Book review: ‘The Civilized World’ by Susi Wyss

March 25, 2011

THE CIVILIZED WORLD

By Susi Wyss

Holt. 226 pp.

Paperback, $15

“THE CIVILIZED WORLD,” by Susi Wyss (Holt. 226 pp. Paperback, $15)

In this first novel made up of several short stories, Silver Spring author Susi Wyss examines the lives of three Americans and as many Africans. She’s interested in the question of where “civilization” is actually located, or if, in fact, civilization is only a consoling fantasy in a fearsome world.

While traveling with her insufferable British fiance in Africa, where she lives and works, an American-born woman named Janice rebelliously thinks, “What did it mean to be civilized anyway? It couldn’t just mean skyscrapers and cell phones and cars. From what she understood, Africa held the oldest civilizations on earth.”

She eventually dumps the fiance, but she still longs to have a child. In order to do that, she must be able to depend on an atmosphere of safety, but despite 20 years of work for various nongovernmental organizations in Africa, she has only measured trust in blacks. (Or is it just men?)

These feelings stem from a traumatic experience when Janice was robbed in the night by thieves who took several valuables, including a pair of African statues — twins, representing something or someone unknown to her. During the robbery she was locked in a closet for hours, not knowing if she’d ever be discovered. She’s fairly sure one of the thieves was her building’s security guard, but who was the other?

The other was a young roughneck named Kojo, twin brother to Adjoa, a hard-working woman who happens to be Janice’s masseuse. Adjoa and Kojo have emigrated from Ghana to Ivory Coast to earn enough to start a hair salon — a place of cleanliness and beauty, a place of, yes, safety, where tired, troubled women can take their worries and find some solace.

Janice and Adjoa are the two main characters, white and black, but there are others, including the aptly named Ophelia, a cranky foreign service wife who sleepwalks through her life in Africa. She doesn’t “get” the place and doesn’t want to. She can’t have children, but she begins to fixate on the idea that a child would give her life meaning. Perhaps a little unbelievably, since she seems out of tune with all things African, she settles on a toddler from Ethiopia.

On the trip to Ethiopia to adopt her child (where she meets Janice, intent on the same adoption project), Ophelia gets much the same jolt that Janice absorbed during those long, dark hours in her locked closet: the realization that Africa isn’t “safe.”

Or is the entire world charged with danger? We meet another middle-aged black woman, Comfort, who should probably have the word “cold” inserted before her name. One of Comfort’s sons works in America, and she visits her daughter-in-law, Linda, to help with her new baby — help which, of course, turns out to be a unique form of torture. Comfort cares for the baby in the African way, which afflicts poor Linda with an extreme case of the heebie-jeebies. All of her fuzzy, liberal thoughts of equality, tolerance and diversity are shot to hell by the overbearing Comfort, who’s just as insufferable about the superiority of her own civilization as Janice’s fiance was about his.

But safety is hard to find, hard to pin down, and after Comfort has gone home and their little boy has grown into a (vulnerable) child, Linda is harried and taunted by a group of teenage boys, one of whom is mentally retarded and — yes — black. When she complains about the toughs to her usually easygoing African husband, his reaction isn’t exactly what she might have wished for.

Wyss’s credentials for writing this kind of book are impeccable: Like Janice, she worked in Africa for years. And yet “The Civilized World” is strangely uneven. The book’s strength and its weakness depend on its character studies.

Adjoa, in her hard work, loneliness and striving, is perfectly believable and subtly realized. Janice, on the other hand, is just about as dry and uninteresting as Ophelia, the white, disaffected wife who . . . well, you’d have to poke her with a stick to be sure she’s alive or not.

Without meaning to, perhaps, Wyss has perpetrated a stereotype that goes back at least to Sherwood Anderson’s “Dark Laughter.” Blacks are vibrant, complex and full of life; whites are pale, lifeless and dull as planks. That can’t really be true, but that’s what it looks like here.

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