This small gem of a novel, published in 2018, is its Zimbabwean author’s first. Tavengerwei left Zimbabwe at 18 to study law at Wits in South Africa, followed by a master’s at the World Trade Institute. At present, she works as an international trade lawyer. The author informs us that her love of stories was cultivated by her grandfather, a gifted teller of tales, and by her parents’ bedtime stories and their respect for writing and narration, but adds in her untitled preface (in the form of a brief letter to her “Dear Reader” that (nevertheless) her novel is “inspired by what really happened” (np). The main narrative perspective in the text is that of an adolescent girl – Shamiso Muloy – born in Zimbabwe, but (unlike the author) taken to the UK by her parents at a young age and back to her country of origin shortly before the narrative opens. At the mission (boarding) school not too far from Harare, Shamiso’s unhappy frame of mind at first setting foot on the premises is not caused primarily by the brutally sudden transition from all she has been familiar with in Slough (the British town where Shamiso and her parents lived for a number of years) to a country and a system utterly unfamiliar to her. Rather, it is caused and intensified by the unmistakable sounds of a mbira – the southern African musical instrument sometimes referred to as a “thumb piano” – played by an unknown person nearby who is not visible. The reason for Shamiso’s sorrowful association with the lovely sound is that her beloved father tried to teach her to play the mbira when she was little. It is his recent death in a car accident in Zimbabwe (under suspicious circumstances, we learn later) that has caused the loss of almost all the girl has been accustomed to; since her father – an admired investigative journalist – was their breadwinner, Shamiso’s mother has had to borrow funds and take up poorly paid domestic employment in order to keep her daughter in a decent school. The “painful and familiar” sounds of the mbira cause an intense reaction in the girl, vividly captured in the opening sentence: “Shamiso’s heart broke into a shudder of beats” (3). Because the suggestive words not only pertain to a change in the rhythm of her heartbeat, but evidently carry the connotation of a “broken-hearted” emotional state, we gather something of the deep sorrow and emotional turmoil in which Shamiso is enwrapped. Having been registered at Oakwood High against her will by her mother (who is accompanying her in her introduction to the establishment), Shamiso is in no condition to behave in a particularly courteous or cooperative manner. “Shamiso felt numb, staring down at her shiny new shoes and listening to the music that disturbed the air,” for “whoever was playing knew what they were doing. [Shamiso] could hear the underlying note of a hum that flowed well with the song. And in that magnificent noise flowed all the memories and feelings she was trying to ignore” (4).
Later on, the reader may work out that the person who was playing the mbira so affectingly was, in all likelihood, Tanyaradzwa Pfumojena (another beautiful and unmistakably Shona name), who is in the same class as Shamiso and – sensing that the new pupil is seriously in need of a friend – attempts several times to fill that role, only to be (initially) rebuffed by Shamiso. Gradually, one discovers that Tanyaradzwa is the “second lead” in Tavengerwei’s narrative, and that she has to deal with dreadful news – that her throat cancer, supposedly in remission, has returned much more aggressively. Furthermore, the growth is so positioned that an operation (following chemo and radiation treatment in order to attempt to shrink it) would be extremely risky – not only because the cancer has twined itself around her vocal cords, so that (even if she survived the procedure) she may lose the magnificent voice with which she has been gifted, but because of the economic situation in Zimbabwe (2008). Governmental land repossession decrees have caused huge losses in revenue and investment to the society – and have resulted in medical experts (including oncologists) leaving Zimbabwe in droves. Hence, the one or two decent hospitals are unaffordable for almost all locals except the “politically connected”, while the others are so badly equipped that patients have to bring or pay for the most basic necessities, such as bandages and painkillers. Although fairly well off, Tanyaradzwa’s upper middle class family is also in financial difficulties because of the economic collapse and the dizzying downward-rocketing value of the local currency. Zimbabwe’s constant, prolonged power cuts also make any surgical operation particularly risky. There are clear parallels between the two girls: both are under immense emotional stress – Shamiso in her grief, and Tanyaradzwa in fear of losing her life or her voice to cancer. Also, both have had hurtful experiences of former friends cutting or failing to maintain ties, after having found the girls difficult to cope with instead of sensing their need. Both have firmly decided that friendship is risky, and commitment to it opens one to hurt. Nevertheless, Tanyaradzwa senses something in Shamiso that makes her persist over some time in her unsuccessful attempts to win the newcomer’s trust. What breaks the ice, eventually, is a classroom event, where Tanyaradzwa, probably as a result of the severe medical treatment she is undergoing, faints away on a particularly hot day, vomiting (to the fastidious disgust of the majority of her classmates) as she does so. Without for a moment thinking about it, there being no teacher in the room because of a prolonged strike by educators in response to low wages or non-payment of their salaries, Shamiso rushes to Tanyaradzwa’s aid. The situation is vividly evoked:
Tanyaradzwa shook her head [after another silent rebuff from Shamiso] and turned towards the front again. She fanned her shirt, opened her top button and loosened her tie. The heat was overwhelming. It was strange how everyone else seemed to be coping with it. She lowered her head onto the desk and, as she did so, a pool of saliva collected in her mouth. She swallowed faster in a bid to keep up. Before she could register what was going on, her morning porridge had made it to the floor, and her mouth tasted vile and bitter. Not much stayed with her after that.
