Book Review: The River Between by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (1984)

Release: 1984 (English)

For the next novel in my 35 books from 35 countries, I have read a novel from Kenya. When making the decision, I was debating between two novels by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, but ultimately the synopsis for The River Between drew me in more than A Grain of Wheat‘s. I hear great things about A Grain of Wheat, but I felt like reading something a bit more obscure. The River Between is an interesting book, and beautiful in its simplicity. My opinion of it waxes and wanes, but overall I can say that it was quite satisfying. Through the simplicity of story and language, it possesses the feeling of a traditional folk tale. While I won’t rave about Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o‘s novel, I will praise it for how educational it was for me. As the first Kenyan novel I’ve read, The River Between was enlightening.

The story focuses on two tribes in the same valley separated by a river, one side has embraced Christianity and the presence of white settlers, and the other is striving to uphold their traditions and values. The protagonist stands on the side of tradition, but never comes across as anti-change. He comes across as a representation of acceptance; holding tradition and welcoming change. It seems at first to be vilifying the spread of Christianity, something that tears apart families when some try to adhere to tradition. The vilification is lost a bit, when the traditional side is trying to protect the rite of female circumcision. Luckily, by the end, the story doesn’t seem to be preaching for female circumcision but rather an acceptance of differences. It develops into a sort of Romeo & Juliet between the protagonist and the daughter of the head Christian, but this seems mostly to develop more conflict for the protagonist as he debates siding with her, his tribe, or the middle (river between?).

So if you are looking for an interesting and educational read that examines some of the issues of colonial Kenya, then The River Between is a nice simple examination of one groups struggle. It reads like a legend or cautionary tale with a strong moral and an easily digestible message. The characters are fairly well developed and the story is surprisingly engrossing. The flow and simplicity of style reminds me a bit of Paulo Coelho; it shares the same sequence of events style where the underlying message develops with surprising clarity. While I enjoyed the novel, I didn’t love it. I would give it 3 out 5 stars.

35 Novels from 35 Countries

  1. Brighton Rock by Graham Greene (United Kingdom)
  2. We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen (Denmark)
  3. The River Between by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (Kenya)

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