Margaret Busby, Chair of the 2020 judges, says: “Each of these books carries an impact that has earned it a place on the longlist, deserving of wide readership. Included are novels carried by the sweep of history with memorable characters brought to life and given visibility, novels that represent a moment of cultural change, or the pressures an individual faces in pre- and post-dystopian society... As judges we connected with these writers’ well-crafted prose, the mastery of detail, the arresting sentence, the credibility of the narrative arc, the ability to use to the full, the resources of storytelling. Unplanned, our final selection encompasses both seasoned favourites and debut talents ― a truly satisfying outcome.”
This Mournable Body is the latest of three novels charting Tambu’s up-and-down trajectory. The first, Nervous Conditions (1988), described Tambu’s childhood and early adolescence, as she overcomes the confinement and poverty of village life with the help of her uncle, who offers her a place at the mission school he runs. The second, The Book of Not (2006), covered her late adolescence at a convent school, where she’s part of the 5 per cent quota of black girls, and a job, in her early twenties, as an advertising copywriter. The trilogy – written over thirty years and covering the period from 1968 to 1999 – deserves to be better known. Nervous Conditions has had many admirers, including Chinua Achebe, Alice Walker and Doris Lessing, who called it ‘the novel we have all been waiting for’. The first sentence is irresistible: ‘I was not sorry when my brother died.’ But Dangarembga spent four years trying to find a publisher for it and succeeded only by looking beyond Zimbabwe. And it’s only thanks to the efforts of a small imprint, Ayebia Clarke Publishing, that Nervous Conditions and The Book of Not are currently available in the UK.
This Mournable Body is a sublime reckoning with the young, sparkling Tambu of Nervous Conditions by her wry, adult self, and by a young postcolonial nation with the betrayal of its convictions. Betrayal acts in the novel as a revolving prism. It is through distancing herself into the second person that Tambu allows her language to betray her, in this way letting us, and herself, into those places that are tender to touch. Three decades on, Dangarembga has written another classic.
The voice is relentless and cruel and there is no respite for the reader, but there are also moments of beauty. At one point the widow landlady’s weak singing voice is described: “The tunes trickle out of her like the tired flow of a silted river.” But even the most evocative descriptions are merely deployed as armour. In a world where so much suffering is so easily ignored, Dangarembga has written a book so powerful and compelling she makes it impossible for us to turn our face away.
Wry humour is a constant, milked from the ignorance of European expatriates and the pretensions of the new black middle class. Dangarembga is a magpie for evocative detail; she can even make a littered gutter appear threatening. And she is unafraid of stylistic risks. The novel is written in the second person and the present tense. In other hands this would be far too intense, but here it enhances Tambudzai’s desperate momentum. Dangarembga’s depiction of her, abject and vulnerable, yet struggling ever onwards, is reminiscent of Jean Rhys at her best.
Throughout, a lot of the interest is in the parallel arcs of worldly success and moral worth. These are tellingly disconnected: it’s when Tambu’s fortunes are relatively stable that she performs her most morally shocking act. It’s hard to reconcile morality and survival, especially in a hybrid culture where the moral frameworks of the Shona villages and white society in Harare have not been well aligned. If there is progress amid the book’s structure, then it’s in Tambu’s realisation that she must learn to balance prosperity and kindness. “Sometimes your own good is the common good,” Tambu’s cousin tells her. This isn’t often true, but when it is, a more tempting world half-promises to emerge.