This novel, published in 1960, follows the fortunes of Obi Okonkwo, a young Nigerian man who was educated in England and has now returned to work in the Nigerian civil service. In the first chapter, it is revealed that Obi is on trial for accepting a bribe; subsequent chapters go back in time to explain how this situation came about. When Obi first comes back from England, he is idealistic and relatively innocent. When he sees the widespread bribery and corruption in the Nigerian government, he is disgusted and indignantly refuses the first bribe offered to him. However, he soon finds himself caught between several conflicting responsibilities. A group of prominent members of his hometown financed his education, and he is obligated to pay back the money they invested in him. His impoverished family also needs money, especially when his mother falls ill. And all of Nigerian society expects him to maintain a certain standard of living now that he has a profitable government job. Obi’s predicament mirrors the problems of Nigeria as a whole, as it struggles to achieve independence and find its own identity.
I had to read Achebe’s Things Fall Apart several times in school, and while I started out disliking it, I eventually warmed up to it. This book is a sequel of sorts, as Obi is the grandson of Okonkwo from Things Fall Apart, and some of the same themes are present. Both books deal with the interaction of European and Nigerian culture in a very nuanced way, showing both the positive and negative consequences of such interaction. And in both books, the protagonist is caught in an untenable position between the old ways and the new. Obi is a Nigerian through and through, but his English education makes him something of an alien among his own people. He deplores the Nigerian custom of bribing government officials but recognizes the role the British ruling class has played in this corruption. The novel is ultimately about Nigeria’s identity crisis as well as Obi’s, as the country moves toward independence. The novel’s ending leaves the question open: how can Nigeria move forward from the negative aspects of its past while still retaining what is good?