him becomes immediately apparent, the tragic spiral of events that follows and his eventual return to Nigeria to confront his past.

A story which while conventional and, explicitly drawing on the Odyssey, is also told in a vibrant way, with pidgin English and Igbo (both translated and untranslated) sitting alongside vivid descriptions.

But what really distinguishes the book is its unconventional part - which is based in Igbo cosmology and philosophy.

The book is narrated by Chinoso’s guardian spirit - his chi. Chapters are told in flashback, effectively in the form of a defense statement drawn up by the chi to the higher powers, setting out Chinoso’s fate and his resulting actions, drawing on ancient Igbo parables, sayings and beliefs in an attempt to explain both, and with the ultimate aim of pleading for divine clemency for Chinoso’s actions, in particular his unwitting harming of a pregnant woman.

On the whole I think this approach works - the chi functions as a form of partial omniscient narrator, successfully re-appropriating the standard (but often criticised) form of third-party Western novelistic narration into a more ancient tradition of African story telling.

And the chi explores dialectic themes, first of loneliness and love in the opening Nigerian section; then fate and destiny, despair and hope in the Cypriot parts; then the ideas of hatred and forgiveness in the closing section.

All the time indulging in vivid imagery:

Most of what he said pivoted around the perils of loneliness and the need for a woman. And his words were true, for I had lived among mankind long enough to know that loneliness is the violent dog that barks interminably through the long night of grief. I have seen it many times.

EBUBEDIKE, the great fathers speak of a man who is anxious and afraid as being in a fettered state. They say this because anxiety and fear rob a man of his peace. And a man without peace? Such a man, they say, is inwardly dead. But when he rids himself of the shackles, and the chains rattle and tumble away into outer dark, he becomes free again. Reborn. To prevent himself from falling again into bondage, he tries to build defences around himself. So what does he do? He allows in yet another fear. This time, it is not the fear that he is undone because of his present circumstances but that in a yet uncreated and unknown time, something else will go wrong and he will be broken again. Thus he lives in a cycle in which the past is rehearsed, time and time again. He becomes enslaved by what has not yet come. I have seen it many times.

Also, it became clear to him now that it wasn’t he alone who harboured hatred or a full pitcher of resentment from which, every step or so in its rough journey on the worn path of life, a drop or two spilled. It was many people, perhaps everyone in the land, everyone in Alaigbo, or even everyone in the country in which its people live, blindfolded, gagged, terrified. Perhaps every one of them was filled with some kind of hatred. Certainly. Surely an old grievance, like an immortal beast, was locked up in an unbreakable dungeon of their hearts. They must be angry at the lack of electricity, at the lack of amenities, at the corruption.

Where I felt it did not succeed so well, at least for my own enjoyment, was when the chi character itself and its own parallel cosmological world took prominence - lacking any real context (and with the author seemingly unwilling to provide it) I often found myself skipping these sections (especially a lengthy sectional the end to the Cypriot part of the novel which ultimately seems to lead nowhere) in a mix of bewilderment and impatience.

I was again mystified by the fact that, despite the dozen or so childish spirits playing, a market went on undisrupted below them. The market continued to teem with women haggling, people driving in cars, a masquerade swinging through the place to the music of an uja and the sound of an ekwe. None of them was aware of what was above them, and those above paid no heed to those below, either. I had been so carried away by the frolicking spirits that the masquerade and its entourage were gone by the time I returned to my host. Because of the fluidity of time in the spirit realm, what may seem like a long time to man is in fact the snap of a finger. This was why, by the time I was back into him, he was already in his van driving back to Umuahia. Because of this distraction, I was unable to bear witness to everything my host did at the market, and for this I plead your forgiveness..

I often struggled to see this element of the book as much more than a unnecessary and only partly forgivable distraction from the power of the main story.

I also felt that a recurring theme, of a Gosling that Chinoso raised as a child, simultaneously loving but holding in captivity, but which was then stolen from him and which he destroyed while taking revenge; was rather over-laboured.

Stronger though was the link between the distress of the poultry during the hawk attack, and other traumatic incidents, and the helplessness of Chinoso and others in the face of oppression and injustice.

Er-he, Nonso, I have been wondering all day: what is the sound that the chickens were making after the hawk took the small one? It was like they all gathered –er, together.’ She coughed, and he heard the sound of phlegm within her throat. ‘It was like they were all saying the same thing, the same sound.’ He started to speak, but she spoke on. ‘It was strange. Did you notice it, Obim?’ ‘Yes, Mommy,’ he said. ‘Tell me, what is it? Is it crying? Are they crying?’ He inhaled. It was hard for him to talk about this phenomenon because it often moved him. For it was one of the things that he cherished about the domestic birds –their fragility, how they relied chiefly on him for their protection, sustenance, and everything. In this they were unlike the wild birds. ‘It is true, Mommy, it is cry,’ he said. ‘Really?’ ‘That is so, Mommy.’ ‘Oh, God, Nonso! No wonder! Because of the small one—’ ‘That is so.’ ‘That the hawk took?’ ‘That is so, Mommy.’ ‘That is very sad, Nonso,’ she said after a moment’s quiet. ‘But how did you know they were crying?’ ‘My father told me. He was always saying it is like a burial song for the one that has gone. He called it Egwu umu-obereihe. You understand? I don’t know umu-obere-ihe in English.’ ‘Little things,’ she said. ‘No, minorities.’ ‘Yes, yes, that is so. That is the translation my father said. That’s how he said it in English: minorities. He was always saying it is like their “okestra”.’ ‘Orchestra,’ she said. ‘O-r-c-h-e-s-t-r-a.’ ‘That is so, that is how he pronounced it, Mommy. He was always saying the chickens know that is all they can do: crying and making the sound ukuuukuu! Ukuuukuu!’

