“Initially, I was very excited to have won Under Man's Spell as my first Goodreads Giveaway novel because it closely described the types of literature I read and study at college. I'm fascinated by the postcolonial worlds and having read contemporary pieces by Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, to name a couple, I was excited to see what former Tanzania resident J.K. Muta had to offer.
From the very first chapter, I realized this was not the type of book which could compete with authors I had studied and analyzed while in college. The writing was too pedantic. I still hoped the book could stand on its own, especially considering its focus on women. By the time I finished chapter one, I knew it didn't matter what the subject matter was. This was not a well-written book.
There were many flaws to this book. The writing style was the most glaring problem. It was written as if someone was telling a story rather than describing or living it. Every detail, no matter how inconsequential, was included and repeated throughout the entire book. It was extremely boring to read the same things over and over again. Many of these nonessential details could have been cut to increase the pace of the story, such as describing the characters when they rode bikes around town or were washing up after eating. Subsequently, I couldn't find one quote worthy to save. Another major flaw to the story was the overall scope. The story encompassed a generation of people that by the end of the novel turns out to be related, albeit a bit distantly. Until that point, the reader is confused as to who the characters are and why the story jumps around, both location and time period. I forgot who people were, especially when there were at least ten or more chapters between character highlights and focuses. Including a family tree at the beginning of the book could have solved many of these problems. A map of Tanzania and an index of Tanzania words would have also helped with the understanding of the location and language of the characters. Relating and feeling anything for the characters and the horrors they went through was nonexistent because the writing was so detached. It was also strange and confusing that practically all the men in the novel were evil. They always wanted the women for sex and were abusive and violent to them. It didn't matter whether a character was living in a rural tribe or in a larger city. About 90% of the men in this novel were macho bastards that ruled the women with an iron fist. There was no balance between the good and evil. There were a couple of male characters that had consciousnesses and souls, but it was never explained how or why they ended up with modern ideas about gender equality. I actually balked at re-picking the book up on numerous occasions. There was no way I could handle the boring descriptions, confusing characters, and seemingly improbable, or at least overly demonic, situations and characters. The scope of the book was too large for what the final product was.
The setting of the story was unique and interesting. It was one of the few redeeming qualities of the book. However, Tanzania was not described vividly enough, and the jumping around to cities and rural villages was not tracked well enough. Consequently, the reader felt disjointed as to where the author was taking them and why.
The story and plot had potential if the author could have cut down the scope and focus. Instead of using a lot of women to highlight the troubles of Tanzania, she could have featured one person. That one person could have experienced or seen the murdering of Albino babies, burning of witches, polygamous marriages, rapes, and the unsafe abortions (just a few of the topics addressed in the novel). Even then, choosing one or two problems to highlight would have been easier to understand rather than showing everything that was wrong with the undeveloped nation. I also didn't understand why she included the little story about colonization that Abe told Kabula's daughter. It seemed like an unnecessary detail that was never revisited later on in the book. In fact, Western Civilization was highlighted as being the only way the women would gain power and control in their country. The women who attended schools fared better than the ones who continued to practice the traditions of their people. In fact, the most powerful woman in the book is Pili, who is a captlist in Tanzania. She owns many lucrative businesses both in the villages and cities and because of all the money she has, she instills fear and respect in otherwise unruly men. There were very few traditions that were highlighted as important or worth keeping until the end of the book when the women focus on mat making, pottery sculpting, and hair braiding. Western modernization was depicted as the ultimate solution for women "under man's spell."
The character development of the women was especially weak, which made it difficult to connect with their troubles. The most engaging ones were Abe and Esta, very different women separated by over a generation of time. Abe is oppressed by the traditions of her family while Esta is liberated thanks to the strength of her mother, who separated herself from the destructive ways of her family. It was very easy to get confused as to what happened to them, though, because there were many other main female characters that were highlighted as well as numerous supporting ones. The supporting characters were constantly being used to show how terrible the women in Tanzania fared, both with their men and with each other.
There were some blatant themes and motifs expressed in the book. First, women were controlled by chauvinistic and macho men who ruled with superstitions, fears, and traditions that were dangerous for the women. Women are not only pitted against men but each other. There are very few who work together to make a difference until the end of the book, spurred by the modern thinking Pili, Esta, and Elizabeth. Western modernization was also highlighted as a saving grace for the women. In order to survive, the women needed to embrace Western education and capitalism while leaving their traditions in the bush with other uncouth animals. That is the only way to survive. When some of the women band together at the end of the novel, changes are slowly implemented. The author is at least realistic in her approach at showing that a nation will take many years to change its way of life so drastically. So, she shows the seeds being sown but with no conclusive evidence if any of them took root and grew. Overall, the themes were pretty basic and predictable considering how the elements of traditional Tanzania was approached. I would have enjoyed a less dichotomous perspective because tradition and modernity don't necessarily need to be exclusive of each other.
