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The Civilized World: A Novel in Stories

3.85  ·  Rating details ·  204 ratings  ·  52 reviews
A glorious literary debut set in Africa about five unforgettable women—two of them haunted by a shared tragedy—whose lives intersect in unexpected and sometimes explosive ways

When Adjoa leaves Ghana to find work in the Ivory Coast, she hopes that one day she'll return home to open a beauty parlor. Her dream comes true, though not before she suffers a devastating loss—one
Paperback, 256 pages
Published March 29th 2011 by Holt Paperbacks
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3.85  · 
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 ·  204 ratings  ·  52 reviews

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Apr 28, 2011 rated it really liked it
What does it mean to need forgiveness – and what does it take to forgive? In this extraordinary literary debut, Susi Wyss examines this question through the intersecting lives of five unforgettable women, whose lives intersect in unexpected ways.

The opening and closing chapters bookmark these connected short stories – not unlike The Imperfectionists or Olive Kitteridge. We meet Adjoa, a Ghanaian woman living in the Ivory Coast. She is a trusted masseur to Madame Janice, a seemingly affluent Amer
Kathy Hiester
Jun 06, 2011 rated it really liked it
Susi Wyss unites a great collection of stories with varying perspectives. As an American, it was very fascinating to read the rational depictions of foreign aid workers and how they are perceived by African citizens. These stories present Africa without the sensationalism, offering stories of day by day living. Even the writing itself is modest, attempting to simply describe what is, allowing the reader to fill in the blank spaces. These women feel very real and natural and I can picture them no ...more
I loved it - one of the best books I read this year. Definitely not Precious Ramotswe's Africa, but still sweet and moving in parts, gripping and shocking in others. I couldn't put it down, and I've already recommended it to other readers.
Marilyn Pronovost
Jun 02, 2017 rated it really liked it
This is a well written book. The stories of the women draw the reader in. They are all strong women, who for no their strength in their time of weakness or worry. The stores come together to give a sense of the culture. Although the customs may differ, between African and American cultures, the concerns and feelings remain similar, loss of loved ones, need for security, goals that need to be achieved, need for resolution. The characters are Everywoman yet the display distinct parts of our person ...more
Elina Salminen
Mar 05, 2017 rated it really liked it
A book that starts unassumingly and has awkward colonialist overtones, but also in the end brings together seemingly unrelated short stories in a satisfying way. A nice, easy read.
Apr 08, 2011 rated it really liked it
"...all of her half-formed thoughts about Africa became as clear and sharp as the air around her, and she understood at last why she hated living there. It wasn't, as she had once thought, the poverty and constant harassment for money. It wasn't the heat or the dirt or the cacophony of foreign tongues. What she finally understood was that nothing felt safe to her -- not her marriage, not her physical self, not even her sanity -- and without that feeling of safety, she could never create a home f ...more
Lisa Hura
Jan 01, 2012 rated it really liked it
The Civilized World: A Novel in Stories describes itself as “a novel in stories.” To some extent, I think that’s true of all novels, but it is very pronounced in The Civilized World. Each chapter is a distinct story, although the stories overlap in a way that gives a much broader picture. Like real life, you don’t know every detail of every story, which sometimes leaves you wondering about how things happened. The stories draw you in — they are interesting on their own, and they leave you wonder ...more
Susi Wyss' The Civilized World is everything I love about literary fiction: vivid prose that reads like poetry; memorable, multifaceted characters with whom you cheer and grieve; settings so alive you can feel the grit between your teeth; language that is both accessible and beautiful. A book with words that linger, creating a world marvelously alive to you.

Told through a series of vignettes over many years, each leap finds us visiting Adjoa and Janice at another point in their storied lives. Wh
Jan 19, 2012 rated it really liked it
I actually received The Civilized World from the publisher months ago and shame on me for taking so long to read and review it.
This novel is quiet and beautiful and it drew me into it's pages straight away. I finished reading it in a single day. It will make it to my top reads of 2012 and I'm happy to have found a favorite so early on in the year.

