Reviewed by Rod McLary
An Orchestra of Minorities is deeply imbedded in the religious practices and the cultural beliefs of the Igbo people of Southern Nigeria.
The title of the book – An Orchestra of the Minorities – refers to the sound a flock of chickens makes when one of its members dies or is caught by a hawk. The sound is likened to a burial song and is called Egwu umu-obere-ihe meaning an orchestra of the minorities – minorities being the chickens.
It is a universal law in Igbo culture that all individuals have a chi because ‘where one thing stands, another must stand beside it’. A chi is ‘believed to be a spiritual connection between the individual and the high god and it dictates the trajectory of a person’s spiritual journey on earth’. The high god is Chukwu.
An Orchestra of Minorities is a story narrated by a ‘chi’ who is arguing before Chukwu that his host Chinonso is not guilty of murder. This is not a spoiler – it is disclosed in the first few pages of the book.
The chi is a significant character in the novel and its presence is as important as that of the two protagonists Chinonso and Ndali. The purpose of the chi – who has also a ‘life’ apart from the host and socialises with other chis – is artfully explained through the course of the book.
A narrated story by a character within the story is not uncommon in literature and even less so in Igbo literature as its origins rest in an oral culture where much of its literature was communicated in songs, poems, chants, and dirges. Communication in the traditional Igbo societies was by means of idioms, proverbs, and figures of speech which were understood but not necessarily explained.
Having this basic knowledge of the Igbo culture will contribute to a better understanding and appreciation of this book which, at first reading, may appear to be alien to the style and manner of most western literature.
At its heart, An Orchestra of Minorities is a love story set in Umuahia – a market town in south-eastern Nigeria where the Igbo people are indigenous. Consistent with the novel’s cultural origins, the backstory of Chinonso is gradually revealed through a number of discrete vignettes told by the chi to Chukwu.
The protagonist Chinonso is a poultry farmer still mourning the loss of his mother and father. He has come to poultry farming by a rather circuitous route. After the death of his mother, his father gives him a grey gosling in an attempt to bring him out of his sadness. Unfortunately, through the envy of his childhood friend, the gosling dies. Some years later, after the death of his father, he remembers the gosling and purchases chickens. Thus, he becomes a poultry farmer.
One evening, Chinonso rescues a young woman planning to jump from a highway bridge to her certain death in the river below. Concerned for her wellbeing in the days following the rescue, he attempts to find her. When he does, Chinonso and the young woman Ndali fall in love. However, Ndali is from a wealthy family who strongly object to the relationship. Shamed by Ndali’s family’s behaviour towards him and his consciousness of his place in society, Chinonso is determined to better himself. He sells the poultry farm and enrols at a small college in Cyprus.
However, Chinonso’s journey to better himself and become a worthy candidate for Ndali’s hand in marriage – for that is why he seeks further education – ends in tragedy.
As the chi says in its closing remarks to Chukwu –
But death will come, unannounced, suddenly, and perch on the sill of his world. … It will have slipped in like a serpent, unseen, biding its time. 
There is a natural rhythm and flow to the language in the book – and particularly in the dialogue between Chinonso and Ndali and between the chi and Chukwu – which seems to reflect the pace of life in Umuahia.
Some of the dialogue – especially between Chinonso and Ndali – is in the local patois as in:
It just land on them and catch the small one of this mother hen, Ada.
Other dialogue is in what is called in the story ‘White man’s language’. The latter is used for more formal conversations whereas the former is for more intimate and relaxed conversations.
An Orchestra of the Minorities is a challenging book for a number of reasons. It draws heavily on the Igbo culture for both form and structure and also for its language and cultural references. Initially, these place some constraints on the reader fully engaging with the story and its characters. However, the skill of the author and the story itself quickly overcome these constraints and the reader will soon find her/himself deeply immersed in the novel.
Chigozie Obioma was born in 1986 in Akure in Nigeria and currently lives in the United States. His first novel The Fisherman was a winner of the inaugural Financial Times and Oppenheimer Funds Emerging Voices Award for Fiction; the NAACP Image Awards for Outstanding Literary Work – Author; and a Los Angeles Times Book Prize. It was also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2015.
Obioma was named as one of the Foreign Policy magazine’s 100 Leading Global Thinkers in 2015.
An Orchestra of Minorities
by Chigozie Obioma
ISBN 978 0 349 14319 4