I discovered Achebe between the Rough Guides to Africa in a travel bookshop. I was young, browsing, dreaming of a holiday, when I picked out a slim book called Things Fall Apart. It was obviously misplaced; it wasn't fat enough to be a guide book. The owner spotted me and, based on nothing but my perennial browsing, prophesised: "You'll like that. It's a novel," he said. And that was all I knew as I started into this stark and simple story of Okonkwo, one of the greatest Igbo warriors in West Africa and hero of his village, at a time before colonisation by the British.
At first, with these European eyes, it is a shock to be immersed into such a raw and often brutal life, where death and tragedy are real and unremarkable, where unfathomable sacrifice plays a large part in life. First published in 1958, Achebe's wise and subtle story-telling cuts to the heart of these tribal people with humanity, warmth and humour. You begin to understand their brutal customs borne out of hardship, fear and the wrath of ancestral spirits. You applaud Okonkwo's success, commend him for his obstinate sense of honour and duty, his unerring principles, even as he drinks palm-wine out of a trophy human head. Western perspective fades and you feel compassion when he accidentally kills a tribesman and is exiled. You realise how difficult it is for us to judge this wife-beating, child-murdering society, right before the Europeans come in and do just that.
When Okonkwo returns from exile, he finds missionaries and colonial governors have arrived in the village. They have imposed their law as well as their religion. Humiliated by the white man's ethical code, this proud man is suddenly powerless. His world falls apart. Achebe doesn't preach, never judges, but with cool irony tells the story as it is. Right and wrong isn't always simple. Achebe's story-telling empowers the reader with a greater understanding and insight than his own characters. In true Hemingway style, he knows that to appear to write without a message is a more powerful way of writing one. Things Fall Apart is simple, honest, unbiased, and has the most powerful ending of any book I've read. In today's world of clashing cultures, this is a historical dilemma from which all could learn.
At the time, I thought I had discovered this obscure African story. Full of self-importance, I proclaimed that this was a book that everyone should be required to read. To my embarrassment, I soon discovered that nearly every English-literature student the world over has read this celebrated book. Oddly, that doesn't seem enough. Of everyone I've asked over the last couple of weeks, many have heard of it but no one has actually read it.
Poppy Adams's novel 'The Behaviour of Moths' is published by Virago