I enjoy stories set in Africa and this novel swept me away for a little while. It is written in the form of intertwining stories surrounding five diff
Kasey Jueds
May 12, 2011 rated it it was amazing
I loved, loved, loved this book. I was so glad I had lots of time in the past couple of days to read it (thank you, jury duty), because I really didn't want to put it down. The characters seemed, by the time I got to the end, like people I actually knew--plus reading this gave me that wonderful contradictory feeling of wanting to finish (because you want to know what happens, and you just want to keep reading) and not wanting to finish (because then the amazing experience of being inside the boo ...more
Becky Fowler
Mar 31, 2011 rated it it was amazing
If you are comfortable with uncertainty, you can be comfortable with--and thoroughly enjoy--Wyss's storytelling. Plots/subplots, characters, scenes are very clearly and vividly presented, and yet you almost have the sense that the stories are happening in real-time/real-life and that nothing is guaranteed or all worked out, further along in the pages, simply waiting for you to discover it. To me, that is exciting. You are as much on your own as are the characters in trying to navigate their own ...more
Apr 09, 2011 rated it really liked it
This book is a collection of stories intertwined together by people and places. Adjoa is a young Ghana woman, trying to make a better life for herself and her family. Janice is a single American woman who has been working in Africa most of her adult life. Comfort is a widowed Ghanian woman with a son and new grandbaby in Washington D.C., and daughter-in-law Linda has her own issues. Ophelia is a young childless wife hoping and trying for a baby.

I loved this book. The characters and their differe
Apr 26, 2011 rated it really liked it
I am wavering between 4 and 4.5 stars. This is a beautifully written book that is presented in a number of short stories that can stand alone but when told together, the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts.

Each story gives a snapshot of the women and their struggles and concerns of that time. The stories are written chronologically and the characters weave themselves throughout the book and between the pages of the other characters' stories. The author gives a vivid and colorful sna
Neil Crossan
Jul 24, 2012 rated it it was ok
Recommended to Neil by: SF Book Club
This is a collection of related stores of women related to Africa in some way that would endless annoy me with their complaining. Am I supposed to like people? I’m not PRO-home invasion, but just because something really bad happened to you doesn’t make you a good person … Janice. And if I found my mother-in-law trying to ‘shape’ my infant child’s head to Ghanaian expectations you can make damn sure my mother in law wouldn’t be with my infant daughter unsupervised. And Ophelia is clearly spendin ...more
Andrea Blythe
May 04, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: fiction
Shifting from the Ivory Coast to Ethiopia to Ghana to America, this novel presents the lives of five very different women. At the heart are Adjoa, who hopes to open the cleanest, friendliest beauty parlor in Ghanna, and Janice, an American aid worker. Both women, though they may not realize it, are bound by singular event of violence and tragedy. Other women include Comfort, a strong, no nonsense African matriarc, who must make what peace she can with her American daughter-in-law Linda, and anot ...more
Megan Hallinan
Dec 08, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Having lived for three years in West Africa, I always struggle with an appropriate response to people asking me, "How was it?" After finishing Susi Wyss's book, I believe that she has done an incredible job of answering this question. I really do want to go out and buy a copy for every person who asks about my time on the continent. The author is a wonderful storyteller, and her ability to spin a number of continent-spanning stories into a single narrative leaves the reader with a sense that the ...more
AJ Payne
This was an interesting book, though I can't say it was great. The stories were decent, and I liked how they connected to one another in interesting ways. It was written as a series of short stories, though I am not sure each would stand alone without reading the ones that came before - though I don't know because I read it straight through!

It was obviously geared toward a female audience, which is fine, though I think women would enjoy the story more than I did.

