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Tambudzai is an underachiever. Sent to a private school in Rhodesia, studying at the University of Zimbabwe, she land up in Harare unemployed, no plan, drifting between hostels and rooming houses. She seems not to have any great sense of urgency in finding either a job or a more stable form of housing. She quite her job as a copy writer in a fit of pique, and lands up as a school teacher for which she has no qualification. And then she has a breakdown and her life falls into chaos. Is this a metaphor for Zimbabwe - once the breadbasket of Southern Africa with an educated population and a strong economy, claiming independence, cruising along for a bit until the descent into chaos? And then placing itself like a zoo exhibit be re-colonised by European tourists. The timeline of the novel is not quite clear. There is one anchor point in 1999, but the story seems to play out across years - perhaps decades - and ends in the time of the farm seizures. Independence figures prominently as a milestone in many of the characters' lives but the changes seem to be more gradual. Replacing the former white establishment, we see the gradual rise of a black establishment similarly borne on patronage and good fortune. Tambudzai seems determined to be on the wrong end of the changes, seeing her former classmates and colleagues becoming successful through playing a system that she refuses to fit into. There is a Cook's tour of Harare life with burgeoning small businesses, earnest workers, the occasional protestor and a functioning healthcare system. There's violence too, and a clearly demarcated social hierarchy, but where a European reader might expect deprivation there seems to be quite a substantial middle class. Even life in the hostels seems quite orderly with kitchen rotas and groups heading out on shopping expeditions. There are trips to the country where, again, the poverty seems to be more of an idea than a reality; villagers happy to perform like natives in return for the tourist dollar and some supporting infrastructure. There is a real and vibrant sense of place; a sense of direction - even if Tambudzai is going in the opposite direction to everyone else. And much as Tambudzai might seem to be perverse, she is asking a legitimate question - why would an independent Zimbabwe just seek to replicate the inequalities of the colonial system in the pursuit of a European lifestyle? The drifting nature of Tambudzai's life is compartmentalised into three distinct sections, but it really is more of a general flow. At times, this can feel as though there's an insufficient narrative drive to hold this together, but I think the common themes of squandered opportunity and claimed victimhood keep this together. This Mournable Body does have one particularly striking (or irritating?) feature in its second person narration. I have never loved this as a technique. It usually feels forced and self-conscious. Tsitsi Dangarembga gets it as right as anyone, but this reader would prefer to have seen a more conventional first or third person perspective. Nevertheless, the novel did feel compelling, and the flashes of humour gave it a human tough that offsets any intellectual trickiness of technique. This Mournable Body is an impressive novel with a complex protagonist - its has been long listed for the Booker Prize - but I'm just not sure how much this will leave a deep impression. ****0
Forgive this preamble to announcing my book release and thanks for bearing with me. In 2004 the novelist Tony Saint lamented, in the Telegraph, that he was not even the fifth best novelist in Waverton after his first novel had failed to reach the shortlist of the annual Waverton Good Read Award. Never heard of the WGRA? You are not alone. A little history, then. A family doctor in the village of La Cadière d’Azure, France, decided it might give his patients something to think about beyond their ailments if he got them all reading and voting on the latest novels. So Le Prix De La Cadière d’Azure was born and, although the prize is now discontinued, it inspired enterprising people from the village of Waverton (pop. 2000) in Cheshire to do the same. Publishers are invited to send debut novels by British authors to be read by dozens of villagers who create a long list, then a short list and then – voila – the winner. It’s one of the few literary prizes run by readers and is now in its eleventh year. Previous winners have included Mark Haddon for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Maria Lewycka for A History of Tractors in Ukrainian, and Tom Rob Smith for Child 44. There are also one or two winning authors that you’ve never heard of like … ahem … myself. The Waverton win came (a cheque and a splendid dinner – thank-you, Waverton) and went but then calamity: my publisher ceased trading and my literary agent changed career. I just hope it wasn’t all my fault. Despite the below-the-national-radar win and the collapse of my marketing and publishing support, I was delighted that out there, beyond the baying of the city, the steady readers of rural England had liked my novel. They say that the British comedian Norman Wisdom was big in Albania when he was unknown elsewhere and I like to think that I was once big in Waverton. I had no time in any case to think about the lack of national interest because in the villages of my home patch it was all bouquets and elderflower champagne. Deep in rural Rutland, in mink-and-manure Manton, villagers filled the village hall for my author talk and in Kibworth in Leicestershire the effervescent owner of the Kibworth Bookshop corralled locals into the pub for a book group evening over gin and beer. In tiny Arnesby, where thatch is as rampant as roses, I fielded questions that good family folk really want to know from an author, such as what his mother thinks of the swearing in his novel. In book groups in Knighton, a village long ago swallowed up by Leicester, we drank glass after glass of wine until we’d all forgotten why we were sitting there with a novel on our laps. In Woodhouse Eves, retirement village for philosophers it seemed, I was probably out of my depth. Nevertheless, I was flattered and grateful for those evenings with readers. Which finally leads me to say that my second novel, Fortunate, set in a Midlands town and in Zimbabwe, is now out. I’m conscious of the fact that it is just one of well over 100,000 books to be published this year in the UK but I will be more than happy to be big in a village - any village – once again. Thanks for reading. www.andrewjhsharp.co.uk ‘Unputdownable. An outstanding novel of love, courage and dangerous intrigue.’ Margaret Kaine.
We Need New Names is a debut novel and I want to be generous. However, the novel, although only short, seems to drag and become quite repetitive. Initially set in Zimbabwe in the late 2000s, we meet Darling, a 10 year old girl, and her friends as they run amok in a poor township. The various and well documented issues facing Zimbabwe were paraded forth: food shortages, rigged elections, hyperinflation, poor medical facilities, AIDS, reliance on NGOs, seizure of white farms... Each issue is neatly packaged into a self-contained chapter and it felt somewhat contrived. Added to this, there was little real depth of characterisation, and little development. There was a high point in the hedge priest, a rather ridiculous man called Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro imposing his religious zealotry on a rather bemused population. And there are smiles as the children get up to various hi-jinx, including scrumping guavas. There is a genuinely distressing chapter featuring an improvised abortion, and there are thought provoking moments as we realise that some of the children came from middle class backgrounds and once had aspirations of education and achievement. Zimbabwe, like some other failed states, was not always poor. Half way through, the novel switches to the US. This section of the novel doesn't work as well. There are some interesting thoughts about displacement and homesickness; the observation that once you leave your homeland you can never really return because the land you leave will change. However, there's a bit too much madness and it all becomes rather confusing. There are some parallels and some contrasts made between life in the US and life in Zimbabwe, but the lack of a real narrative drive means the reader's interest may well wander. Moreover, the voice of Darling is inconsistent over the course of the novel - and I know this is intentional to represent the growing influence of Western life on an African child but it adds to the confusion of the narration. An alternative might have been to narrate the entire novel as a single voice reminiscence, although the counter argument is that the Zim section would lose its immediacy. Hmmm. It's a pity that the wonderful premise of the novel has not quite been delivered. There is enough to remain hopeful that, with experience, NoViolet Bulawayo will write better books. But in order to do so, she will need to learn that at the heart of great novels of social upheaval - e.g. Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath or Liam O'Flaherty's Famine - there is a story that is intensely personal and character led; the moments of national crisis are simply the backdrop for the real human drama of family relationships. Overall, a generous three stars. ***00