Tsitsi Dangarembga’s arresting Nervous Conditions appeared in 1988 and was the first novel published in English by a black Zimbabwean woman. She is now in mid-career, prominent among those writers who have emerged since independence, who include Petina Gappah, NoViolet Bulawayo and Tendai Huchu. The reason for this flowering of talent cannot be nailed down, but it is clear that Zimbabwe’s turmoil provides plenty of dramatic material. It is noteworthy, too, how many of these novelists are female — and they have abundant subject matter all of their own. Regardless of their country’s independence, liberation for most Zimbabwean women remains a distant prospect.
This Mournable Body is set in 1999, nearly two decades after independence, when it is obvious that the ideals which were fought for have been betrayed. A young woman, Tambudzai, has left her job as a copywriter, tired of her bosses claiming credit for her work. She is reduced to feeding herself by stealing vegetables from her landlady’s garden. There comes a reprieve when she gets a post teaching biology (her degree is in sociology, but the Ministry of Education is desperate for teachers). Then she starts to feel angry with some of her more spoilt, unruly students.
The story that unfolds sees Tambudzai lurch from crisis to crisis in a fashion that mirrors her country’s chaotic struggles. But however depressing she finds each new scenario, she must keep her wits about her. Some hazards are local. On Harare’s streets amiable banter can turn in moments to mob savagery. Other dangers are geopolitical. Corruption is everywhere, and the occupation of farms is putting livelihoods at risk.
If this all sounds grim, don’t be put off. 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.