Monday, August 19, 2019

WITMonth Day 19 | Awu's Story by Justine Mintsa | Review

For a book that's not even 100 pages long, Justine Mintsa's Awu's Story has a surprisingly long introduction. Clocking in at 24 pages (not including references), the University of Nebraska Press translation into English solidly leans into the idea that a short story can have a major impact. Unfortunately, like the introductions to many modern (and not-so-modern...) classics, translator Cheryl Toman's extensive (and fascinating) introduction also tackled some of the plot points in the book. Luckily, I've already learned to merely skim introductions for author-specific information and only read it fully after finishing the book itself. I advise other readers who prefer to go into the story with a clear mind to do the same.

And oh boy, do I advise readers get their hands on this book. Slim, yes, but Awu's Story packs major punch in such a brief space. The writing style is simple throughout, very direct and clear-eyed. Pieces of the story that feel unaddressed are almost all addressed more fully later. The book tackles huge subject matters, from ordinary village life, to family relationships, to love, to child pregnancy, to grief, to tradition... yet none of these feels out of place or dominant. With the exception of a single, somewhat rushed "payoff" scene near the end, the book largely feels like it earns its emotional beats.

To be honest? I kind of loved Awu's Story.

I mean, I guess I shouldn't sound so surprised or dismissive. There's nothing in Awu's Story's marketing or framing to suggest I shouldn't love it. On the other hand, there also isn't much to suggest it would hit me much beyond "oh this is a good book". Except Awu's Story really does end up feeling different, both in terms of my outsider view of Gabonese culture (of which, as you can imagine, I have limited exposure to) and just from a literary perspective. I have a mixed relationship with very simply written books, sometimes loving them and sometimes Awu's Story fell on the right side of that balance. The simplicity translated into straight-forward storytelling. The book progresses in a linear fashion; events happen one after the other and are cleanly described. The language is, by and large, direct. The one thing that bothered me a little bit was the dissonance between an older-style simplicity and occasionally very modern language (use of words like "hey" or "guy" in contexts that sometimes felt a little whiplash-y), but this too may have something to do with my expectations. It's also not really the point.

Awu's Story has a clear, progressing story, but it's hard to characterize this as a plot-based book. It is, as the English title implies, simply Awu's story, following life from early marriage through to middle age. It is, to a large extent, a feminist story with several characters breaking with traditional gender expectations within the story (Awu included). Its overarching themes and messages are definitely present and not particularly quiet, but they also still feel somewhat in the background. It's a book that feels natural in a lot of different ways. And I really did just love it. It's a short read that feels totally rewarding and enlightening and narratively satisfying. No, this is not a particular cheerful book in parts and I definitely cried a little bit by the end, but it's lovely and powerful and I hope that a lot more readers get the chance to read this. Awu's Story is far from one of the more popular, mainstream books you're likely to get a chance to read, but... you should. Highly recommended.

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