The Zimbabwean war against British rule—and the subsequent civil turmoil of the 1980s—are backdrop for the author’s latest African tale of maimed, haunted lovers.
From the bustling city of Bulawayo, where Vera (Without a Name and Under the Tongue, 2002, etc.) was born, the road to rural Kezi brings the daily busload of commuting workers to stop at Thandabantu Store, which becomes the metaphorical hub of black life in Vera’s circular, elliptical narrative. There, a young woman named Thenjiwe spies a watchful, solitary man and allows him to follow her back to her house, where the two commence a breathless, two-month love affair. Yet the civil war intervenes (“the years of deafness and struggle”), and when the men and women soldiers return to their rural homes, they are changed irrevocably by the violence they have witnessed. In a shocking, brutal incident that seems to symbolize the country's sense of rupture and discontinuity, a traumatized soldier named Sibaso enters Thenjiwe’s home, which she shares with her beloved younger sister, Nonceba, decapitates the elder sister, then mutilates Nonceba, and vanishes. A suppression of memory and language ensues as part of Nonceba’s healing—until Thenjiwe’s former lover (significantly, he’s a museum archivist of “ancient kingdoms”) returns to offer her aid and a new life in Bulawayo. The tale is told with an intuitive grace and a palpable delight in metaphor (“You are beautiful like creation,” Thenjiwe’s lover exclaims ecstatically, while washing her with milk): The “stone virgins” painted on the rocks of Gulati, where Sibaso “takes shelter from the dead,” have been “saved from life’s embrace”—that is, from the chaos of the war. And the final burning of Thandabantu Store becomes the last devastating act in the evaporation of memory. The denouement about Nonceba’s new life in the city, however, is too briefly delivered, hinting at a sequel in her life’s saga.
A fine, excruciatingly delineated portrayal of the malevolent effects of war on a people.