Thirty-something Zimbabwean Tambudzai is desperate to obtain a job in Harare which will enable her to leave the hostel where she is technically too old to stay. The reader gradually gleans details of her backstory: born in an impoverished village, gaining a good education with the help of an uncle has given her high aspirations, but these have been dashed by a combination of bad luck, a tendency to mental illness (involving a recurring hyena and ants), negative self-talk and low self esteem.
Unlike some reviewers, I was not put off by the author’s decision to write the entire novel in the second person “you”, justified on the grounds, “that was the only way I could access the subject matter in a way that I felt made sense……I needed distance and I imagined the reader would to”. Neither was I deterred unduly by Tambudzai’s frankly unlikeable and irritating personality, as she shamelessly sponges off others while criticising them, lies without blinking to impress or manipulate them, and continually observes them with often acute accuracy but an empathy bypass.
So why did I almost give up on page 25 and only plough on to give the benefit of the doubt to a book I began out of curiosity because it was on the Man Booker shortlist?
I found some scenes exaggerated to the point of absurdity, alternating with tedious descriptions dwelling too long on mundane detail. Was the tendency to render some points unclear deliberate, or due to a lack of editing? It appears I would have understood more of the allusions if I had read the previous novels about Tambudzai, “Nervous Conditions” and “The Book of Not” but there is no explanation in the edition I read that this is the third part of a trilogy, which ends so abruptly that a fourth book seems on the cards.
I wondered whether the author had deliberately used a laboured, wooden style to create a distinctive voice for Tambudzai, as one who is desperately trying to conform and succeed in a second language and culture to which she does not feel a true sense of belonging. More positively, the Zimbabwean turn of phrase adds authenticity to the dialogue, as in the wry menaces of the menfolk idling outside when Tambudzai turns up intending to apologise for her most appalling outburst.
This is a very uneven novel, essentially a framework for a chain of incidents which provide a fragmented but wide-ranging and sadly bleak view of Zimbabwe: the enduring rural poverty and ethical dilemmas of exploiting it to encourage “eco-tourism”; the superstition, crude sexism and corruption persisting in Harare beneath a thin veneer of the worst aspects of Western “civilisation”; the tough women freedom fighters despised as whores for returning from Mozambique with fatherless children; the menacing presence of war veterans; simmering resentment against white farmers still retaining land, and suspicion of mixing – “White people are a problem”, Tambudzai’s mother warns,”You can only work with them if you know them”.
There are a few very well observed scenes, such as the relationship between Tambudzai’s cousin Nyasha and her white German husband, their relative poverty turning Tambudzai’s envy into contempt (while living off them) – in her eyes it is inexcusable to be poor and white. Other examples are when the security guard Silence attempts to assert what little authority he possesses to prevent his wife, Nyasha’s maid-of-all-work, from accompanying the family to the cinema on her afternoon off, or when Tambudzai negotiates with her mother and the village chairwoman to persuade them to assist in turning their village into a tourist attraction. The author is also good at capturing children’s behaviour. Tambudzai’s exultant drive in the hard-won status symbol of a company car back to her village is a triumph of comic parody. Perhaps this book needs a second reading, if one has the patience, to appreciate it fully: towards the end, in a fit of nostalgia, Tambudzai comes across a poem called “Mantra”, written as an adolescent which she now dismisses, “impatient with the cryptic phrases” but it is perhaps a subtle way of showing how adversity has shrivelled her creativity.
There is just one point, where Tambudzai notes the natural beauty of the landscape on a northern farm, at which one glimpses what Zimbabwe might be.