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In her debut novel House of Stone, Novuyo Rosa Tshuma delves deep into Zimbabwe’s history to explore how personal and national identities are created. It’s a dark and intense read that’s set against the backdrop of secessionist rallies led by protestors who want to form a majority Ndebele republic called Mthwakazi. Their revolt is a response to the Gukurahundi genocide, the massacres of the Ndebele people carried out by Robert Mugabe’s government in 1983.
The novel opens in one such secessionist rally, in which we’re introduced to its 24-year-old narrator Zamani as well as Bukhosi, the only son of Zamani’s landlords, Abednego and Agnes. When Bukhosi goes missing, Zamani offers to help his landlords find their son. What Abednego and Agnes don’t know is that Zamani’s motives aren’t as pure as they’re being led to believe. With Bukhosi out of the picture, Zamani sees and seizes the opportunity to turn his landlords into his surrogate parents and gather information about the Gukurahundi genocide. In order to learn more about how Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, Zamani decides that he must first familiarise himself with Abednego’s personal history. And so Zamani makes the calculated decision to take advantage of his landlords, plying Abednego—a recovering alcoholic—with whisky and facilitating the assault of his wife so that he might provide her with a shoulder to cry on.
It is through Zamani’s manipulation—which involves creating and then communicating through a fake Facebook account for Bukhosi—that we hear Abednego and Agnes’ accounts of what it was like to live through Zimbabwe’s late colonial and early revolutionary years. In the book’s first section we learn that Abednego is hiding from his own history; that he is the son of a white farmer and a village woman and that his ex-girlfriend Thandi was an activist who fought for Zimbabwe’s independence. The book’s second section focuses on Agnes’s history; on her first love as well as the circumstances that led to her arranged marriage to Abednego.
Zamani is an unreliable narrator who lives by the philosophy that “it’s not what’s true that matters, but what you can make true.” But though we know we can’t trust him, none of the other characters are reliable either. Afterall, Abednego is drinking again; Agnes is having visions from the Holy Ghost; and the government’s official version of events is hardly sound. The birth of Zimbabwe is no clearer than the confused memories of those who are telling its story.
House of Stone is a dizzying novel, which had me stopping and starting as I googled Zimbabwe’s history and digested the monstrosities I was reading about. The book’s absurdist plot lines—like the sudden appearance of a lion during Bukhosi’s birth—serve both as comic relief and reinforcement of the principle that nothing should be taken as set in stone. This is a truly extraordinary debut novel.
House of Stone by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma (Atlantic Books, 2019)
More books by Zimbabwean authors
We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo
This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga
Out of Darkness, Shining Light by Petina Gappah
The House of Hunger by Dambudzo Marechera
An Act of Defiance by Irene Sabatini
The Stone Virgins by Yvonne Vera
What have you read recently?
If you’ve read a brilliant book in translation or want to pass on a recommendation, I’d love to hear about it! For this project, I’m focussing on contemporary fiction and short stories, with a preference for female authors—but I won’t be too dogmatic about it so do share recommendations that don’t quite fit the bill, too.
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Bookmarked is written by Tabatha Leggett. If you know someone who would enjoy this newsletter, please forward it to them!