Armah's first and best-known novel, The Beautyful Ones Are not Yet Born (1968), describes the life of an unnamed rail worker who is pressured by his family and fellow workers to accept bribes and involve himself in corrupt activities in order to provide his family with material goods. The other workers who accept bribes are able to live a prosperous life, while he and his family live from paycheck to paycheck as a result of his honesty. At times he perceives himself as a moral failure for not providing his family with the money which would allow them to have the beautiful things that they seek. His honesty also makes him a social misfit, and he is a man who is truly alone. The book is filled with images of birth, decay and death, most notably in the form of a manchild who goes through the entire life cycle in seven years. This manchild is a metaphor for post-independence Ghana.
His second, more autobiographical, novel Fragments (1971), also deals with the subject of materialism in contemporary Ghana. In it, the main character Baako is a "been to", meaning that he has been to the United States and received his education there. As a result of this privilege, he is expected to return to his family bearing the monetary gifts which this status yields in Ghana. As in his first novel, these material goods are bought with graft and corruption, which impoverishes the country's infrastructure. The author contrasts the decadence and materialism of those who see Baako as a cash cow with the philosophy of his blind grandmother, Naana, whose concerns are not of this earth.
Later works, such as Two Thousand Seasons (1973) and The Healers (1978), have a more obviously African focus, and have been characterized by some Western critics as inferior to his early novels. However, they have received a better reception from African critics. (KJ)
The Beautyful Ones Are Not yet Born. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968.
Fragments. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970.
Two Thousand Seasons. Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 1973.
The Healers. Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 1978.
Osiris Rising: A Novel of Africa Past, Present, and Future. Popenguine, Senegal: Per Ankh. 1995.