There were times when I felt tha
Heather Buesseler
Jun 06, 2011 rated it it was amazing
If you want to know what Africa is like beyond the war, famines, poverty, HIV/AIDS, and stories of Lost Boys, read this book. Wyss portrays stories and characters more true to my own personal experiences in Africa than any book I have read before. She gracefully and delicately explores interpersonal and cross-cultural dynamics -- both between Westerners and Africans, as well as between Africans of differing -- on par with Jhumpa Lahiri. Wyss fills a huge gap in the literature of stories of real ...more
Jan 06, 2014 rated it it was ok
I really really wanted to like this book. I tried so much to like it. In the end, I just decided to finish it since I had already invested my time. And I hate that. I hate wanting to love a book. I think it should just come naturally. Wyss dives into important themes like home, forgiveness, protection, love, and safety. However, none of those themes evolved. The short stories connect, but none of those stories feel developed enough to make a novel. I liked some character choices, but their voice ...more
Apr 07, 2011 rated it liked it
This book is short stories but they're linked, with characters reappearing and connecting with each other, so this short form hater could enjoy them. I really enjoyed the themes (women: do what you want and don't count on your men). And although my development career has only taken me to sub-Saharan Africa for a total of six or seven weeks so far (I work at headquarters, which the author describes as a "bureaucratic hamster wheel"), I really related to the sometimes open, sometimes uncomfortable ...more
Aug 23, 2011 rated it it was amazing
This book has nine stories told from the perspective of five female characters. There are plots and subplots in this book. The characters are very clearly presented. The novel provides a snapshot of everyday life in Africa. Revolving around all the characters in the book. Janice, an American working in Africa, Adjoa, a Ghanian who goes to work in the Ivory Coast to raise money to open a beauty salon, and Ophelia, an expatriate who is adjusting to living on another continent. That's just three of ...more
Jun 11, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: i-own-it
This book was given to me by a person who knows the author (they were in the Peace Corps together in Africa) and who also grew up in South Africa. Wow! I know someone who knows an honest-to-goodness author! (And a Goodreads author at that!). This just goes to show you that not all the best books are the best sellers. People on Goodreads usually gave this book 4 or 5 stars, so it seems very well received. I liked the little glimpses of African life that we got. I would have liked more of that, bu ...more
Glen Retief
May 07, 2011 rated it it was amazing
I loved reading these stories. I found myself really compelled by the characters, especially Adjoa, the Ghanaian hairdresser who appears in several of the tales--an earnest but passionate woman who simply wants what we all want in life, some success and some love, but who like so many of us struggles to find it. Susi Wyss has a remarkable gift for observation. She knows Africa and African culture so well. At the end of this short story collection I felt as though I had traveled to Ivory Coast, G ...more
Oct 10, 2013 rated it it was amazing
These wonderful stories weave together the lives of five women (and their children, husbands, brothers, boyfriends) who are connected to Africa by birth or employment. Inside each well-observed, believable tale nestle Wyss's illuminating insights into the questions and conflicts that arise from cross-cultural interactions (including intra-African). The shared humanity of her central characters, and their desire, whether stated or not, to leave the world a better place, compelled and rewarded my ...more
Jul 12, 2011 rated it really liked it
Very interesting story development, using a sequence of sketches of daily life for seemingly unrelated characters. Ultimately their stories merge to present a canvas that is painted with the interconnectedness of the civilized world, as we may, or more likely not, know it.
Outstanding for a first time novel. Both in subject and execution. Just the right amount of development to make the characters real without burdening the unity of the portrait that renders people and places who are both foreign
Colleen Foster
Aug 26, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: ghana
The Civilized World is full of strong, fascinating women whose lives are interwoven over the course of ~10 separate stories. These stories range over several years and take place in various cities and countries in Africa and the US. I loved all of the characters. The only thing I would improve is cutting back on the recap of the women's backgrounds every time the same character shows up in another story. There really aren't enough characters to become confused over or warrant a reintroduction of ...more
Nichelle Calhoun
Sep 08, 2012 rated it it was amazing
A smart, interesting book laced with humor and insight into the personal lives of different characters who live in Africa. The book gives an intelligent, and atypical view of life for its various actors. You see the personal stories behind the epic trials and stories of those who feel attached to the continent in one way or another. The book really brings you into a close an intimate encounter with the Africa you may not have visualized. It is a great read. Hard to put down, hard not to give tho ...more
Naomi Shank
Apr 01, 2013 rated it it was amazing
This is a wonderful amalgamation of stories about American and African women whose lives intertwine and overlap and who are dealing with issues that I can personally relate to as a woman who's lived in Africa and who's married to an African man. The book was very easy to read and I didn't want to put it down! Read each of the short stories in 2 days and liked the fact that each story could stand alone but since I knew there was another one coming, I was eager to read the next one. Would definite ...more
Apr 15, 2011 rated it liked it
I don't read nearly enough fiction from outside the U.S. There's a shift I notice, not just in the rhythms of storytelling, but in the way language plays out.
The fact that I noticed it to such a degree says I need to read more multicultural literature.
Also- ensemble interwoven stories are frustrating, even if they're attentively brought together at intervals. It's frustrating- you're with one character and then- whoomp, chapter's over, and here's someone else. There were loose ends.
Nov 05, 2011 rated it really liked it
I really enjoyed this book. The short stories recount several women's lives (all the way from Ghana to Washington DC) and how they intertwine or connected in many ways. The issues brought up in the stories are so genuine, so real - struggling to get by, infertility, adoption, racism, fear, vulnerability, forgiveness,... Susi Wyss is very talented. I loved the thought-provoking questions at the end as well - good discussion for a book club.
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Susi Wyss's fiction is influenced by her twenty-year career managing women's health programs in Africa, where she lived for more than eight years. Her work has appeared in numerous literary magazines and has been recognized by awards from the Maryland State Arts Council and the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, among others. She holds a B.A. from Vassar, an M.P.H. from Boston University, and an M.A. i ...more