Overall a book which while not entirely successful represents a worthy and ambitious second novel.
Profile Image for Richard Derus.
2,862 reviews1,897 followers
December 17, 2019
I liked The Fishermen in 2015. I like this book as well. I am, however, at a loss to comprehend how this religious tract with its absolutely inescapable christian last act can be Booker-worthy. I liked the Igbo chi-narrator, a daemon for for fans of His Dark Materials as a reference point:
She rattled a string of cowries and performed the ritual of authentication to ensure I was not an evil spirit pretending to be a chi:

‘What are the seven keys to the throne room of Chukwu?’ she said.

— Seven shells of a young snail, seven cowries from the Omambala river, seven feathers of a bald vulture, seven leaves from an anunuebe tree, the shell of a seven-year-old tortoise, seven lobes of kola nuts and seven white hens.

‘Welcome, spirit one,’ she said. ‘You may proceed.’ I thanked her and bowed.

But then we descend into some unpleasant monotheistic revenge porn. Like Job, the subject of the Divine Bar Bet, a man is driven to the edge of madness by his (inexplicable and unexplained) love for some woman:
Egbunu, the man of rage – he is one whom life has dealt a heavy hand. A man who, like others, had simply found a woman he loved. He’d courted her like others do, nurtured her, only to find that all he’d done had been in vain. He wakes up one day to find himself incarcerated. He has been wronged by man and history, and it is the consciousness of this wrong that births the change in him. In the moment the change begins, a great darkness enters him through the chink in his soul. For my host, it was a crawly, multi-legged darkness shaped like a rapidly procreating millipede that burrowed into his life in the first years of his incarceration.

And thus begins a thoroughly nasty fall into female objectification, the assertion of property rights, and a sort of ragey nastiness that I intensely disliked.

So the three stars? All for the chi, for the ancient creature both on top of Life and curiously clueless about the way we live it now. "I have seen it many times." But mostly for this utterly perfect moment:
Guardian spirits of mankind, have we thought about the powers that passion creates in human beings? Have we considered why a man could run through a field of fire to get to a woman he loves? Have we thought about the impact of love on the body of lovers? Have we considered the symmetry of its power? Have we considered what poetry incites in their souls, and the impress of endearments on a softened heart?
Profile Image for Bam cooks the books ;-).
1,818 reviews225 followers
January 24, 2019
This is a beautifully written story, a love story, an odyssey, and ultimately a tragedy. Set in Umuahi, Nigeria and Cyprus, it is the life story of Chinonso Solomon Olisa, a young poultry farmer who falls in love with a beautiful young woman far above him in class. In order to marry her, he sells everything he owns so that he might get a college education but things go horribly wrong for him, one after another.

What makes this story so unusual is that it is narrated by Chinonso's 'chi' or guardian spirit, who has gone before the ancient god of many names to explain Chinonso's actions so that he won't be judged too harshly.

The title 'An Orchestra of Minorities' comes up many times in the story--the first and to me the most touching of these is when Chinonso explains to his love Ndali Obialor that the chickens sing a song of mourning for the one among their flock who has gone--in this case, taken by a hawk. His father always called that an orchestra of minorities. 'He was always saying the chickens know that is all they can do: crying and making the sound ukuuukuu! Ukuuukuu!'

But this relates so well to Chinonso's own life, who often finds he has no power over circumstances as they unfold, as have so many others like him throughout history: 'All who have been chained and beaten, whose lands have been plundered, whose civilizations have been destroyed, who have been silenced, beaten, raped, plundered, shamed, and killed. With all these people, he'd come to share a common fate. They were the minorities of this world whose recourse was to join the universal orchestra in which all there is to do is cry and wail.'

This is not an easy read. There is plenty of foreshadowing by the chi to let the reader know this won't have a happy ending. And the characters are only seen through the spirit's observations so there are naturally limitations to the full development of characterizations.

I tend to give high marks for inventive writing. The book that this reminds me most of is Lincoln in the Bardo, another highly inventive novel, so if you loved that book as I did, I can recommend this book to you. Of course comparison to the story of The Odyssey comes up often in this story but in that ancient tale, his true love waits for her husband's return.

I've read several interviews with Chigozie Obioma about his new book and saw this quote he posted on Instagram that you might find interesting: "The inspiration for An Orchestra of Minorities came when I went to (the) Turkish Republic of Cyprus in 2007 for college. At the time, I was one of very few African (or black) people on the island. I was the only one who wasn't Turkish in my class. Jay, a young Nigerian man who had recently been deported from Germany, came a year later and his travails and eventual death inspired the character of Chinonso."

I received an arc from the publisher via NetGalley for my honest review. I'm very grateful for the opportunity.
Profile Image for Perry.
631 reviews502 followers
July 8, 2020
Symphony of the thousand natural shocks [t]hat flesh is heir to. "Hamlet"*

This is a superbly written, expertly structured, often captivating, One Hundred Eighty Proof Tragedy, Through and Through, for which it may suffer in GR ratings. Which is too bad, because it is an intelligent and particularly unique, heart-bruising novel which will make each longlist and likely be shortlisted later this year.

Describing the story in much detail may well trash the tragedian effects, but I think it's okay to--as I am oft apt to do as a crutch for description--lift lyrics from songs (here, both from the 70s), "the things we do for love"
Won't you look down upon me, Jesus
You've got to help me make a stand
You've just got to see me through another day
My body's aching and my time is at hand
I won't make it any other way**

Also, from the Book of Common Prayer, The iron entered into his soul.

Finally, see The Book of Job.


[*contemplating felo-de-se in preference to hell on earth]

[**No, contrary to urban myth, this Sweet Baby James song, Fire and Rain, wasn't written about a jet crash].
Profile Image for Jerrie.
985 reviews127 followers
September 9, 2019
First book from the Booker 2019 shortlist finished! Unfortunately, I hated it. Verbose and trying way too hard to be tragic and dramatic. Also, the author often seemed more concerned with demonstrating Igbo mythology than creating sympathetic characters. Finally, any comparisons to The Odyssey are really missing the mark. There was some lovely prose in places, but it was often hard to find among the weeds.
Profile Image for Hugh.
1,254 reviews49 followers
September 3, 2019
Shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2019

This is my ninth book from this year's Booker longlist, and perhaps the most difficult to assess objectively. Obioma's starting point for the novel is ambitious - using the Odyssey to provide the narrative framework for a novel about modern Nigeria, and using an Igbo spirit to narrate the story.

