Book Review: Search Sweet Country
McSweeney's Books, 2011
Review by Debrah Lechner
First impression: I found this 1986 classic novel of life in the city of Accra in Ghana is a physically beautiful book, satisfying to hold, a volume to treasure in a discerning library, and the material presence of this book alone awakened my curiosity, my desire to read.
Second impression: the preface intimidated me. Binyavanga Wainaina does good job of orienting the reader to the background of the book, both in terms of the political climate at the time and Laing's literary sensibility, but he also takes on the role of Laing's personal gargoyle, writing in a tone that is passionate and protective, but unfortunately also found somewhat forbidding and defensive.
Wainaina quotes three important reviewers, all of whom were very positive about the book:
"Panicked critics, constrained by newspaper word counts, by epistemological confusion, by the usual third world head fogs, searched for catchphrases…"
If important reviewers, all reacting favorably to Search Sweet Country, incur Wainaina's wrath for their lack of understanding Laing's work, what chance do I have?
I certainly don't have the qualifications to compare Laing's work to Joyce or Dickens.
So predictably, like other reviewers, I panicked. I rechecked the meaning of "epistemological," and decided that if you agree with the definition as "the foundation, scope and validity of knowledge," then sure, I was prone to confusion about that. In fact, epistemological confusion might be the foundation of all my problems. Immediately my usual third world head fog expanded, giving me a savage headache, and I put the book down.
Third impression: on a table at one end of a certain room, the book is looking at me. Somewhere near the ceiling at the other end of this room, Binyavanga Wainaina is also eyeballing me.
This may have taken epistemological confusion into the realm of an actual psychological disorder, but eventually I picked up the book, if only to resolve the tension in the room.
Fourth impression: Search Sweet Country is nothing less than the psychological portrait of a country told through its citizens, and Laing's ambition surely would have been to have portrayed each of every one of them if it had been possible: this is the impression created by this large cast of characters. Each such portrait in Search Sweet Country is memorable, intriguing, in search of their own dreams; yes, very often comedic (sorry, Wainaina.) Laing's style is rich, wry, complex, vivid, delicious. It is often delightfully surprising, because Laing can pull off characterizations and descriptions that almost anyone else would fumble. Above all, it is tender. I can imagine the author waking up every day, observing the people of Accra, and finding each one a new incarnation of his beloved city and country, and falling in love all over again.
It is like a long, cold drink of water in a hot, dry day to read such work after consuming so much prose aimed at an 8th grade reading level. There's no need to mark a page in Search Sweet Country to quote. They are all amazing. So, opening at random, there is this passage:
The tail of the church rat bisecting the middle of the pews made the largest cross; the same tail gathered shadows, sudden shafts of light, and all other linear things, and dragged them in rodent holiness towards the circular altar. God's Word crawled.
Or this one:
Kojo Okay Small was the optimist, was the monkey that believed he could climb down his own tail in any emergency. His slanting eyebrows were two little steps of doubt leading up to a bewildered frown. His height suddenly ended up crowded at his hunched shoulders, with his neck and head almost irrelevant, until he smiled teeth shut yet with such light that his whole upper body glowed. This happened even when there was a fly on his shoulder.
Don't fear potential head fog of any type in approaching this acclaimed novel. Just dive in, float through it, and let the world that it creates wash over you. Take your time. This kind of experience in reading is rare.