A haunting, incisive, and timely glimpse into how misogyny and class strife shape life in post-colonial Zimbabwe.
Returning to characters she first introduced in her debut novel, Nervous Conditions (1988), Zimbabwean author Dangarembga situates us in the mind of Tambudzai Sigauke, an educated but insecure and selfish young woman who is plummeting rapidly down her nation's class hierarchy. Bitter after leaving her job at an ad agency “over a matter of mere principle,” Tambudzai takes up residence at a hostel while she hatches a scheme to claw her way back up the social ladder. Her scheming eventually takes her to a high school teaching job, where the pressures of teaching unruly students tax her fragile mental health. Driven to rage by her inability to command her students' respect, Tambudzai brutally beats and injures a student named Elizabeth Chinembiri. The event triggers a mental breakdown and sets Tambudzai on a tragic collision course with her estranged family. Narrated in the second person from Tambudzai's perspective, the novel collapses the distance between its readers and its antihero ("You spend most of your time sitting on your bed, brooding over your new misjudgement"). The effect is claustrophobic and alarming, as the reader becomes implicated in Tambudzai's conniving—and sometimes outright immoral—behavior. When she participates in a mob's fevered sexual assault of a female hostel roommate, conspires to lure a married man into infidelity, or steals vegetables from her landlady's garden, it's not just Tambudzai who performs these actions—it's you. Tambudzai's behavior is so persistently self-centered that she can be somewhat flat and unappealing; social advancement is her only motivation, and it can be difficult to sympathize with a character whose moral compass is so degraded. Her flatness is easy to overlook, however, because this novel's true protagonist is the entire nation of Zimbabwe. Tambudzai becomes a stand-in for a society struggling to gain its footing and maintain its soul amid the trauma of civil war and economic and political instability. In terse, stark prose that paints a brutally realist portrait of post-colonial Zimbabwe, Dangarembga turns an appraising eye upon her nation in order to investigate the various inequalities that lie at its heart. This novel's Zimbabwe is a nation populated by cruel mobs, exploitative entrepreneurs, and mercenaries who care only about themselves. Her incisive realism is most effective when dealing with misogyny, especially the vicious violence inflicted on women's bodies. The mournable body of the novel's title turns out to be the collective body of Zimbabwean women.
A difficult but ultimately rewarding meditation on the tolls that capitalism and misogyny take on a fledgling nation's soul.