The Igbo spirit world has been explored extensively in two other novels I have read in the last couple of years, firstly Ben Okri's Booker winner The Famished Road and more recently Akwaeke Emezi's Freshwater. Neither of these books is actually narrated by the spirits, but many of the elements of the belief system that Obioma explores were at least partially familiar to me.

Most of the time the story is a human one, but every now and again our narrator (the guardian spirit or chi of Chinonso, the main human protagonist) talks about other spirits and previous incarnations, and his descriptions of human behaviour usually end with the sentence "I have seen this many times before".

At the start of the book, we meet Chinonso as a young man in Nigeria. Both of his parents are dead, and he has inherited their compound, where he keeps and breeds chickens. He first encounters Ndali when she is about to throw herself off a bridge, and he sacrifices a couple of his prized chickens to the river in an attempt to stop her. They meet later and fall in love, but their relationship is not approved by Ndali's rich and influential family, who see Chinonso as an uneducated nobody.

In a bid to gain the family's approval, Chinonso decides he needs to further his education, and he is persuaded by an old schoolfriend Jamike to allow him to arrange a university place in the Turkish northern part of Cyprus. He sells the compound and the chickens and entrusts most of his money to Jamike. On the journey to Cyprus, he meets other Nigerian students who tell him he has probably been cheated, and on arrival there Jamike fails to meet him, and he discovers that Jamike has only paid one term's fees rather than the agreed two, and has disappeared without setting up a promised bank account.

The whole thing left me with very mixed feelings - there were parts I loved and parts I struggled with, and the whole thing feels a little flawed. I appreciated what Obioma was doing with his chi narrator but at the same time it did rather distract from the human story. Using a Greek tragedy as a framework inevitably makes the whole thing very bleak, unless you view it from an immortal divine perspective. Perhaps the metaphor of humans in the hands of the gods of fates as defenceless chickens (which is also where the title comes from) was a little overdone.

However, the core story about the exploitation of Nigerian students in Cyprus was very well done - this is partly based on Obioma's own experiences as a student there - I recommend this Guardian article, which explains the background:
Chigozie Obioma: the ghosts of my student years in northern Cyprus
Profile Image for Trudie.
520 reviews551 followers
August 11, 2019
I am going to assume this novel is an exposé of toxic masculinity rather than the alternative read : one that is asking me to sympathise with this man's actions.

The fact that I remain unsure after 512 pages, concerns me.

A more spoiler intensive summary :
Profile Image for Jessica Woodbury.
1,585 reviews1,984 followers
June 15, 2020
I kept half-joking as I read this book that I was bracing myself for the surely terrible things that were to come. I read THE FISHERMEN, a beautiful gut-punch of a book, and while I didn't approach Obioma's second novel with trepidation I did approach with caution. Sure enough, this is another book where some pretty terrible things happen. (FYI avoid the marketing copy on this one, yes including the Goodreads summary, which on its own takes you through like 60% of the plot.)

In style, at least, this book is very different from his last. Our narrator is a chi, which in Igbo beliefs is a kind of soul or guardian angel. The chi begins the book letting us know that his host has done something horrible and that he is appearing before the great God to speak for him. Each chapter begins with a sort of incantation, often a supplication complete with a parable. As a reader it took me a little while to get into this rhythm, I think I would have had an easier time on audio (which was how I read THE FISHERMEN). The chi sees everything our protagonist, Chinonso, sees but can also leave his body to see the happenings of the spirit world. It's a smart spin on the semi-omniscient narrator, the chi is separate enough from Chinonso that it cannot control him but enough of a part of him that it knows all his feelings.

It's an ambitious novel and a powerful one, but ultimately it left me unsure of how to feel about the story. Over the course of its long tale we understand how Chinonso ends up where he does, and there are portions of it where the comparisons to THE ODYSSEY feel purposeful. But ultimately this seems to be the story of how a person becomes broken beyond repair, of how a certain kind of love and obsession can turn good intentions into horrible outcomes. And when it's over I just felt kind of empty.

Obioma impressed me just as much here as he did with his first book. And I am definitely going to continue reading anything he writes. I'll just be sure to brace myself.
Profile Image for Lou (nonfiction fiend).
2,771 reviews1,616 followers
January 18, 2019
An Orchestra of Minorities, Man Booker Shortlisted Chigozie Obioma's second novel, is a powerful cry for justice from main character Chinonso. From the first page right through to the last I was utterly riveted and read the entire book in a single intense sitting. Beautifully written and wholly absorbing, it is a successful contemporary twist on Homer's Odyssey and shows how masterful Obioma is when he can take familiar tropes and put a completely different spin on them; his own unique spin.

This is, at its heart, a love story, but it also addresses important issues such as racism and class divides. The Igbo cosmology and Greek tragedy infused throughout the story was fascinating, and Chinonso's struggle between fate and self-determination is both heroic and intensely emotional; I was entranced. This is a magnificent piece of writing that anyone and everyone can relate to as it explores universal struggles we all go through. Highly recommended.

Many thanks to Little, Brown for an ARC.
Profile Image for Victoria Iyene.
8 reviews9 followers
October 12, 2018
This is probably the most powerful and inventive book I have read in my life. The only possible comparison to the breadth and power of this book is Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children. The symphonic power, the radiance of the language, and the invention of an entire cosmos is simply, for lack of a better word, astounding.

The novel is in its entirety a confession by a spirit--a personal god in the Igbo culture (I'm Nigerian, and from the East but not from the Igbo tribe). This god is embodied in every individual and helps direct the course of our lives. When Chinomso Olisa commits an act that may have led to a fatal outcome, his personal god, chi, ascends to the heavenlies to give an account of his life on earth to the supreme being who is known by a cast of names including Chukwu, Ijango-Ijango, amongst others.

