Back in 2018 I read a book from a small publisher which blew my socks off. Sulaiman Addonia’s story of a young Eritrean refugee who sacrifices everything for love was one of my books of that year. Hopes were high, then for An Act of Defiance which is also published by The Indigo Press. Like Silence is My Mother Tongue, Irene Sabatini’s novel humanises a story which many of us will have seen played out on our TV screens, in this case the descent of Zimbabwe into ruination and madness under Robert Mugabe, beginning in 2000.
The daughter of a well-connected Mugabe supporter from who she keeps her distance, Gabrielle is a young lawyer, an activist, appalled at what she sees happening around her. She’s involved in the private prosecution of a member of the government accused of raping fourteen-year-old Danika. Her former partner, Gio, has been posted to Colombia, sending an air ticket in the hope that she’ll join him but she’s determined to stay and do what she can for the country she loves, now patrolled by drunken bands of Party Youth intimidating anyone openly opposing the government. Then she meets a smart, young American diplomat. Open and full of curiosity, Ben is keen to show Gabrielle the cultural riches she’s been too busy to appreciate. One day, on the way to a picnic, Ben’s beautiful red Chevrolet is car-jacked: he’s badly beaten and Gabrielle is taken to a torture camp. When she’s released it is Gio who takes her in, nursing her back to physical health, protecting her with a solicitousness that she tries not to find irksome. Over the next eight years, Zimbabwe will be strangled by the iron grip of a man once deemed his country’s saviour now apparently intent on destroying it. Traumatised by her ordeal, Gabrielle withdraws into a numb safety until she finally wakes up to what’s needed of her.
Her laugh bores into him; it sneers at him, at his stick, at his manhood, at his revolution. Again and again he hits her
Spanning seventeen years, Sabatini’s novel is a poignant love story as well as a vivid account of Zimbabwe’s devastation and the beginnings of liberation. Gabrielle’s trauma is sensitively handled, the torture visited upon her detailed in brief snapshots, graphic but necessarily so, and the ruin of Danika wrenchingly portrayed. It’s a powerful story, made all the more so by the awareness of its veracity. I remember being appalled by the spectacle of black Zimbabweans starving in a country rich enough for all to live in comfortably, beaten and turned out of their houses at the hands of the man once acclaimed as their hero. Sabatini ends her novel in 2017 on a note of hope, both for Gabrielle and for the country she so dearly loves.
A small request: if you decide you’d like a copy of either An Act of Defiance or Silence is My Mother Tongue, please consider ordering it direct from The Indigo Press or an independent bookshop. They’ll need all the support we can give in the current crisis.
The Indigo Press: London 2020 9781911648048 330 pages Paperback