A lot of the themes of the book, as well as the lack of connection with the characters, could be a reflection of the approach the author took. First, J.K. Muta is an American educated business major. So, she was not trained to write with the usual skill that other writers have. Second, her message and purpose of the writing was heavily influenced by her American experiences. She came to the U.S. after graduating high school in Tanzania and enrolled in college here. She got her degrees and stayed in the states. She "modernized" herself to a Western lifestyle and way of thinking. She let go of the past because of the problems associated with her culture and peoples. Thus, she highlights the saving grace of Western education and capitalism without harboring any sense of loss for the customs that will disappear over time. Even the simple act of eating on the mats that the women weave is looked down upon by the modern and educated main characters because it requires them to sit on the floor. There is no battle between tradition and civilization like there was in Things Fall Apart. Everything is laid bare as being very black and white. It's either good or evil. A third problem with the way the author approached the book was that much of what she wrote is based on stories she was told, probably from family members or friends that were left behind in Tanzania. Because she did not actually experience the atrocities she describes and because she wants to maintain the reality of it all, the writing comes off being extremely cold and unfeeling. This is a failing of many books that are fictional but based on real life events. It is hard to combine fiction with nonfiction and historical data without losing some of the details or strengths of their separate genres.
Unfortunately, this book did not compel me to learn more about Tanzania like other fictional world literatures have. It left me feeling bored and unfilled by the conclusion, which ended too hopefully and neatly for the main Westernized women considering all the horrible situations that were described even up to the second to last page. The entire book was overly dramatized and the most graphic scenes felt somehow muted by the way they were told. Yes, I was horrified by everything the women had to face. Yes, much of it was wrong and backward superstitions. However, it cannot all be described as a failing of the culture or the men. As demonstrated with Abe, many of the women were involved in the generational hatreds that the people carried. This attribute cannot be blamed solely on the men regardless of their polygamous society, which isn't always "bad." Again, claiming that polygamy was the root of the evil and gender problems between men and women felt like a very Western and Christian approach. At many points during my reading, it appeared that the author was making an argument for colonization, one such example was during the Christian Bible reading scenes conducted by the very wealthy Pili. It was only through the influences of colonial Europe that these changes were implemented. Without them, Tanzania would still be "backward" in their belief system.
Overall, the layout of the actual book was appropriate. It had engaging cover art which highlights an important event in the story. The cover font, although not an attractive style, was legible. The title was also appropriate for the themes and issues explored in the book, implying that men are the real "witches" because they are the ones with the power to spell and enslave the women, as made apparent by Rose who constantly fights for the love and attention of a man that plays the field. The font inside the book was also appealing to the reader's eyes.
The book had other saving points, such as the overall message for women's liberation, equality, and education. I didn't agree with all the authors' solutions to the problems nor her assumptions as to why these problems exist in Tanzania. The best scene that expressed hope and change was the gathering of the tribal women at the end of the book. It was designed to secretly teach the women a trade that would make them more independent from their husbands. I appreciated that the movement started from within their country and by their people rather than an outside Western force. The idea of the UWT chapter (Tanzania Women's Organization) that Pili, Esta, and Elizabeth tried to start at the end of the book was also a very clever idea that would promote healthy and important changes from within. I was disappointed that this idea was only brought up at the end of the novel, and that the characters involved could only dedicate a couple of weeks' time to the endeavor. Everything at the end of the book felt rushed so the author could clean up loose ends before letting her liberated female characters live happily ever after.
After reading Under Man's Spell, I wouldn't recommend it to many. It's not engaging enough to captivate the average reader. If you have an interest in world literatures, Africa, Tanzania, and gender issues, then this book will be a worthy read just to garner another perspective of the issues women face. However, there are no factual references, so it's difficult to tell how much of the information came from stories of a very distant past or modern day problems that the women currently face. Supplementing the reading with your own research will further your understanding of the book and its message. For example, I found The Policy on Women in Development in Tanzania a useful supplemental article to Under Man's Spell because it offers an introductory exploration of how the Tanzania government tries to promote equality among its people. Since there is a lot of violent acts against women in the book, a mature adult audience is highly recommended.
In the end, I don't regret reading Under Man's Spell despite my disappointments and boredom with the way it was written. There was some useful information expressed although none of the data can be easily verified as fact or fiction. My biggest complaint was with the author herself. She is a novice compared to others writing in this genre style.”
Adrianna wrote this review Friday, April 9, 2010.