The life of Chinonso is dark, and he is a lonely man but one full of compassion. Consigned to managing a poultry farm, he falls in love with Ndali, a woman from a wealthy family. Class war erupts as is often the case in Nigeria, and the result is a turn towards personal sacrifice. Chinonso must go to Cyprus, an island far from Africa to get a fast education, a journey which will lead to a very serious consequence for him and Ndali.

The description of the cosmic space, of the world of the ethereal, of the beliefs of the Igbo people actualized in real time is nothing short of astonishing. This is a highly intelligent book, a book of extreme powers and one that is so easily enjoyable. I loved his first book, but didn't think it was necessarily great. Yet, I did not expect that Obioma would surpass The Fishermen, but this is something beyond something. It definitely is the greatest African novel I know of. I have never read or heard anything like it.

VERDICT: In a league of its own. This is an extraordinary work of fiction. Shakespearean in tone, mythic and Homeric in breadth, it is a mesmerizing and powerful tale of love, loss, and destiny.
Profile Image for Krista.
1,350 reviews514 followers
January 27, 2019
“Oh God! Nonso, they are! It is like a coordinated song, the kind they sing during burial ceremonies. Like a choir. And what they are singing is a song of sorrow. Just listen, Nonso.” She stood silent for a moment, then she stepped back a bit and snapped her fingers. “It is true what your father said. It is an orchestra of minorities.”

An Orchestra of Minorities is a remarkable book: in the tradition of Things Fall Apart, it tells a Nigerian's story in a blend of Igbo and Western European techniques/language/mythologies, and by setting the characters in this hybrid-world of conflicting influences, it illustrates the modern day struggle of post-colonial Nigeria. This is a challenging read, long and ponderous, but I wouldn't be surprised to see author Chigozie Obioma among the Man Booker nominees, once again, with this title.

He hadn't considered that he had been broken by the world. The birds were the hearth on which his heart had been burned, and – at the same time – they were the ashes that gathered after the wood was burnt. He loved them, even if they were varied while he was one and simple. Yet, like everyone who loves, he wished that it be requited. And because he could not tell even if his singular gosling once loved him or not, in time his love became a deformed thing – a thing neither he nor I, his chi, could understand.

As the book opens, a “chi” – a kind of guardian spirit assigned to a mortal in Igbo belief – has rushed to the spirit world to plead the case of his “host” before the creator god, Chukwu: this host has apparently committed a crime that might prevent him from being reborn again, and the chi is asking for Chukwu's intercession with Ala, the goddess who controls reincarnation. In order for Chukwu to fully understand the host's recent actions, his chi relates all of the major events of the man's life, and in this way, the narrative reads like transcribed oral storytelling. This conceit makes for an interesting semi-omniscient narrator: the chi can report on all of his host's thoughts and actions – even explain the times that it intervened to influence the host for his own good – but being a nonhuman entity, it can't always understand human motivation. (Yet having been paired with many hosts over the centuries, the chi often relates this human's actions to those taken by others it has inhabited throughout Nigerian history.) The chi even leaves his host's body sometimes in order to see what's going on in the spirit world, and the overall effect is an engaging overview of both modern Igbo life and traditional cosmology.

As for this host: Chinonso “Nonso” Solomon Olisa was a young and semi-educated rural poultry farmer (the opening quote is about the mourning song chickens engage in when a hawk makes off with a chick) when he met Ndali Umuahia: the university educated daughter of a rich and powerful urban chief. When the two fell in love and Ndali's family rejected Nonso as beneath their daughter, he was willing to give up everything he had to move to North Cyprus and get a university degree to prove himself worthy. (Apparently, Obioma attended university in North Cyprus and this section is based on his and other Nigerians' experiences there.) Things don't go according to plan, as things never seem to have worked out for the powerless Nonso, and pressures build up in him that lead to the actions that his chi eventually tries to justify.

All who have been chained and beaten, whose lands have been plundered, whose civilizations have been destroyed, who have been silenced, beaten, raped, plundered, shamed, and killed. With all these people, he'd come to share a common fate. They were the minorities of this world whose recourse was to join the universal orchestra in which all there is to do is cry and wail.

I tried to be careful with the plot synopsis there, but this book is about so much more than the plot. Obioma paints a detailed picture of the class structure of this Nigerian community – the haves and the have-nots and the pressures to acquire the things that the White Men have convinced the sons of the old fathers that they must have (pressures that have led to yahoo boys and their Nigerian Prince-type schemes; pressures that make a foreign education more desirable than a relatively prosperous traditional livelihood). The upper classes have set aside the local gods in order to follow “Jisos Kraist”, and when Nonso goes to Cyprus, he experiences racism for the first time (from locals asking to touch his hair to people yelling the Turkish for “slave” at him from passing cars.) And through it all, Obioma uses language to situate characters into their classes: Ndali prefers to speak her British-accented English, and while Nonso can converse in that tongue, when he has something important to say, he switches to Igbo. There are many instances of untranslated Igbo, and it can be frustrating the number of times Nonso can't come up with the words to reply in fraught situations:

“You have,” she said. “I gbu o le onwe gi.
Surprised by her switch to Igbo, he did not speak.

Obioma employs a sophisticated English vocabulary (“noctambulist”, “oneiric forms”, “colloids of wall paint”, “a caesura of despondency”) and some from a class lower than Nonso speak in challenging pidgin:

Oh, boy, you no sabi wetin you dey talk...Nothing wey person eye no go see these days oh. Im see nyash wey tripam – na im be say im love me.

It seems to be particularly revelatory that while in Cyprus, Nonso had to continually use the phrase “no Turkish” with the locals (and privately complain that they didn't understand his English): power is entangled with mutual understanding, and the mix of English and Igbo in Nonso's village keeps the classes separated; just one lingering effect of British colonisation. In addition to all these languages, the chi often quotes Igbo proverbs to Chukwu, while addressing the god by his many names:

Ijango-Ijango, the ndiichie say that if a wall does not bear a hole in it, lizards cannot enter a house...Egbunu, the old fathers say that a mouse cannot run into an empty mousetrap in broad daylight unless it has been drawn to the trap by something it cannot refuse...Agbaradike, the great fathers in their discreet wisdom say that seeds sown in secret always yield the most vibrant fruit.