Shamiso’s reflexes kicked in and she pushed her chair back and made her way to where Tanyaradzwa was lying on the floor. A little crowd circled around her, but most of the class stayed at their desks, staring.
Shamiso called out to Tanyaradzwa, but it seemed her body had given up. Without thinking, she motioned to Paida [a very cocky girl at political loggerheads with Shamiso] and two other girls to help lift Tanyaradzwa and started leading the way to the school clinic.
As they went out the door, Shamiso glanced back at the class. They were whispering among themselves, faces lit up with disgust. (95–6)
At the clinic, the other girls who (along with Shamiso) have been asked by the school nurse to stay until Tanyaradzwa recovers sufficiently to walk to the hostel in their company – to make sure that she does not collapse a second time – start gossiping about the cause of Tanyaradzwa’s state. Paida, the domineering girl whose strident opinions are accepted by most classmates because of her father’s immense wealth and his status as a government minister, has previously clashed with Shamiso. This was a result of her simplistic, but loudly proclaimed, political opinions, which Shamiso could not allow to go uncontested – despite Tanyaradzwa’s attempt to warn her that Paida would probably make her rue the day she did so. Paida parrots the official political line that the countries – such as Britain – that have imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe in the wake of the land appropriation from white farmers – known locally as Hondo Yeminda – are to blame for the collapse of the economy. Much more galling than this, however, have been Paida’s sneering comments concerning a dead journalist who opposed the Zimbabwean government’s land policy, unaware that the man concerned is Shamiso’s father. Having moved to the nearby newsstand for a moment, Shamiso has just spotted that – along with a very large front-page photograph of her father – the newspaper report claims scurrilously that he was inebriated when his car crashed, killing him, on a long, straight road. She knows that her father never touched alcohol, and has also just overheard Paida bragging to the other girls that her father gave her brother the gift of a farm (this, to a boy with absolutely no interest in agriculture!), immediately after taking their family on a costly holiday to Zanzibar to celebrate. Knowing how this confirms the evidence of severe state corruption that her father had been investigating, Shamiso cannot stop another outburst when she overhears Paida leading the other girls in malicious gossip that Tanyaradzwa’s illness was caused by pregnancy. “‘It’s always the quiet ones that do such things, honestly,’ one of the girls agreed” (99). Shamiso feels herself being sucked into a vortex. “She needed everything to stop: the noise, the laughter, the lies.” When Shamiso hisses at the girls to stop their gossip, Paida’s condescending “We weren’t talking to you” (100) sends her over the edge, and she gives Paida a resounding slap – an act likely to cost her dearly in the cliquey hostel and classroom situation.
Tavengerwei gradually and quite naturally deepens readers’ understanding of the broader national and social environment in Zimbabwe, even as we gain greater understanding of Shamiso’s grief, her familial circumstances and her father’s role in all these environments. In the still unfamiliar Oakwood High hostel, Shamiso feels her loss and her loneliness with especial intensity at night. In Slough, she was a day pupil with a circle of amenable friends, who seem now to have abandoned her, as they make no effort to communicate or commiserate with her. One such night unfolds as follows, evoked in this writer’s delicately poetic, empathetically visceral style:
The moon was out and its light paraded on the pitch black walls. A slight undercurrent of crickets created a background tone. She looked around. There was no life whatsoever. Her heart thudded, pressing against the cage of her chest. She walked to the side of the building and retreated into a corner. She leaned her back against the prickly grains sticking out of the brick wall.
