Book Review: The Civilized World by Susi Wyss

18 May

Genre: Women’s fiction

Publisher: Henry Holt

Pub date: 29 March 2011

Source: Publisher via

What caught my attention first about this book was that it was set in Africa. The other thing that piqued my interest was that is was a novel in short stories. I was curious to see how all the stories come together.


The novel tells the stories of five women – Adjoa, Comfort, Janice, Ophelia and Linda. Set in Ivory Coast, Ghana and the US, these women cross each others’ paths and come together in different ways.


This is a beautifully written book, telling simple stories of home, longing, dreams and obstacles. For me, Adjoa was the most likeable character. Solid, down to earth and hardworking, there is a seriousness about her. Adjoa and her twin brother Kojo move to the Ivory Coast from Ghana to make enough money to open a beauty parlor once they return.

Janice has been working in Africa for many years and considers it her home. She is ready to have children, but has she found the right man to start a family with?

Ophelia is the wife of a foreign service official who feels lost in an alien land is desperate to have a child.

Comfort has recently lost her husband and is now trying out her new role as matriarch of her family.

After each short story, we jump ahead a few years and meet the women when their lives and fortunes have changed.

When Adjoa finally opens her parlor, it becomes a place where women come to meet, be pampered and go out feeling refreshed. It is also a place where friendships are forged.

I think it is impossible for me to read any story with a woman protagonist set in Africa without thinking of The Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency series. While there are some similarities because of the setting (obviously) and some of the characters, this is a very different kind of novel.

Through these women, the differences in culture are explored. When Comfort goes to the US to help take care of her granddaughter, she and her daughter-in-law, Linda get into arguments. They don’t agree on how to take care of the child. Similarly the man that Janice is dating at the beginning of the story doesn’t “get” the local people and their customs. Janice has been living in Africa for many years and considers it her home even though the Africans she comes across may not necessarily agree.

The book hooked me and had me engrossed, entwined with the women’s lives. But the characters do suffer from stereotyping. The African women are sure and steady and down-to-earth and the American women do come off as cold, and in Ophelia’s case, rather dull.

The stories celebrate strength and courage and finding the path that is right for each of these women. All the stories come together beautifully and I was left with a warm feeling of contentment.


Definitely read for a warm set of stories about women’s friendships and frailties. Anyone interested in stories set in Africa is also very likely to enjoy it. It is a good choice for a book clubs as there are quite a few issues that can be discussed. It does stay a little on the surface though, and the characters are a little stereotypical.

Rating: 3.75*

I received this book as a reviewer for Thanks to Christine of Henry Holt for sending me the review copy.

*See my Rating policy

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2 Responses to “Book Review: The Civilized World by Susi Wyss”

  1. bookspersonally May 18, 2011 at 5:10 pm #

    Interesting review – sounds like a good one. I am curious to know more about the author – where she lives/is from?

    • stargazerpuj May 19, 2011 at 8:47 pm #

      The author, Susi Wyss is American. She has lived and worked all over Africa and these stories are based on her experiences and the stories she heard there. You can read more about her here:

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