The inventive structure, cultural details, and a relatable struggle for connection and dignity make this exactly the kind of book that wins literary awards; and Obioma deserves to be recognised for this work. But it's not a perfect read for my tastes: just a bit too long, female characters only serve as obstacles or prizes for the male lead, and everything about the wool-white gosling felt too deliberate to me. Still a worthwhile read that marks a worthy followup to Obioma's debut The Fishermen (which I preferred).
Profile Image for Scarlet.
187 reviews1,149 followers
November 27, 2019
"By that time, already, his life as he once knew it had separated from him like an ill-fated shadow hewn from its bearer and thrown over the cliff into a bottomless pit of oblivion, and even through all these years, he could still hear its dark voice screaming as it continued its fall."

An Orchestra of Minorities is an ambitious foray into Igbo cosmology, a tiny portion of which I was introduced to by Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart almost two years earlier. Simultaneously alien in its setting and accessible in its plot, the book tells the phenomenally tragic tale of Chinonso, a poor poultry farmer in Nigeria, who does everything he can to be with the woman he loves, the much-educated and wealthy Ndali. Despite his earnestness and well intentions, every step Chinonso takes mires him in an ever-deepening quicksand of trouble, culminating in him unknowingly committing a crime of serious proportions.

It is beautifully written, though not always easy to read or visualize. Obioma takes us into the many different realms that constitute the Igbo universe, from the world of the living and the world of spirits, to the caves where guardian angels meet and rivers where mythical maids sing lullabies. At best, it reads like a fantasy and at worst, a vaguely bewildering theology lecture.

What is relatable is Chinonso’s story. We get to know him intimately, since the narrator is his chi who’s been with him since he was conceived, and as misfortune knocks him down repeatedly, it is impossible to not wince in pain for this naïve fool of a man.

What is less clear, however, are the other characters in this story – especially the women. The poor-man-rich-girl trope is so overdone in movies and pop culture that I needed some serious convincing for why a UK-educated, Master’s pursuing woman would fall for a poor, unsophisticated, bird-shit-cleaning man like Chinonso – and here the book utterly failed to convince me. I never understood their “love,” or what Ndali was thinking at any given time, or why she would react to things the way she did.

There were also times when Chinonso’s treatment of women in general riled me, since he mostly seems to view them as sex objects. The ending also had me torn – I think Ndali had to pay a higher price than Chinonso, and his inability to take responsibility for his own lack of good sense further antagonized me to his character.

But this is not a story about rights and wrongs, or good and bad people. It's about the “minorities” who are helpless in the face of their misfortune, the prey who are relentlessly hunted by fate, the victims who can only lament and add to the universal “orchestra” of agony. This is about a human being who is driven to the cusp of ruin, and how he chooses to retaliate to the unfairness. And in that, the book surely shines.

3.5 rounded down.
Profile Image for Ilana.
601 reviews161 followers
February 25, 2019
Well that was rather stupendous. A heartbreaking work of staggering genius, you might quite aptly say. I was bowled over by his debut novel The Fishermen too; whatever Obioma cooks up next, I’ll be waiting for it eagerly.
Profile Image for Kathleen.
1,301 reviews119 followers
September 15, 2019
Booker Prize Shortlist 2019. Obioma has written a dark book about love, loss, and destiny that is unrelentingly depressing. Some suggest that this is partly based on Homer’s “Odyssey”, but the tale feels more like the Biblical story of Job to me. The successful chicken farmer, Chinonso, saves the life of Ndali when she tries to kill herself by leaping off a bridge. This impulsive man falls in love with her and seeks to improve himself so that he is considered worthy by her family by selling his farm, traveling to Cyprus and pursuing an education. However, Chinonso is shortly conned out of most of his money, and everything goes downhill from there.

The story is told from the POV of Chinonso’s chi, his guardian spirit. The chi seeks compassion for Chinonso from the supreme Igbo god, Chukwu, by recounting all that has happened to his host. The chi is hoping to improve Chinonso’s fate. Along the way, we learn of the exploitation of Nigerian students in northern Cyprus, and how the poor and dispossessed are as defenseless as the chickens that Chinonso raised (‘the minorities’).

Obiomo incorporates the philosophy of the Igbo people throughout the novel. But, he also includes the power of forgiveness that is part of the Christian faith when Chinonso confronts the thief that absconded with most of his money. Indeed, there is considerable discussion on how one’s fate affects one’s spirit, and how it can be healed.
Profile Image for Shane.
53 reviews2 followers
June 9, 2019
I will say first up that An Orchestra of Minorities is well written though I did find it at times painfully long winded. I enjoyed the Igbo culture and language. I enjoyed the start of the book and the burgeoning love story between Chinonso and Ndali.

But the more I think about it after finishing it recently, the more I dislike this book and its protagonist.

Sold as 'a re-imagining of The Odyssey' I can't help but feel that heroes should be held up to better than 8th century BC standards.

Firstly, we're supposed to feel sympathetic to Chinonso for the 'sacrifices' he makes in order to marry the woman he 'loves', Ndali. This is despite him at no point talking to her about his decision to sell everything he owns and head overseas to study for three years in order to impress her family who are unhappy about the educational level of her suitor.

At this point I can kind of feel some sympathy for this naive poultry farmer when his childhood 'friend' Jamike who is helping him register to study at an overseas university dupes him. Instead of securing his study, accommodation and finances in Cyprus, Jimike has ripped off most of the money, paying only one semester of tuition. This becomes apparent only after Chinoso is on his way to Cyprus.