She could feel the tears swelling. The darkness had a familiarity she recognised. Her whole body ached, and parts of her itched. She pulled out a little box from her pajama pocket. She had to make the pain disappear somehow. She pressed her hand to her eyes, wiping away the tears. (32)
Later in the text, the narrative focuses on the burial of Shamiso’s father (referred to as Muloy) at Muloy’s mother’s distant rural homestead (his mother is widowed). The girl registers that “things happened differently here. A dedicated group of men and women sang and danced their hearts out, not only in celebration of the deceased’s life but also in a bid to distract their loved ones from the pain of their loss.” Shamiso has to admit that “it had even worked for her for a minute or two” (67). Wondering at the large number of gathering mourners, Shamiso interprets this appropriately as showing how widely appreciated her father was because of his reporting work; she knows that he always attempted to inspire hope, even as he was relentless in exposing the misdeeds of the powerful.
The thumping of a drum heard from within her grandmother’s home announces the start of the proceedings; the girl feels her own heart “synchronizing to the beat, thudding in sequence” – but this is evidently in dread, not excited anticipation; “it would be the last time she would look at him” when she views his damaged body in the coffin. In her mind, the harrowing reality resurfaces: “He would no longer make pancakes in the morning. She would never again hear him read his work aloud, trying to make sense of it. Her heart sank. She knew she had to go; she had to see him, to say goodbye” (68). After the main ceremony, Shamiso sits on the veranda with her grandmother, but they are “two strangers with no conversation”, and she cannot see much likeness to her father in the old woman’s features, only “a slight resemblance to her father in the way her [grandmother’s] lips would twitch”. As she observes the youngsters who are paving her father’s grave with cement, “traces of pain twisted her gut” and Shamiso’s throat “tight[ens] with anger” – she “would have liked to give a speech or read a poem to say goodbye. But she could barely breathe, let alone speak” (75). As is customary, the deceased’s clothes are distributed to loved ones following the ceremony. One of her uncles brings Shamiso her father’s satchel – it is deemed appropriate because she is going to school.
Shamiso is aware that the lovely hilltop land where her grandmother’s home stands, came to the family through the land redistribution process of which her father was fiercely critical – causing a rift in the family. Although Shamiso’s father continued sending his mother funds from the UK, he never told Shamiso much about his mother. She was bitterly furious with Muloy for his political stance, convinced that her late husband’s self-sacrificial contribution to the Zimbabwean liberation war against the British colonial authorities (followed by Premier Ian Smith’s UDI regime) deserved the hard-earned reward of “returned” land. But her son detested the ruthless methods of the [re]appropriation process in his country, as well as the political profiteering of the bigwigs which was also characteristic of the practice, rather than seeing black Zimbabweans’ regaining of fertile land as wrong per se. But the old woman is unrelenting, considering her son’s early death more or less inevitable from the following perspective:
“I told him to stop fighting with men hidden in the shadows. What did he want? For his own people not to be in possession of our land?” Shamiso could hear the voice beginning to tremble. “Must I also be ashamed of this very land then? This land that his own father fought for! Were we to starve? Were we to deliberate over the very land that was stolen from us?
“Now look! Shamiso must grow up without a father because of his educated philosophies. Well, here’s my educated philosophy: we needed this land! You come here with your human rights, but you forget that we tried to do this properly. But of course the whites wouldn’t cooperate! Now you are busy pointing fingers, but this was done for you!”
When Shamiso’s mother responds mildly, saying that Muloy “was fighting for justice”, the old lady resumes angrily:
Justice? Whose justice? They kept us in pens like animals while they took all the good land and made laws that kept us from buying any of it back! Now you tell me about justice! Why does justice appear when it comes to them? Justice is what my husband did, fighting so that we could get this land! (81)
When Shamiso glances at her mother, she sees that she avoids confrontation by staring into the distance, but “with worry painted on her forehead”. For, without exacerbating the rift in the family, she must also placate her mother-in-law’s righteous wrath and yet defend the memory of her dead husband. “The land reform was not done well, Amai,” she states: “It’s not just the white farmers that were punished. There were black farmers who lost their farms! Plus the economy ….” At the grandmother’s “sharp, piercing look”, the younger woman tails off, merely concluding “softly” that “Baba-Shamiso [as the father of a child is named here] only wanted things to be made right”. Still, the old woman “clicked her tongue in disagreement, still unpersuaded, even though she has indicated (earlier in the conversation) her awareness of the rumour that her son’s death was no accident. But, despite the impasse, “there was silence after that” (82).
