An interracial relationship plays out against Zimbabwe’s slow disintegration in this elliptical first novel.
Lindiwe Bishop is a colored (mixed race) girl in a country where race and tribe matter enormously. It’s 1982, two years since blacks achieved majority rule after a brutal war, but suspicions and resentments simmer. Fourteen-year-old Lindiwe has three stories to tell: her own, her neighbor’s and her country’s. The McKenzies next door are the last whites in a previously all-white suburb of Bulawayo. Ian, 17, has just been accused of killing his stepmother by setting her on fire. After he’s released on appeal (his confession was coerced), he and Lindiwe become friends. Quiet, bookish Lindiwe has complete faith in Ian’s innocence. He may talk like a Rhodie (redneck), but she senses his underlying gentleness and is grateful for his attention, something her withdrawn parents don’t provide. Lindiwe describes her feelings with such restraint that though she and Ian have a night of love before he leaves for South Africa, we don’t know this at the time, nor that it will produce a baby. There are other disconcerting lacunae. Ian’s mentally ill mother hovers on the margins, and we don’t learn the truth about his stepmother’s fiery death; Ian’s different versions are not definitive. After a seven-year hiatus, Ian returns. He’s a photojournalist; Lindiwe is a university student. She dumps the middle-aged French doctor she’s been seeing (another gap), then, on Ian’s insistence, pries their son David away from her mother so they can raise him together. Sabatini crams the story with incidents and paints a grim picture of the Mugabe regime, but she never manages to convince us of the durability of the lovers’ relationship, which is key. Ian never quite gets the race thing—he’s astonished when David is the target of schoolyard taunts—but Lindiwe accepts his obtuseness because, well, he’s her man.
Sabatini is an effective miniaturist but fumbles the big picture.