Chinoso blindly headed overseas without confirming any details and, as it turns out, bullied Jamike at school so his 'friend' may actually harbour a grudge against him. If this is his motivation, is defrauding his old schoolmate of almost his entire worldly wealth a bit of an overreaction on Jimike's part? Probably, but then the men in this book are all irrational, angry, and lash out at the most minor of actual or perceived slights.

This begins a series of 'tragedies' that befall Chinonso, none of which he will accept any responsibility for. They are Jamike's fault for taking advantage of him when all he has done was for Ndali, despite her never wanting any of it.

While in Cyrpus, Chinonso's life is crumbling around him. He receives help and assistance from people he will happily ignore when it's inconvenient or uncomfortable to him. He leaves Ndali fretting about what is happening to him despite him promising never to lie to her. He is befriended by a nurse who wants to help him but his misfortunes compound when he convicted of a crime he didn't commit based on the her lying to police when she seeks to cover her husband's attack of Chinonso when he mistakenly thinks Chininso is having an affair with his wife.

So the husband is case one of a man getting away with a crime after not only attacking Chinonso but also against his own wife whom he was choking when Chinonso intervened. Of course, the violence against a woman is incidental, it’s the crime against Chinonso that is all that is of consequence here. We’ll only ever hear from the woman again when it’s to apologise to our hero.

After four years Chinonso is released from prison when the truth finally comes out and is sent back to Nigeria since he takes absolutely no control of his own circumstances.

Having harboured a deep hatred of Jamike for four years, he wants to kill him. But when the two do meet, he finds circumstances render him unable to do so. He does however beat Jamike senseless while forcing him to read his account (written to Ndali) of what happened to him in Cyprus. Another violent act from a man with no consequences.

Jamike simply wants forgiveness due to an unspecified accident two years before having made him see the error in his ways. Jamike has turned to God for salvation. The victims of Jimike's fraud included Chinoso who ended up in prison, a woman who turned to prostitution, and a second man who committed suicide.

Does Jimike face any consequences for ruining three lives? Not really, aside from the beating at Chinonso's hands and Chinonso serving Jimike a concoction of Fanta and urine. But, you know, God and stuff so Jimike decides his own penitence.

In fact, Jimike becomes Chinonso's best friend. Despite Chinonso having previously had a best friend and an uncle who would look after his best interests, Chinonso chooses the man who ruined his life (well, the man who isn't Chinonso because none of this is of course Chinonso's fault).

And what of Ndali? Chinonso locates her with Jimike's help and damn this is a bad idea. Chinonso can't bare to face the fact that Ndali may not love him, may have moved on and built a life for herself so what does he do? Does he explain what happened? Does he understand how this must be for her, try to seek her side of events? No. He stalks her. At work. At home. At her child's school.

He does give her the letter outlining his trip to hell in Cyprus but does he wait for her to process this news and respond? Again, no. Things must move to Chinonso's timeline. Does he wait to find out that she was contacted when he went to prison and was told he'd raped a woman? No. Does he wait to find out that she didn't believe he could do that and tried to seek him out and obtain help for him? No.

What he does do is confront her by blocking her car on the road outside her house. He also deduces that Ndali's son is his son but rather than find a way to broach this he thinks that maybe he could go and sort his life out and then claim his son and take him from her.

And now that he has forgiven Jimike, does he also forgive Ndali for her perceived betrayal of him? Nope. In fact, she becomes the focus of his anger. None of this would have happened if it wasn't for her. He did this for her. So they could be together. He has a claim on her. Chininso never really sees choice as an option open to Ndali.

So feeling that life is unfair and Ndali belongs to him and has wronged him, ultimately Chinonso decides to burn Ndali's pharmacy to the ground but doesn't realise she's inside. She's sleeping there because, having realised Chinoso is back, she's fighting with her husband and has left the family home. Does this mean she still loves Chinonso? Could they have found their way back together? Who knows! His temper and sense of entitlement have killed the woman he claims to love.

Is it a tragedy? For Ndali for sure. For Chinonso? He had a hand in almost every tragedy to befall him but accepts no responsibility. And what of Chinoso wronging women in his life? That never really comes up.

Anything that befalls Chinonso is always someone else's fault. And the whole premise of the book is Chinonso's chi defending the death of Ndali as reasonable given the circumstances. Firstly his chi rushes to defend him when it appears the man in Cyrpus may die. Then he's off like a flash to defend the death of Ndali. Chinonso's chi moves faster than an internet comment section.

As to whether Chinonso suffers any consequences from the spirit world or local law enforcement we'll never know, as we leave him driving and crying while Ndali dies because of his actions.

Also not sitting well with me are the tired trope of prison rape being thrown in but not really dealt with. And Chinonso sleeping with a woman without a condom despite her repeatedly asking him to put one on is dismissed because he finds her ugly after the deed is done and disposes of her.

While women may have been pawns, motivations or property in classical narratives, this doesn't work in a modern landscape. I can't help but think that this reimagining of a Greek tragedy would have benefitted from an update in the way in which men are held accountable for their actions by modern standards. Without this all I'm seeing is male victimhood and toxic masculinity being explained away and forgiven due to circumstances and the fickleness of the fates.
Profile Image for Ken.
8 reviews
June 8, 2018

After trying for so long, I finally got my hands on the novel!! As anyone who has seen my posts know, I loved THE FISHERMEN and believe Obioma is probably one of the top 5 greatest writers writing right now. He is doing what no one else is doing, and were this writer European or American, he would be better celebrated. I'm trying to develop a career around studying the works of this great writer.

An Orchestra of Minorities is a cosmic novel, magic realist, but also realist. If you thought the language in Obioma's first novel sings, wait until you read this book. There are paragraphs, lines that will blow your mind. Because the book is not really yet in circulation, I will update this post with lengthier review sometime next year.

Look for it people, look for this amazing intercontinental love story told in a way that has never been seen before in fiction. Look for it!

