In the first few pages of the book I found myself anticipating a great read. I thought that the story being told was going to be grounded in the telling of the tale of so many African families, with a mother who loves her religion and her church more than the people around her, a father who knows the bottom of a bottle more than he does the ins and outs of his life, and two sons who are each competing for the affection of their parents and their community. These stories, along with stories of a corrupt state, a crumbling justice system and religious leaders who are more sinners than saints, is one that is all too familiar to many of us.
What I liked about the book was the exploration of the concept of boza, which is something I had not encountered prior to reading this book. While the idea of Africans seeking prosperity in other lands was not a new one for me, the exploration of this concept within a Cameroonian and football focused context was. It was clear that the author was trying to convince the reader that there is a lot in Africa that deserves further exploration and understanding, and I really appreciated this angle while reading. Another thing I appreciated were the ways in which the writer tried to enlighten us about the impact that Boko Haram has had on Cameroonian society with stark differences in the different regions.
Where the book failed me, however, was everywhere else. I think the writer struggled to make clear who the actual characters in the story were, even though, in the beginning, meeting Jean and his brother Roger, I got the sense that they were both sensitive boys who had been made to stand on opposite sides. I was also looking forward to exploring the concept of boza through Jean’s eyes as he searched for Roger, but there were so many things that the author tried to tackle in this book that in reading it, I sometimes felt like I lost sight of what I was actually supposed to pay attention to.
While I understood and appreciated the author’s attempt at inserting humour in an otherwise bleak story of grief and longing, I still struggled to form any connection with Jean and his travelling companion Simon. They seemed to be a distant, or rather, loose part of the story and had I not known who they were in relation to Roger, the story would not have been one that interests me at all. There was little nuance or texture to the characters and at a certain point in the book, I found myself trying, albeit confusedly, to piece together the story of Jean’s mother, since it felt like that was perhaps what the story was about.
While the concept behind the book seems great, the execution fell flat for me and I really struggled to connect with the story and the characters. The writing felt disconnected from the story and it did not manage to bring the story to life. An example of this was in the exploration of Cameroon and the many cultures and traditions that the reader would have expected to become acquainted with, but again, I did not feel any of that. The story appeared to be one that could have taken place in any other part of Africa. I went into this book wanting to like it and I believe the story might have attempted to do too much in too few pages.
A Long Way From Douala is the first that I have read that attempts to explore the topic of Africans leaving Africa in such a distinct and non-stereotypical way, and therefore, I think this is the book to pick up if you are looking for a common story told in an unusual, and distinct way.