A poignant tale of love and ambition overwhelmed by self-consciously poetic prose: in a first US appearance for Zimbabwean author Vera.
Set in a black township of the 1940s in what was then white-ruled Rhodesia, it’s both an evocation of a place, and a story about a young woman with big dreams. The township is a place of one-room shacks, beer halls, and kwela music. Children sit on empty, rusted, metal drums and watch the passing cars; country women abandon their tribal names and, calling themselves “Gertrude” or “Melody,” brew moonshine or become prostitutes. The men, haunted by memories of fathers killed by the white settlers, work and find release in the township women. When Fumbatha meets much younger Phephelaphi, whose mother Gertrude was recently murdered, he is soon in love—as is Phephelaphi, who leaves Zandile, a friend of her mother's and a prostitute who has been taking care of her, and moves in with Fumbatha. Initially, she feels “safe in his adoration,” but as time passes and he's away working, she's lonely. She visits the local beer hall to hear the kwela music and, better-educated than her mother, applies, without confiding in Fumbatha, to train as a nurse. She’s accepted in the program but, now pregnant, induces an abortion, which proves a strain on the marriage. As both Phephelaphi and Fumbatha find the love that once had filled them now diminished by Phephelaphi’s assertion of independence and dreams of a different and better life, Phephelaphi learns some unsettling truths about her mother and Zandile.
Evocative but drenched in often overwrought imagery (“sees the sky peel off the earth that is the distance between the land and the sky”; “her body a flame searching: nothing can sanction courage but desire”) that makes for a diffuse fable more than a particularized novel.