At the school, six weeks later, Tanyaradzwa, feeling uncomfortably hot after swallowing medication one night, seeks a cooling breeze outside the dormitory. Unexpectedly encountering Shamiso in the school’s outside laundry room, she blurts out: “What are you doing out here?” Shamiso defiantly replies: “What does it look like?” and brings the cigarette she has been smoking to her mouth. Of course, Shamiso is risking being caught and severely punished, since smoking is, of course, strictly out of bounds for the school’s pupils. Still, after a moment’s hesitation, Tanyaradzwa sits down next to Shamiso, and when the latter searches her face “for judgement”, it “wasn’t there”. In perhaps the first mildly friendly words Shamiso has spoken to Tanyaradzwa, she asks her in return why she has come out of the dormitory at night. “Air,” she simply replies. As they sit next to each other for a moment, “uncertainty hovering between them”, Tanyaradzwa cannot resist saying, “I heard you slapped Paida?” and provokes a “small smile” on the other girl’s face, who responds by saying, “More like my palm connected to her face?” The two laugh awkwardly, each trying to decide what to say next. In her “soft voice”, Tanyaradzwa tells Shamiso: “If you did it for me, you should be careful. It’s actually starting to look like you might be growing a heart there,” and this time, Shamiso gives a real smile in response. After a silence, Tanyaradzwa tells Shamiso: “I’m not pregnant,” and admits the dreadful truth: “It’s cancer.” Carefully keeping her gaze in the distance (reminiscent of her mother’s tactful handling of her incensed and embittered mother-in-law at Muloy’s funeral), Shamiso keeps silent a while. Tanyaradzwa is immensely relieved that she does not stare at her with the usual “pity”. Instead, Shamiso asks Tanyaradzwa straightforwardly: “Are you going to die?” which gives the other girl the opening to say: “Well, aren’t we all?” and when Shamiso smiles again, she adds: “You probably need this more than me then?” and offers Tanyaradzwa her cigarette. Tanyaradzwa laughs heartily, though the stress of her condition still shows in the prolongation of the response. The delicacy with which Tavengerwei evokes the difficult stages of this rapprochement between two fiercely proud and “private” girls is remarkable and moving, although (as we soon see) all is not plain sailing after this.
The most fully portrayed figure among the Oakwood staff is the strict but fair and unusually dutiful Mr Mpofu, who (without breaking the teachers’ strike) faithfully brings a daily newspaper to the class every day and also dishes out mathematics (homework) to them, making sure that all the pupils’ education continues and that classroom order is maintained. He has previously shown unobtrusive interest in Shamiso, chiefly in the form of giving her extra maths problems to solve! The reader is given the hint that he is politically sympathetic to the stand Muloy (Shamiso’s father) adopted, and greatly admired him, though he does not say any of this to the girl. Rumours have reached the pupils that Mr Mpofu was embroiled in a brawl (provoked by his unpopular and risky views on Zimbabwean politics) at the nearby pub frequented after work by many of the teachers. Not that he shows any favouritism, or imposes his views on the pupils – for example, when he (a few days after the girls’ night-time conversation) spots Shamiso and Tanyaradzwa coming late to a preparation session, although seemingly just back at the school and limping slightly (presumably because of the bar fight in which he was attacked), he calls out to them reprovingly: “Pfumojena … Muloy …” and asks them with mild sarcasm: “Did you … happen to … hear the siren?” While Tanyaradzwa explains that her illness makes it hard for her to run, Mpofu points out that Shamiso has no such excuse, and he also includes Paida (who has been walking behind the other two) in his ruling: “Then I believe … detention tomorrow … might help your hearing … next time the siren sounds.” Tavengerwei takes some care in portraying this man, from her mimicking of his slow, hesitant speech, to describing his careful grooming: for example, stating that he is seen “softly stroking his beard as though it were a pampered royal cat” as he strolls towards the girls (107–8). The same chapter also contains an important detail for the plot. Shamiso now uses the satchel that was her father’s, at school. She has previously accidentally discovered a mysterious “yellow envelope” that is addressed to a person whose first name is Jeremiah. Shamiso has not opened or read the letter, which would seem to have been hidden. Unbeknown to the girl, this letter dropped from her satchel as she hurried towards Mr Mpofu – only to be snatched up by Paida, who says nothing to Shamiso about this, intent as she is on gaining anything that might incriminate her classroom “enemy” (as she and Shamiso, at this stage, regard each other).
