This is going to be a hard review to write, because it's hard for me to find a standard by which to judge this book by. Told from the point of view of Salim, who has moved from the coast inland to a nameless African country with remarkable similarities to the Congo, A Bend In The River is an observation of life in Africa following decolonisation. There is violence, corruption, political instability and periods of relative stability.
The reason this book is so hard to review is that techincally, it's not a story. So on all my assessments of narrative it falls short. There isn't really a plot, let alone one that it engaging. The main character is a vehicle for Naipaul's thoughts rather than being a 'real' character so I certainly didn't connect with him. The lack of these traditional story elements made this book hard for me to read and despite it being only 300 pages or so, it has taken me over a week to finish it. I got to the point a few days ago when I just wanted it done already.
But on the other hand, A Bend In The River is an extremely powerful piece of observational writing. Yes, not much happens but some of the things Naipaul writes about are very profound and clever. The character of Ferdinand for example, goes through a series of changes that reflect what is happening in the African countries themselves. One moment he is polite and dedicated to school and his bright future, the next he is doing all he can to get in with whoever has power at the moment, the next he is eschewing education for emphasising his tribal connections. Naipaul does an excellent job of showing the underlying tensions between groups of people that threaten to blow up at any moment, and this particularly works as Salim is an 'outsider' too.
The writing is very good too. Naipaul uses a simplistic style but there are plenty of underlying messages, meaning that the book repays any time spent analysing it. And that was the problem for me - I read this book at the wrong time. Some days I only had twenty minutes or so to devote to it, and the lack of plot became too much for me. It's a worthwhile book, but it requires time and concentration. If you like fast-moving plots, this isn't the book for you. If you enjoy reading about Africa and African history and go into it knowing that it is mainly observation, then this could be a very enjoyable read.
Verdict: Right book, wrong time. Powerful observations of Africa post-Independence.
First Published: 1980
Score: 3 out of 5