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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Sacred River

Syl Cheney-Coker

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To purchase Sacred River

Title: Sacred River
Author: Syl Cheney-Coker
Genre: Novel
Written: 2014
Length: 425 pages
Availability: Sacred River - US
Sacred River - UK
Sacred River - Canada
Sacred River - India

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Our Assessment:

B+ : very well crafted, but a lack of true focus (one character/nation/river ...) lessens overall impact

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Publishers Weekly . 13/1/2014 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "This innovative epic by Sierra Leone native Cheney-Coker is firmly set in West Africa and features magical realism grounded in native myth." - Publishers Weekly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Sacred River is set in the fictional West African nation of Malagueta, and in an Author's Note prefacing the novel Cheney-Coker avers that his story is: "a work of fiction, although some of the events are set against the background of recent political history in the region where Malagueta is located". He offers the usual claim that: "Any resemblance to actual people, dead or alive, is purely coincidental", too, and yet there's no way around seeing Sacred River as a close -- if very creatively respun -- history of Sierra Leone in recent decades.
       Malagueta is a small, diamond-rich West African nation of only about five million souls (roughly Sierra Leone's population at that time) and has suffered a similar history as its real-life counterpart. Malagueta was (mis)ruled by Tankor Satani (with his devilish name) for roughly the same period as Sierra Leonean president (from 1971 to 1985) Siaka Stevens was in office (though at least Cheney-Coker imagines a different fate for the retiring president's alter ego). The fates of several of Steven's underlings, associates, and opponents -- notably minister of finance Mohamed Forna -- are also mirrored in the story. And while Tankor Satani is the dominant figure for much of the book, he's washed off-stage for its final parts, and the brutal events in neighboring Bassa (a thinly-veiled Liberia) also spread to Malagueta. (As in Liberia, Bassa finds its ruler, President Kangoma (William R. Tolbert, Jr.) overthrown by "Sergeant-turned-General Sey Warawara" (Samuel Doe), only to be overthrown a decade later by the brutal Judas Sampata (Charles Taylor -- and like him: "a deserter from U.S. justice").)
       Events and personalities provide a strong framework for Cheney-Coker's novel, but this is not realist historical fiction, as instead the author impressively builds on these in essentially demythifying them through the use of traditional stories, traditions, and beliefs. Cheney-Coker's portrait of Tankor Satani -- a man occasionally visited by the spirit of self-styled Haitian King Henri Christophe and a mermaid -- is a corrupt and decadent but ultimately also very small man, of peculiarly petty, blind ambition.

No, he was not corrupt. It was worse than that. He was an empty shell of a man, someone not driven by an uncontrollable passion to possess people, to control them.
       He builds a ridiculous Xanadu, "the biggest example of presidential architectural madness in the whole subregion" until "his brother-presidents built a huge basilica in the Côte d'Ivoire" -- but it is ill-fated, "a grove of the dead". Tankor Satani goes all out in setting up a "Versailles-like convention", but his claims for posterity continue to fall short. Cheney-Coker's portrait -- as also that of several of the other figures, from the eunuch Pallo to the strong female figure of Habiba Mouskuda -- impresses, built up over the course of the story rather than simplistically laid out from the first for the reader.
       While Tankor Satani is the major figure for much of a Sacred River, the novel suffers some from a lack of focus. Despite his prominent role, it is is far from just Tankor Satani's story -- and the storylines of the many other significant characters largely move too tangentially to his own to make for a sene of a larger whole. Oddly, too, Malagueta -- which could be the core of the novel -- isn't given enough space of its own, and so, despite being a nation-chronicle of sorts doesn't come to feel like a true national saga.
       A page at the end of the book lists the dates and places of its writing -- recording it as begun in Sierra Leone in 1991-93 and completed in December 2005 (and then revised in 2012) -- and it has the feel of a book that has been too worked over. The writing is often remarkable, the individual chapters very strong, and yet there's a clear sense of the forest having been lost for all the trees. As the dates suggest, whatever Cheney-Coker's original conception was (presumably a fiction focused entirely on Siaka Stevens's years in power), it changed as history continued to unfold in and around Sierra Leone (hence the distinctly appendage-like latter parts of the novel dealing with the post-Tankor Satani years in Malagueta), and he never quite managed to pull it all together.
       In his Author's Note Cheney-Coker also explicitly distances himself and his writing from: "that intellectual humbug called 'magical realism'", arguing also:
African writers really have no use for so-called magical realism because our lives, contrary to other people's misconceptions, have the pulse and sense of the magical on a day-to-day basis.
       One can understand his wish to not be labeled by a term that has been twisted and warped in so many ways as to render it near-useless, but its worth noting that in its writing, incidental detail, and understanding and presentation of the characters Sacred River compares -- and compares favorably -- to the work of Gabriel García Márquez (while avoiding the various excesses of many of his Latin American imitators). Sacred River is rooted firmly enough in the West African -- and, indeed, in Cheney-Coker's own myth-making ("Malaguetans had not really lost their capacity for magic since the fantastic days of Alusine Dunbar" -- a reference to his earlier novel) -- that he shouldn't have to worry about being lumped together with other 'exotic' works under a (completely) worn-out designation like 'magical realism' . (Perhaps it's meant to serve as a warning to critics and reviewers; it didn't work with Publishers Weekly, where they promptly slapped the label on .....)
       Sacred River is a strong work, and an often wonderful read, even as ultimately it is not entirely successful (as an entirety).

- M.A.Orthofer, 22 May 2014

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Sacred River: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of books from and about Africa

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About the Author:

       Sierra Leonean author Syl Cheney-Coker was born in 1945.

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© 2014-2021 the complete review

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