A difficult adolescence and young womanhood are lived out during Rhodesia’s violent transition into contemporary Zimbabwe, in Michigan author Nangle’s compelling first novel.
The central character, Colleen, through whose viewpoint we observe these changes, grows up on the coffee farm owned by her widowed father, a former American missionary who stayed on in Nyadzi after his wife’s death from malaria. The novel’s first half offers lyrical episodic portrayals of Colleen’s protective yet combative relationship with her mentally disturbed younger sister Sarah (who “hears voices,” and is eventually sent to a “special school”) and stoical devotion to her hardworking father, juxtaposed with gratifying relationships with a number of native (Shona) caregivers and comrades. The more memorable of the latter include her family’s household servant Mapipi (first to realize the seriousness of Sarah’s condition), mission nurse Julia Chonongera (in whose footsteps Colleen will follow) and Colleen’s de facto first love Heresekwe, a passionate Shona activist in the making. What Colleen learns from them all—and from the lepers who, to her unjaundiced eye, “look like lions”—clashes with the policies of a brutal colonial government and sets her on a path of resistance and commitment that is compressed, perhaps rather too tightly, into tense later chapters that detail her experiences as a community health nurse, her marriage to a multiracial musician and her embattled motherhood. The novel might well have been longer, for the balance between its often beautiful early pages (which resemble Doris Lessing’s African fiction) and meditative concluding chapters doesn’t feel quite right. Still, Nangle brings Colleen’s story to a moving conclusion, after she has survived grave threats to her new life and made peace with the world of her youth, as her father’s passing coincides with national and cultural change.
A fine debut novel, and a welcome glimpse of a troubled world which one hopes Nangle will explore in fuller detail in future work.