Tag Archives: Zimbabwean fiction

An Act of Defiance by Irene Sabatini: The power of hope

Cover imageBack 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

The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah: Teasing out the threads

Cover imagePetina Gappah’s An Elegy for Easterly caused quite a stir when it was published back in 2009. Lots of rave reviews, then it won the Guardian First Book Award, but aside from commissioning a review for the magazine I was working on I ignored it. Short stories, you see. More fool me, if The Book of Memory is anything to go by. Within the first brief paragraph, Gappah manages to hook you with both a grisly death and the announcement that our narrator was sold to a strange man by her parents.

Memory is an albino black Zimbabwean on death row for the murder of Lloyd, the white man she went to live with when she was nine years old. She’s writing her story for an American journalist known for championing miscarriages of justice. Teased and shunned as a child, she listens inside her ramshackle home while the other children play their games, her skin too sensitive for the fierce sun. Hers is a family struck by tragedy leaving her mother unpredictable in her grief and Memory haunted by nightmares. When she’s asked to dress in her best clothes, she’s filled with joy then astonished when she’s introduced to a white man who hands a wad of cash to her mother. The following day she’s taken to his home, a beautiful old colonial house. She yearns to see her father again, but becomes used to the trappings of this new life shrugging off the racist rants of Lloyd’s brother-in-law and becoming immersed in books, still puzzling over why Lloyd has bought her from her parents and why they gave her up. Escaping the fallout of estrangement and betrayal from her first infatuation, she wins a scholarship to Cambridge. On her return all seems healed between her and Lloyd then one day she comes home to find him dead. Writing her story from her cell, she dredges her memory for answers to questions that have troubled her for years. Towards the end the whole sorry tale of what befell her parents and how she came into Lloyd’s care is unravelled.

Gappah teases out the threads of Memory’s past, slowly revealing her story, warning us that ‘It’s hard for the truth to emerge clearly from a twenty-year fog of distant memory’ then delivering a devastating denouement. Within the framework of Memory’s gripping story, a multitude of well-aimed barbs are shot at modern Zimbabwe. White society clings to its old colonial ways holding their June garden parties in the midst of the Zimbabwean winter. The superstitions of black culture which shuns Memory for her difference and brings misery upon her poor mother are lampooned. The corruption of the country’s political establishment unable to acknowledge the dire state of its prison is graphically conveyed in Gappah’s vivid word pictures. All this served up with a helping of acerbic humour in the form of prison banter and Memory’s acidic wit. It’s a very impressive first novel but not one likely to be published in her native country.