Chigozie Obioma’s previous novel, The Fishermen, was a perfectly good novel, but not one that I felt a lot of affection for. An Orchestra of Minorities is better, if a little longer than it needed to be.
The book is narrated by the chi of a young Nigerian man named Chinonso. As Chinonso’s chi, he is able to observe everything Chinonso does, step outside his body and observe events in other areas, interact with the chi of other characters, and send Chinonso guidance in the form of vague impressions or impulses. He’s telling the story to some higher Igbo beings, who have a say in the fate of Chinonso’s soul. (At least, that’s how I understood the situation. I’m not familiar enough with Igbo spirituality to be totally clear what is going on.)
Chinonso is getting by okay as a poultry farmer, but when he falls in love with a woman named Ndali, his uneducated status makes him an object of shame and ridicule to her wealthy family. So he seeks to improve himself. And there his troubles begin.
The book took a while to get going for me. I was able to get something of a handle on the idea of chi as narrator, but it took a while to get interested in Chinonso himself. It’s not until Ndali comes into the story that he starts to seem appealing and interesting. She’s good for him in more ways than one, I suppose. And by the time Chinonso went to seek an education, I was extremely concerned about how things would turn out for him. The chi’s narration makes it clear from the start that things won’t go well, but it’s not clear when and how things will go wrong.
The story shows just how difficult it can be for a decent person to get ahead. One lapse in judgment can have disastrous consequences that are impossible to come back from. That’s not a new realization, by any means, but because I cared about Chinonso, I was sad to see it happen to him. But then, by the end of the book, I was questioning his response to his misfortune. He was understandably angry, but pinning that anger to a target made him look like the villain of the piece. Instead of seeing all the people ready to help him, he fixated on those who made him suffer. And that doesn’t lead anywhere good.
As I mentioned above, the book is longer than it needed to be. Besides the slow start, the accumulation of misfortune started to feel overdone after a while. And the ending was deeply upsetting, upsetting enough that it almost turned me against the book because it felt like a sort of gotcha. However, I think it does illustrate the self-destructiveness of being fixated on those who cause pain as well as any ending of the book could. It feels complete and appropriate, even if infuriating. That’s the intent, I think.