This is undoubtedly a powerful novel, the conclusion to a trilogy which captures women’s experiences in Zimbabwe in the final decades of the Twentieth Century, as political tensions bubble away, and the violent upheavals of the past two decades are still very much in the consciousness of the characters. But I struggled with it, largely because of Dangarembga’s decision to write it in the second-person, a choice that perfectly captures Tambudzai’s own sense detachment from the woman she has become but which I also felt kept me at one remove from her story. And Tambudzai’s life has become so bleak since we first met her in Nervous Conditions, set as it was in the optimistic early years following independence, that it makes for a tough read. What struck me most of how violence and destitution is ever present in this novel, both as a legacy of Zimbabwe’s immediate past and as a fact of Tambudzai’s personal life. Her education hasn’t protected her, and she lurches from one vulnerable situation to another. At the same time, when it comes to Tambudzai’s family, we’re left in no doubt that women in Zimbabwe have played a significant role in responding to the events of the past two decades.
When hope comes in the shape of employment by a former colleague, the white Zimbabwean Tracey, Tambudzai is encouraged to use her family village in a new ‘eco-tourism’ venture. What plays out is a horribly uncomfortable demonstration of cultural commodification which has significant repercussions for the seemingly passive Tambudzai. We see a woman grasping at ways to find personal security, at whatever cost. She is pitched against another colleague, one whose star is is on the ascent, and Tambudzai becomes increasingly desperate to please her boss. Despite evidence to the contrary, she hangs onto the idea that access to Europe, in some form, will help her find the life she believes is waiting for her. Whilst we can see why Tambudzai behaves the way she does, haunted as she is through a good deal of the novel by a bag of mealie meal that her mother has sent her, I found her hard to connect with, potentially because of her initial inertia – it is as if she is frozen when we first meet her, although it becomes increasingly clear this is a form of defence.
There’s also a lot which is left unanswered, moments in Tambudzai’s world which she simply doesn’t have the answer for, or perhaps there are things she simply doesn’t wish to address. There’s no doubt this is an excellent and important novel, capturing as it does female experiences in a world in turmoil, and it’s a powerful ending to the trilogy, but I struggled with the style. I know I’ll be in the minority here – I suspect this might win the Booker this coming week.