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The Civilized World: A Novel in Stories

by Susi Wyss

A Holt Paperback | 2011 | 226 pages | $15.00

Reviewed by Madeleine Mysko

Woven Stories

susi wyss

Some time ago, at a literary festival in Baltimore, I took a seat under a tent and heard Susi Wyss read from a story that I remember now as having been drawn from her years of working in Africa. Though I don’t recall the mention of a novel, I do recall the sense that I was listening to but a snatch of a larger narrative. That day in Baltimore, as the crowds drifted past the tent where a small but appreciative audience had gathered, I could feel the pull of strong threads at the edges of the brief passage Wyss read to us.

Now I have the pleasure of reading Susi Wyss’s debut novel, The Civilized World.  The novel bears a subtitle: A Novel in Stories. I’ll confess up front that, as a devotee of the short story—a form that commercial publishers tend to give short shrift in their quest for the next best-selling novel—I was put off by that subtitle, suspecting that it was just a marketing ploy to attract readers who pass over short stories. As for me, I prefer to discover for myself, thank you very much, what I hold in my hands—novel or story collection, or some nonce form they’re calling a “novel-in-stories” (something other than “linked stories”?)

It is a fact that four of the nine chapters in The Civilized World have appeared already in respected literary journals, not as novel excerpts but as stories standing strong in their own right.  And yet The Civilized World is not a collection of well-crafted stories tied up in one package by a common theme (such as multiculturalism) or by a shared setting (such as Africa). Nor is it a collection of stories in which a character might appear front and center in one story and then reappear, like Alfred Hitchcock in cameo, on the opposite street corner of the next story. My suspicion about the subtitle aside, in the end it seems to me that Wyss does indeed present the reader with a novel, and that she has indeed woven that novel out of separate stories.  Moreover, Wyss’s weaving methods are wise and artful; to remove any one of the story threads would be to unravel the beautiful whole.

And so we follow Adjoa from Ghana, whose travel to the Ivory Coast brings her both the money to open a beauty salon back home and a heart-breaking loss; Ophelia from Connecticut, whose travel to Malawi with her foreign service husband strains their marriage; Comfort from Accra, whose travel to the United States is necessary because her son Ekow (now called Peter) has married the American Linda; and Janice of the title story, whose years in Africa afford her an understanding of region and culture, while at the same time distancing her from the country she long ago called home.

Throughout, Wyss manages to create crossings for the separate story lines that are convincing and compelling.  She gets double and triple duty out of each character’s very distinctive point of view. Remarkably, these characters—women so different from each other, not only in origin and culture but also in temperament—share parallel conflicts that are all the more shimmering for light they cast, one on the other. Their parallel conflicts have to do with children and the longing for them, with husbands and lovers, with attitudes about race and culture, and ultimately with the true meaning of “home” in the civilized world.

I know that sometimes a good short story becomes the kernel from which a novel later grows. Characters can hang with a writer, begging more time in which to wander and grow old. Certain places—I think of Joyce’s Dublin— begin to generate characters too large to be confined in a slim book of stories. But The Civilized World doesn’t read like a good story that was subsequently elongated, any more than it reads like several good stories pieced together. Rather it reads like a novel that developed over time, out of that wisdom time affords a mature writer—a novel in which separate stories become multiple levels of each other, as though it were always meant to be.

It seems to me that Comfort is on to something when she tells the women in Adjoa’s Precious Brother Beauty Salon that “there are no accidents,” that there must be a reason why certain paths cross in this life. Comfort is also the character who says wryly that travel is a good thing, because at the very least it makes you glad to get home—bittersweet irony in that for the reader, who has traveled with Comfort to the foreignness of Washington, D.C., where her son Ekow/Peter is a father now, and where she learns that the strange trees losing their leaves aren’t actually dead, but are living out a cycle—“a cycle that paralleled life itself, including her own.”

Readers know that there are no accidents in a well-crafted novel. Behind this novel there is an author whose methods are sure and deliberate, who allows one character to ask the question—“What does it mean to be civilized anyway?”—and then allows the novel to answer “in stories.”

Madeleine Mysko is a poet, essayist, and author of the novel, Bringing Vincent Home (Plain View Press, 2007).  She teaches creative writing in the Advanced Academic Programs of The Johns Hopkins University.  A registered nurse, she serves as coordinator of the “Reflections” column for American Journal of Nursing.

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