Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Book Review #4: This Side Jordan by Margaret Laurence

(A somewhat forgotten classic by one of Canada's greatest writers.)

First published in 1960, This Side Jordan is the first novel by Margaret Laurence, best known for her modern classics, The Stone Angel and The Diviners. Set in 1950s West Africa, the novel throbs with a palpable sense of urgency. You can almost hear the highlife music playing in the background.

Employing a cast of vividly drawn characters, Laurence explores the difficult psychological and social borderline between blacks and whites at the end of the colonial era in the city of Accra and its environs.

The main protagonist, the spectacled Nathaniel Amegbe, is torn between two worlds: his deeply felt Ashanti past and his present occupation as a schoolteacher. As readers, we are privy to Amegbe’s attempts to think his way to a kind of salvation. Amegbe, in all his contradictions, embodies Africa as it tries to enter the modern world.

Laurence paints characters that are living presences. Johnie Kestoe, for example, a racist company man, “was thin in a sharp, almost metallic way, like a man made of netted wire upon which flesh has been inadequately spread.” The stories of Amegbe, Kestoe, their wives, families, business colleagues and friends, are the struggles of two distinct worlds trying to mesh.

The novel works brilliantly at numerous levels: the personal, the historic, the social. As an exploration of Ghana in that period, it is strikingly believable. It also sparkles with Laurence’s fine writing: “Oppressive and stifling, the air seemed to be hung with hot unshed rain, and the leaves of the palm trees crackled like breeze-fanned flames.”

This Side Jordan is an examination of greed, racism, pride, struggle and self-betrayal. In the end, however, it is a tale of the human condition and the saving grace of redemption.


  1. Interesting to see someone else reading and reviewing this book in 2011.

    I'm a huge Margaret Laurence fan but didn't find this book as successful as I think you did. (

    Btw, did you write this as part of the Canadian Book Challenge?

  2. It was actually written a few years ago for (I was hired by amazon to write short commissioned reviews for them and wrote about 180 reviews in 2-3 years. Anyway, I loved this Laurence book.