Paida opens the letter in private and, reading first the name written in block letters at the end, quickly realises that this must be Shamiso’s father. Moreover, “a smug smile came over her as she realized who Shamiso’s father was” (109) – his name having been so prominently in the news since his death. As she reads the many pages of this letter, Paida’s “heart began to race with adrenaline”, but after her clandestine reading, “fear gripped her by the throat” (110).
The friendship between Tanyaradzwa and Shamiso grows, bringing to both “a strange sort of peace” (111), although Shamiso is still occasionally plagued by the thought that a time may come when this relationship ends or is unbearably challenged, anxiously anticipating the pain that the end of such a deeply committed relationship would cause her. Shamiso confides in Tanyaradzwa that she finds herself in a deep dilemma concerning Zimbabwe as “homeland”: her father’s emotional ties to the country were the cause of his return to it, and led to his death, and so (she says): “this place – it’s the reason why he’s gone … yet it’s the only thing that ties me to him. How am I supposed to love it?” she asks. Tanyaradzwa “recognised the pain”, the narrative voice states. She does so because she, too, has faced this type of emotional state: “she could see defeat wrapping its icy fingers around her friend”, and she knows what a “slippery slope” this constitutes. “Her eyes welled up in sympathy.” Tanyaradzwa’s own pain has made her unusually empathetic, but has also educated her in ways to help those afflicted by intense suffering. At first unable to think of anything to say that might help her friend, she reflects that “comforting an injured soul was such a mammoth task”. However, as the thought “struck her” how both she and Shamiso need and long for “healing”, she reminds Shamiso that, in his journalistic work, Shamiso’s father “wrote hope into people” and “he loved this place” (113). Tanyaradzwa, having witnessed her mother’s suffering from the pain and fear caused by her concern for her only child, has earlier observed her eyes “bloodshot and damp with tears”, and resolved: “there had to be hope; at least one of them had to have a speck of it” with which to face down the “voices” of gloom and doom in the mind, voices “screaming for her to give in” (65). To Shamiso, now next to her in a state resembling Tanyaradzwa’s mother’s, the remarkably mature girl uses exactly the right words not to minimise the emotional pain or pretend that it is easily endured or overcome. She says only that, as time passes, Shamiso will eventually feel emotions other than her pain, and also start to see what it was in or about Zimbabwe that her father loved. Although there is so much that is wrong, she states, and the “good old days” remain a mirage, “it will be better than it is now”, and the pain will end.
As Shamiso (typically) immediately challenges these words of comfort, saying, “How can you possibly know that?” Tanyaradzwa replies with a quote: “Well, hope is our only wing out of a stormy gale, isn’t it?” These words (which are, of course, emphasised by recurring from the novel’s title do make Shamiso’s eyes pop, but she also feels that she has heard them too often. For they were her father’s words, written in a “heartfelt oration of the olden days robbed from his beautiful country”; of the many, many “children of the soil” forced to leave Zimbabwe (as he and his family were); of how he had to choose between flying back for his father’s burial and sending the desperately needed money to his mother to pay for the ceremony. Shamiso turns to Tanyaradzwa with a would-be cynically dismissive response: “Let me guess – you’re one of those ‘the glass is always half full’ people, aren’t you?” (114). Tanyaradzwa is unfazed in her reply, though Shamiso still resists the effort required to take comfort and accept the task to continue hoping:
“If you hung out with me more, you’d know how very untrue that statement is. I’m definitely one of those people who thinks that if the glass is half empty, you might as well drink whatever is in it,” Tanyaradzwa replied at last, looking Shamiso in the eye. Moonlight danced across her left cheek. “But I know your dad was right about hope.” Shamiso narrowed her eyes. She wouldn’t listen to such talk. “If you ask me, hope is a dangerous thing. It can be a leap into endless darkness.”