Now, here is the short review:

The story is set in Umuahia, a city in the East of Nigeria that was pivotal in that nation's civil war (chronicled in books such a Half of a Yellow Sun). Chinonso, a poultry farmer, who had become in love with birds after owning a gosling, the small bird on the jacket, meets Ndali, a young medical student about to jump over a bridge. Having lost his own family and recovering from grief, he saves Ndali. We follow his evolution as he goes from a lonely man to being in love with her. There comes the heart of the story. His affection for Ndali will drive a wedge between her and her family and force him to make daring sacrifices that will take him to the island of Cyprus. But will he, after those years, be able to reconnect with Ndali?

That question, existentialist as it is, sits at the heart of An Orchestra of Minorities. The chi, the narrator of the story, is a god-in-every-man figure. In the Igbo worldview, every human being has a chi who lives in them and is their mediator in the realm of the metaphysical. What is more fascinating is that this reincarnating spirit has lived in many people before, and is therefore able to give life lessons every inch of the way while telling us the story of Chinonso's doomed romance with Ndali. It is an extraordinary narrative device, something I have never seen before but which is comparable to George Saunder's device in Lincoln in the Bardo, which won the Man Booker Prize.

This book is in some ways darker than Obioma's The Fishermen, which was a finalist for the Man Booker prize. But it is more ambitious, and yet more subtle. It will take time for me to figure out which of these two books I love better. But I learned much more from An Orchestra of Minorities, and found it much more thought-provoking.

On the title, I found the title one of the richest elements in the story. It first comes from Ndali's speech describing what happens to the chickens in the aftermath of a hawk attack. It is one of the most heart-rending scenes you will ever read in modern literature. But my favorite moment in this is book is the part with a strong racial component when Chinonso, lost in Cyprus, is mobbed by a group of young islanders. The chi narrates:

"They did not know that he was a man of great poverty, a man whose poverty extended beyond the diameter of time. In the past, what he owned he lost. In the present, he owned nothing. And in the in the prospected future, nothing."
Profile Image for Read By RodKelly.
205 reviews753 followers
September 14, 2019
An orchestra of minorities is that which comprises the voices of the flightless; wings- clipped and rendered inutile with the shame of poverty, of great loss, of inconceivable trauma. They, who exist on a perpetually lateral plane of suffering and affliction. And bound to such a fate, what can the litany do but become a metamorph of rage and madness? In Chigozie Obioma’s second, brilliant novel, his themes are explored through a distinctly male lens; it is a sprawling, oracular tale, modelled on the classical myth and its common loci: Love, Violence, Obsession, and Revenge, four sides of an ancient, proverbial prism. Obioma gives quite a long, intense narrative performance that is relentlessly claustrophobic and increasingly so as the novel reaches its violent, manic conclusion. My biggest criticism is that the one of the novel’s strengths is also its weakness: the mythic maleness caricaturizes and nearly silences the female point of view, greatly limiting the scope of what is otherwise a luminous tale.

This is the only novel on the Booker Prize shortlist which doesn’t concern itself with a political agenda, mirroring and offering a commentary on current events. It is a fable, an odyssey of a man who ‘becomes a djinn, a man-spirit, a vagabond, a de-scaled wanderer, a thing creeping in the bush, a self-exiled outcast, shorn from the world.’ And who among us can predict what he will be tomorrow?...Bravo.
Profile Image for ·Karen·.
614 reviews758 followers
April 6, 2020

Stunning in its ambition, majestic in its execution, spectacular in its breadth.

Ijango-Ijango, over many sojourns in the human world, I have heard the venerable fathers, in their kaleidoscopic profundity, say that no matter the weight of grief, nothing can compel the eyes to shed tears of blood

The weight of grief.

Chinonso is weeping blood.

This is powerful stuff: heart-stopping, breath-taking, pulse-quickening. Time stood still until I'd finished.

Profile Image for Neil.
1,007 reviews625 followers
August 4, 2019
“I have seen it many times”

This is a phrase the narrator of the book repeats again and again as he watches the behaviour and choices of human beings. Our narrator is a guardian spirit - chi - of a young poultry farmer, Chinonso, in Nigeria.

I’ll back track slightly. The book opens with two pages of diagrams explaining Igbo cosmology. Because whilst. as the book blurb explains, this story can be seen as a “contemporary twist on Homer’s Odyssey”, it is, at the same time, a book grounded in Igbo cosmology. In an afterword, the author states that his novel ”…is firmly rooted in Igbo cosmology, a complex systems of beliefs and traditions that once guided - and in part still guides - my people.” But, as he goes on to say, his purpose is not to provide an explanation of all the theory of that cosmology but, quoting Chinua Achebe, ’what I am attempting here is not to fill that gap but to draw attention to it in a manner appropriate to one whose primary love is literature and not religion, philosophy or linguistics.’

So, the story here is told from the perspective of the chi or guardian spirit. Along the way, we learn several of the “laws” that govern what the guardian spirit can and cannot do.

Yet a chi is constrained while in the body of its host. While there, it becomes nearly impossible to see or hear what is present or spoken in the supernatural realm. But when one exits ones host, one becomes privy to things beyond the realm of man.

So, a chi can leave its host’s body, to which it is intimately linked, for periods and, during those periods, the screen that hides the spiritual reality around it is removed and the guardian spirit can see other spirits and talk to them. In doing this, the chi can learn things that its host cannot know. But the chi cannot compel or directly influence the behaviour and decisions of its host. It can plant ideas and suggest things but the implication in the story is that the host has no real way to know which thoughts are his and which are planted by his chi. Indeed, it almost seems as if the host is unaware of the presence of the chi:

But he paid no heed to my counsel. He thought it an idea that originated from within his own mind, for man has no way to distinguish what has been put into his thoughts by a spirit - even if it is his own chi - and what has been suggested to him by the voice of his head.

Although, at one point, the chi records that Chinonso has, in desperation, prayed to every deity he can think of and once - unexpectedly - to me, his chi. This suggests that the human beings know theoretically about their chi but have very little practical interaction that they are aware of. This is very similar to the way a lot of “white men” (as the book calls them) relate to the Christian God.

