Author: Susi Wyss
Publisher: Henry Holt and Company
ISBN: 978-0-8050-9362-9

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“What did it mean to be civilized anyway?” a character ponders, in this quiet but eloquent collection of stories.  It couldn’t just mean skyscrapers and cell phones and cars. From what (she) understood, Africa held the oldest civilization on earth.” That sentiment echoes throughout this book, as it gently examines the lives of women on either side of the great cultural gap that divides Africa and the western world. Author Wyss spent nearly two decades managing health programmes across Africa, and her experiences clearly influence her book.

Five women dominate these stories. There  is Adjoa from Ghana, slaving away at her job as a beautician in Cote d’Ivoire, so that she might one day go home and set up her own business. She succeeds; her twin succumbs to the lure of easy money, only to lose his life.  Then there is Comfort, also from Ghana, struggling to build a relationship with her Caucasian daughter in law,
Linda.  Janice (a character the author seems to have  modeled on herself) loves Africa and feels at home there, until a break-in leaves her emotionally scarred.  For Linda and Ophelia, a diplomat’s wife seeking to adopt in Ethiopia,  Africa is bewildering, depressing, even frightening -  a place where “.. (their)  white skin automatically labeled ..(them).. as privileged, making ..(them)..  a constant target for people asking for money..”.  Linda, in addition, resents Comfort’s domineering presence in her life, especially when she feels her abilities as a mother judged. 

Identity is a recurring theme in these stories; so is motherhood. Characters find themselves either yearning to be mothers, or struggling  to prove their maternal abilities.  Comfort, after a lifetime  spent raising a family,  finds her experience of little value to Linda.  Adjoa  finds  love and kinship, and fulfills her dreams of being a businesswoman, but  the ache of her childlessness seems as real as the pain  in her right arm that is linked to the memory of her dead twin.  Linda, offended by Comfort’s intrusion into her life, is in turn baffled when accused of being a racist , after trying to deflect a potential threat to her young daughter.  For Ophelia, a child is a last ditch effort to hold onto her marriage. Janice spends years looking for the father of her children, before deciding that parenthood can just as well be a solo flight.

Wyss’ stories visit their characters at different points in their lives, and cleverly intersect with each other.  Bossy old Comfort  interferes in Adjoa’s life, but also prevents her from being cheated by an ardent suitor.  A day trip with Janice gives Ophelia an epiphany about her life and the status of her marriage to Philip. And there is something karmic in the way Adjoa and Janice are fated to meet again, forcing each towards the closure they so desperately need.

A collection of finely observed portraits of women struggling with the notion of home, identity and belonging.

Click Here To Purchase The Civilized World: A Novel in Stories