Shamiso’s heart pumped as she walked briskly back to the hostel. It was clear from the pace of her feet that she was running from something. (115)
This intense emotional disagreement brings the two girls back to a state of relative estrangement, which each handles in a different way, Tanyaradzwa “pretending everything was all right between them, while Shamiso kept her nose buried in her book” (116). Suddenly, she discovers that her father’s yellow enveloped letter has disappeared from her satchel. Not finding it anywhere, she has to comfort herself with the thought that she does still have other bits and things of his left, although the letter appears irretrievably lost now. The next moment, Mr Mpofu appears in the class. He has, as usual, a newspaper in his hand. Timotenda, the boy who seems to be a monitor or prefect and who always takes the front position in the class to read to them from the newspaper, gets up with the intention of doing so again; however, Mr Mpofu waves him down and asks a surprised Shamiso to come forward. As she opens the paper, she notices (and says) that it is an old one. Nevertheless, the teacher insists:
“I know … We already celebrated Independence Day last month, but since your history teacher … is not coming in today …,” [he continues after a pause,] “I thought you could read one of the best pieces ever written commemorating our independence. No matter what happens … you kids must know we have a beautiful country, with a beautiful spirit. Don’t forget to fight for it when you must.”
The class listened in confusion. It sounded like a farewell speech of sorts. (118)
Shamiso is irritated, but then, as she scans the page, she spots the journalist’s name – her father’s! As she reads out his name before she is able to clamp her lips shut, the name evokes markedly different responses in three class members – Shamiso’s hands “clenched the paper”, Paida (sitting right at the front, as usual) clutches her backpack and Tanyaradzwa “perked up”. As Shamiso turns to the teacher, “he smiled softly and nodded”. Her own eyes fill with tears, which she blinks away as Mr Mpofu walks out of the room. Shamiso, hearing “voices in her head screaming at her to run” (118), just manages to push herself to read some of the last words her father wrote – a sort of testament.
The next day, Tanyaradzwa is called from the dining hall. Her father has been allowed to come on a short visit and bring her some supplies, privileges she is allowed because of her medical condition. The visit is especially well timed, since the deteriorating economy has left its mark on the pupils’ hostel meals – the soup is a gruel, and the tea is served black. Shamiso has wanted to swallow her pride and resume the friendship with Tanyaradzwa, but has been unable to bring herself to do so. As the pupils exit from the hall, Shamiso sees Tanyaradzwa standing. She has visibly lost weight. Unable to resist the emotional pull towards her friend, Shamiso uses her curiosity (and her instinctive concern for Tanyaradzwa) to ask her whether anything is the matter. She responds with “a mighty grin” – “We have food,” she said, as she “opened her bag of goodies, a peace offering” (125). At this, both girls laugh in delight at the welcome and timely food supply. In the above exchange, it is again Tanyaradzwa’s generosity and tact that strike one – her refusal to bear a grudge at Shamiso’s most recent rebuff of her kindly words, or to sulk and consume the food from home by herself, even though her own deteriorating health is evidently most in need of a good diet.
The next important scene in the novel depicts the music practice of a small band, in which the ailing Tanyaradzwa is the vocalist as well as the mbira player. She has (with strange urgency) insisted that Shamiso come to the group’s rehearsal; they are shortly to take part in an important music festival. As the somewhat reluctant audience of one listens to the four players’ performance, she admits to herself that “she had never heard such a beautiful collision of instruments”. For Tanyaradzwa’s “rusty voice pulled the chords together, riding with the harmony of the song”. Shamiso “marvels at the level of talent”, but the music also revives precious yet painful memories of her father. Then, something changes in the music, as Tanyaradzwa’s voice starts “unravelling into whispers”. Still she continues playing the mbira, but then the instrument tumbles from her hands, and droplets of blood fall from her nose. Shamiso, in tremendous shock, all but faints away as the three boys in the band begin to carry Tanyaradzwa from the room to get help. “Shamiso could barely move. Sounds, noises, screams shot through her ears. She closed her ears and fought to breathe” (132–3), unable, this time, to go to her friend’s assistance. What is noticeable here is (once again) the sensitive and affecting ways in which Tavengerwei uses auditory imagery and references to give power and vividness to the scenes that she evokes, emphasis falling on “Zimbabwean” sounds.