As the book blurb explains, Chinonso sees a woman contemplating suicide and persuades her to walk away but only by sacrificing two of his new poultry flock. They fall in love, but her parents will not accept him due to his lack of education. He decides to rectify that fault by travelling to Cyprus to gain a degree but things do not work out as planned. This novel is the story of what happens. It is told in the form of the testimony of Chinonso’s chi who is explaining why Chinonso should not be condemned for what has happened. Of course, we, the readers, do not know the details of what has happened until the end of the story when the testimony of the chi covers the dramatic climax.

It is an interesting framing device, especially for someone like me who reads it from a very different perspective. Earlier this year, I read Freshwater which is another story rooted in Igbo cosmology. These two books could hardly be more different from one another. Freshwater was a disturbing book in which the spirit world seemed intent on damaging the human beings it was in contact with. Here, the guardian spirits have the best interests of their humans in mind and look to protect them and guide them as much as they can given the limits of their involvement. In this book, the human beings seem far less aware of their guardian spirits and of the spiritual world that clearly surrounds them at all times: when the chi leaves his host’s body on occasion, the world is teeming with other spirits, good and bad.

The two quotes above give a flavour of the voice of the narrating chi. It takes some getting used to, especially as the chi seems to occasionally choose completely the wrong word (what is a “reticulated lorry”?).

My Goodreads friend Gumble’s Yard has written a detailed review of this book that also gives a lot of the context and good background on the author. I would encourage you to read his review here: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show....

There is one area where Gumble’s Yard and I might disagree slightly though (although, of course, he won’t know that until, or unless, he reads this). Gumble’s Yard wrote: “Where I felt it did not succeed so well, at least for my own enjoyment, was when the chi character itself and its own parallel cosmological world took prominence - lacking any real context (and with the author seemingly unwilling to provide it)”. However, I found these parts of the book fascinating as they give a view into the activities in the spiritual realm. I come from a strong Christian tradition (I have been a leader in Christian churches and still attend regularly) and I have always found it fascinating to see how other traditions and religions view the unseen activity around us. Ultimately, in this book, it is frustrating because the people involved seem to have so little awareness, and so little chance of awareness, of being part of something much more than just what they sense with their normal human senses each day.

The different viewpoint presented here kept my interest. It turned out that I needed that because the story itself is not really very exciting. As the chi says (as quoted at the start), I have seen it many times. This means that, in the end, I am not sure how I feel about the book. Overall, 3.5 stars rounded down.
Profile Image for Doug.
1,934 reviews669 followers
August 20, 2019
As with his previous Booker shortlisted novel, The Fishermen, I can't really say I 'enjoyed' this, since like its predecessor, it is almost unrelentingly depressing, and (with the possible exception of Les Misérables), I just don't LIKE books in which the protagonist is continuously hounded by horrible injustices. And although again there are some striking passages and some interesting cosmology about the Igbo religion, there is also a preponderance of vivid descriptions of bodily fluids and excretions that I could have done without.

But my main problem with the book is that it is just very slow going for the most part, and a judicious editor could have excised a good 100-150 pages, and made it a much better reading experience - too often superfluous details impeded the forward momentum of the main story. And when the narrative doesn't get bogged down in the irritatingly untranslated passages of African dialect and the minutiae of the religion, the story itself is both somewhat predictable and not terribly interesting. The blurb stating it is a modern twist on Homer also is a bit of a misnomer, in that only the final quarter really has much to do with the Odysseus/Penelope story, leading me to expect something entirely different.

That all said, I think it was worth reading in the long run, and I wouldn't be surprised to see it make the Booker shortlist also. There are some notable passages and images, even if some metaphors are hammered home a bit much.

My sincere thanks to Netgalley and Little Brown and Company for the eBook ARC in exchange for this honest review.
Profile Image for Daniel Chaikin.
594 reviews57 followers
September 28, 2019
(My first on the 2019 Booker lists)

I was taken in early. Chinonso, a young Nigerian chicken farmer, sees a young woman looking over the edge of a bridge. He stops his truck, grabs a couple chickens, runs over to the woman and tells her not to jump, and, to illustrate why not, tosses his two chickens over. Then he drives off. We're left wondering about this young man who seems so gallant and cruel at the same time, and the odd and innocent way he created some kind of intimacy out of nothing of the sort. We we're left wondering what happened to the women. We're slowly told through Chinonso's Chi, a kind of Igbo guardian spirit. The Chi can read some of Chinonso's thoughts, and can mildly influence them, but the Chi itself has been around a long time, dealt with a number of Nigeria lives, and learned many things, and it can see the world around Chinonso in ways he can't. The Chi can even leave Chinonso and explore the world on its own. But it's not all-knowing and cannot see the future and cannot control Chinonso. Instead it becomes an observer and, as a our narrator, a nimble tool for a writer.

Over the long trend of the novel, this becomes a variation of the Odyssey-Aeneid-Divine Comedy theme of travel and other-worldly travels. Maybe there's some Milton too. But on the immediate page, we are in the midst of one the of the several worlds Obioma has created with his pen, each with its own overall atmosphere, tensions, feeling and so on, and we experience them slowly, our draw dependent on the storyteller's skill. It's not a book anyone could write. But Obioma has some mastery in telling these stories, and then in completely changing things, building another world without losing his reader. I do wonder at the role the reader, Chukwudi Iwuji, played in this experience. He reads the book with a strong Nigerian accent, and gives the Nigerian Pidgin English an accent and stress I never could have imagined just reading the text, changing fundamental emphases within the dialogue.

I guess what I'm saying is I loved the paradise Obioma creates and I loved the way he sets up the ending to this paradise, and all the ways he goes about it. We can sense a lot of problems over the edge, but we never know what it's going to be like when we get there and or how it will turn out, and I never lost interest. Fun book, especially on audio.


43. An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma
reader: Chukwudi Iwuji
published: 2019
format: 18:08 audible audiobook (464 pages in hardcover)
acquired: Aug 13
listened: Aug 14 – Sep 15
rating: 4
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