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I can’t begin to say just how much I disliked this book. I haven’t read a book in a long tine that annoyed me quite so much. The book starts with George and Sabine Harwood living in Trinidad in 2006. They’ve been there for 50 years and Sabine has hated it, they’ve both aged but she has transformed from a long-legged beauty into a fat old nag. George appears to be what George has always been, selfish and arrogant, drinking too much, and still running after women. A chance discovery of letters his wife wrote, but never sent, to Trinidad’s first independent prime minister leaves him shaken, wondering how much they ever really knew about each other.

I won’t give too much away but the book basically ends when the first section does. The next two sections of the book are then flashbacks through the Harwood’s time in Trinidad, and it ends, rather predictably, with them missing the boat back to England in 1970 and leaving Sabine on the island – which we knew anyway as she’s still there in 2006 when the book opens. 

My main issue is with the relationships and characterisation. Apparently Sabine still loves George, and yet he appears to have slept his entire way around Trinidad, is still attempting to sleep with prostitutes past their prime at the age of 70, and has ignored for 50 years Sabine’s pleas of unhappiness and despair, seemingly content to watch her turn into a befuddled Valium addicted drunk. Yet, while all this is happening they are still at it like rabbits (up until 1970 anyway), with George apparently able to put his head between her thighs and rip off a skirt with his teeth at the same time. And Sabine never leaves. It all just seems a bit ridiculous.

Maybe it’s me, maybe I just cannot comprehend the lack of options available to a French/English woman of that generation who had never worked and was entirely dependent on her husband. But in that case why keep having sex with him and apparently stay completely in love with him while he screws around? Again, I know that some relationships can be complicated and women fall for the wrong men, but for over 50 years? And George is portrayed as an apparently likeable person in the book, but any dispassionate examination of his character immediately reveals him to be a chauvinistic, selfish, git.

Okay, there are some interesting themes running through this book, how all men disappoint, the corruption caused by power at all levels, the unfulfilled hopes of independence and the ramifications of disappointment, the power and iniquity that money can breed. But I just couldn’t get away from the central issue of this bizarre marital relationship and the characters in it. Not one for me I’m afraid.

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This isn’t a likeable book. It doesn’t keep you up at night turning the pages. But it is well written and it does tell an important story about human greed and corruption – although there is very little positive to be found in the telling of it.

The novel describes a nameless man, ‘the man’, who could be anyone in Ghana in the last days of Nkrumah, well anyone who isn’t one of the ‘big men’, struggling in his dead-end job managing pointless movements of trains on the railway and trying to keep some dignity in his life: unsuccessfully. His problem is that he won’t be bribed. He refuses to play the game and become corrupt, to seek power and material wealth through dishonesty. And in Ghana at that time any man who tries to keep himself clean, above the filth of corruption, is viewed as a fool.

The futility of his task is reflected is the decay and filth of the physical aspects that surround him, as if the moral decay of the country has sunk into the very fabric of the buildings and the land. For example, a banister on the staircase at his work has, “something uncomfortably organic about it” and in a ditch, “the unconquerable filth was beginning to cake together in places”. These vivid descriptions of dirt and disgust are the most memorable parts of the novel, described in careful, delicate, lingering prose they are sickening, and they made me almost physically recoil from the book at times: Armah found a very powerful metaphor to describe Ghana under the last days of Nkrumah.

The man is also despised by his wife and mother-in-law for his inability to bend his will to the spirit of the times, and reap the rewards of dishonesty. Whilst not incriminating himself he does eventually assist his wife in her aim to be of some assistance to a ‘big man’ who used to be an old friend of his. The apparent cleanliness, crispness and deep richness of Koomson’s possessions are contrasted with the dirt and squalor outside, yet underneath the dishonesty is still there. The man is drawn to the material wealth and comfort – for the ‘loved ones’ – and becomes trapped between his inability to become dishonest and his anger with himself for wanting something he cannot bring himself to take or fully despise. 

Whilst in the end there may be some glimmer of hope for his relationship, with a wife who can perhaps start to understand his stance, there is no real escape. Both he and Koomson are covered in shit as the ‘big man’ falls, and even when he is washed clean by the sea his final observation shows that a change of government does not bring a change in the moral fibre of the country.

This is a rich, earthy book, physical and bold and I liked it for that even when, as it aimed to, it disgusted me. At times the prose is a little stilted and it takes time for events and purposes to unfold, but it is an interesting novel. Whilst it references the colonial period and seems at times to blame the country’s predicament on black men trying to ape old white colonial men it doesn’t spend all its time looking back. Instead it is pointing out what is wrong with Ghana at that point in time, but because of its lack of concentration on possible causes and possible cures it seems strangely isolated. It tells a story, and holds up a harsh and unrelenting mirror to Ghana as it was then, but what of it? In the end I would have liked to see it do some more, and suggest a way out of the spiral of death, corruption and decay.