The dominant feeling in Shamiso that succeeds Tanyaradzwa’s collapse is an unacknowledgeable shame at her “cowardice” in being unable to assist her friend emotionally or practically in her crisis, for “it had been too much for her to stomach”. Grasping for the frail crutch of her last remaining cigarette, unable to sleep, she goes outside into the night to smoke. Lurking in a corner, she overhears Paida and another student engaged in discussing an illicit transaction: one of them is paying the other for doing her homework. But their whispered talk is interrupted when Paida remarks that she can smell smoke. Probably aware that they have been overheard plotting, Paida deftly turns the tables; she betrays Shamiso’s forbidden smoking habit to the matron, who arrives on the scene just then. (Shamiso refused to bribe her bullying fellow student to keep her mouth shut (134–7).) The result is inevitable: Shamiso is suspended and sent home to her impoverished mother. Attempting to keep the shameful, painful secret of her disgrace, Shamiso at first attempts to pull the wool over her mother’s eyes by claiming that she has been sent down because her school and boarding fees were not paid up, but her mother has evidently been informed that she was punished for smoking at school. Shamiso has let her mother down badly.
The realities of Zimbabwe’s economic ruin are forced onto the girl’s attention in Harare, as she is obliged to make herself useful by queuing for bread and other basics. Simultaneously, Tanyaradzwa and her parents have to make the painful decision of when and where her tumour is to be operated on. With the ruin of their currency, her father can no longer pay for the procedure in a private hospital; even public hospital costs are now more or less beyond their reach. Most fortunately, Tanyaradzwa’s oncologist cares so much for and about her brave young patient, who has unflinchingly opted for having the operation done as soon as possible (in a week’s time after the consultation following her collapse at the school), that she insists on going through with the procedure, stating to the father that the financial aspect can be dealt with in due course. Back in her own home, Paida sits with the papers that were enclosed in Shamiso’s yellow envelope. She cannot fully grasp their significance or make out most of what Muloy wrote about to “Jeremiah”, but she can see that the information is seriously dangerous to her father’s standing, even his freedom. However, like his daughter, but much more imposingly, Paida’s father is a bully to whom it is difficult to speak. Paida’s unpleasant suspicion of her father’s crookery is intensified when she hears that her 18-year-old brother, the recipient of a flourishing tea estate from their father, has absolutely no idea of doing anything in the least useful with the gift. All he has started doing, is selling off farm equipment for pocket money. What she decides to do is to sneak into their father’s study, severely out of bounds to her and her brother, to place the incriminating letter quietly on her father’s desk for him to deal with. When the man returns home in the company of other bigwigs, he sees her emerging from the room – for which she earns a scolding, unable to explain herself. The next day, unbeknown to her, the young woman who cleans the study will (with no suspicion of its significance) clear away the letter. Eventually, it will be delivered into the hands of the recipient it was meant for, though we never learn exactly how this happens.
Tanyaradzwa’s mother is not at home during the time that she awaits the operation; so desperate has the family’s financial position become, that she has left to engage in potentially lucrative trade in a neighbouring country to try and increase their income. Rather bored and lonely as she awaits both her parents’ return, Tanyaradzwa flicks through her many phone messages to Shamiso, of which the latter has replied to none. She is driven to wonder disquietingly: “Perhaps their friendship had only been temporary; it was possible! Perhaps she had mistaken their conversations for something more. Perhaps Shamiso, like everyone else, only saw her as a ticking time bomb” (165). Returning home after a trying day, Shamiso, in turn, is unpleasantly surprised to find that there’s a visitor, overhearing her mother in conversation with a strange male voice. He states that there is something important Shamiso needs to be told, but her mother is evidently resistant to the idea. Shamiso bursts in on them, glowering, to find the whole room strewn with papers. Her mother introduces the visitor as Jeremiah, with Shamiso scowling at him. Spotting the “lost” yellow envelope at Jeremiah’s feet, the girl rudely challenges him with the question: “Where did you get that?” – despite the fact that she must recall that he was the intended recipient of her father’s missive. When her mother asks her to serve Jeremiah tea and bread, she throws the loaf she has been queuing for at him, and storms out of the house. She takes a kombi taxi to town in a state of turmoil. Has her mother already found a “replacement” for her father? In her bewilderment, she stumbles across the busy street and nearly gets knocked down and killed. As luck would have it, the car that almost crashes into her is driven by her classmate Timotenda, home for the holidays. The youth sees the state she is in, decides that Shamiso needs a drink (a first for her), and drives with her to a place where they can avoid the age restriction (they are both merely 15 or just over). The narrative switches to Tanyaradzwa, lying in her bed as her mother pops her head in to check on her daughter. The two things she asks about are whether Tanyaradzwa definitely wants to proceed with the surgery and, secondly, whether she is going to ask her friend (Shamiso) to come and see her. Sensing that there’s a problem in the latter area, her mother enters the room. When Tanyaradzwa responds with silence to the second question, her mother astutely suggests: “Maybe she’s scared too?” Tanyaradzwa is too hurt and angry at Shamiso’s failure to respond to her messages to accept this, insisting, “That is no excuse!” Her mother advises, “It’s OK to be hurt when you feel people have forgotten about you, or when it feels like they’ve chosen to live without you,” and rubs her arm. As Tanyaradzwa’s tears flow freely down her face, her mother adds: “It’s OK to be upset. But, darling, maybe if you accept that people are people and they’re made of a lifetime of mistakes and fears, maybe you’d find yourself a lot more gracious” (183). The adult woman is evidently as careful and wise a comforter as her daughter has earlier shown herself to be.
