Sunday, August 22, 2010

Onaedo - The Blacksmiths Daughter

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Onaedo - The Blacksmith's daughter is the first novel by Ngozi Achebe. If you’re a fan of the style of Chinua Achebe, who happens to be Ngozi's uncle, this book will not disappoint. The main story is that of Onaedo, a young teenager of Igbo ethnicity, in the time before the English colonialists made our geographic space a country called Nigeria. The novel is engaging and swift-paced but also manages to be serious and moving.

Synopsis from the publishers

Onaedo - The Blacksmith's daughter is a work of fiction and the tale of two women separated by four hundred years of history. Maxine, a modern American woman who is half-white and half-African comes across a set of diaries written by a slave in the 16th century and tries to write a book about it. She uses elements of the discovered diaries in her book and also information she has discovered herself based on ancient stories retold to her by a collaborator.

The main character in the book, Onaedo, an Igbo girl, the daughter of a renowned blacksmith, starts her life in an idyllic town in the heart of West Africa, with her own trials and tribulations as a young, independent minded girl growing up in a traditional society.

There are poignantly drawn sharp storylines and an unforgettable cast of characters and villains as the story moves to a tiny sugar plantation island off the coast of West Africa and pulls a curtain back to reveal the life of the colonialists in the 16th century where there are twists and unexpected turns from beginning to end.

Myne Whitman's Review

For: Onaedo - The Blacksmith's daughter is absorbing and fun in equal parts, and will keep you turning the pages. The cast are each treated as interesting, individual characters, and we see the points of view of several of them. The subject of slavery makes the last half of the book sad and provocative, but not depressing.

Against: The style of the book changes half way from a more relaxed storytelling mode to a fast narration. This makes it more difficult to connect emotionally to the characters in the latter part. Some sections of the book are quite touching, with descriptions of death which might not sit well with those looking for a more light-hearted read or those without a stomach for such things. It is a not so pleasant surprise to get to the end and see that the book seems set up for a sequel. This might be just me, but a more rounded up ending would have been preferable.

High Points

- The novel opens with an epilogue from the point of view of Maxine. She is waiting to receive the first copy of the book she has just had published. She has been able to piece the story in the book from centuries old letters she obtained from some ladies. As she begins to read, we move into the story of Onaedo. This is a great gimmick and the fiction within a fiction gives a stronger sense of believability.
- The main book is about the not-so-idyllic life of Onaedo. Her daily struggles of being a woman in a patriachal society and how she deals with life, love and along the way, an unloving husband. In the later part of the novel, she is captured and sold into slavery through the actions of two Portuguese traders. We also see a bit of what only has to be ancient Bini Kingdom called Delta City in the book. Through the eyes of Onaedo's father, brother, mother, and aunt, we get glimpses of a more rounded society and the interactions that glued society together including their myths and traditions.


Onaedo - The Blacksmith's daughter is told from the perspective of a young Igbo woman who would still be a girl by today's standards. She has her group of friends, her family and a man she loves, who also loves her back. The main story begins with Onaedo making plans with her lover to find a way and get married even though he is poor and not up to the standards expected of her as the daughter of an influential and wealthy blacksmith and adviser to the king. Onaedo's life does not go according as she would have wished but she makes the best of the hand she's been dealt. It is over two hundred pages into the book before she is captured. This suspense serves a narrative purpose, but might be frustrating for some readers.

However, Ngozi Achebe has done a great job of balancing a thoughtful look into issues of love, loss, and family with a more lighthearted tone and the accessible writing makes the book a quick read. Several issues are explored through the experiences of Onaedo and the other cast of characters; including the place of women in the society, killing of twins, and even the supernatural through an aunt who sees into the future. If you're looking for a book both thoughtful and entertaining, this is for you. You'll also learn a thing or two about precolonial life, how these people lived and their connections with the early European explorers and traders.

In my opinion, Onaedo - The Blacksmith's daughter breaks new ground in Nigerian literature by presenting a part of history that is rarely talked about. It is very well written and will surely bring Ngozi Achebe lots of accolades both in Nigeria and outside.

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