At home, Shamiso wakes up in the morning after her outing with Timotenda with a crushing headache. This time, her pain is self-inflicted! She overhears voices in their small living room – one voice is Jeremiah’s, and he insists again that Shamiso must be told something that her mother clearly thinks unsuited to her young ears. But, upon entering, Shamiso is addressed by him; he informs her that her father returned to Zimbabwe in pursuit of a politically sensational story – that one of the government ministers had been corruptly exploiting the land redistribution measures, giving farms away to friends for free and auctioning others off to wealthy businessmen able to pay higher prices than qualified local farmers. He has, he says, given the story (with Muloy’s documentary evidence of his investigations into the matter) to a journalist, who will be running it the following day. People need to know about this, Jeremiah insists, and he explains that Shamiso also needs to know that her father was risking his life in pursuing the truth – he does not want her to learn about it from the newspaper. Shamiso and her mother look daggers at Jeremiah, but, clearly feeling that he had to do his duty, he leaves. Shamiso, desperate to alleviate her pounding headache, asks her mother for money for a “movie”, but her mom says she needs to come with her to assist her in a housekeeping job, and, moreover, she is not slaving at such menial tasks for money to waste on her daughter’s middle-class pleasures. They have to trudge a long distance to get to the place, later on entering a suburb for the super-wealthy. Shamiso only now realises vividly how humiliating her mother’s work is.
In Tanyaradzwa’s case, she is in hospital being readied for the operation. The kind doctor again reassures her that she gives Tanyaradzwa her word to do her utmost; the nurse, too, promises that “nothing will go wrong” (194). Such intended reassuring undertakings, of course, also intensify the awareness of the scary risks of the procedure. But Tanyaradzwa has courageously committed herself to undergo it all – whatever the outcome. Jumping back to Shamiso’s perspective, she finds herself horribly embarrassed: the door of the palatial home where her mother announces that she has come to do the laundry, is opened by none other than the snobbish Paida – her old school enemy. Paida, in a state of urgency, tries to force Shamiso (and her mother?) to leave the premises, when her father’s furious voice is heard. He is telling the two men with him to “[m]ake this go away!” (196). Checking that the speaker is “the Minister”, Shamiso’s mother stands her ground – “hands folded, nostrils wide and eyes refusing to blink at all” as she stares at the man. Shamiso whispers to her to leave, but her mom charges into the house, “pounc[ing]” on Paida’s father and shouting, “You murderer!” and “You killed my husband!” at him. Shamiso’s mom gasps, tears in her eyes, and is in a state of profound shock – “[h]er heart shook” (197–8) is how Tavengerwei memorably phrases it. It seems that she wanted to make her daughter face some of the realities of their newly impoverished state, not expecting to come face to face with the man responsible for Muloy’s death. The mother and daughter leave. Paida asks her father whether the situation might be linked to the envelope she left on his study desk; it turns out that he knows nothing about it – it must have gone into the post by mistake. As “the Minister” questions Paida, he discovers with horror that there was devastatingly incriminating evidence against him in the twice-“lost” letter.
“After everything that had just happened, Shamiso found herself standing at the hospital entrance, unsure whether or not this visit was a good idea. … But she also knew with a sudden clarity that she needed to be there for Tanyaradzwa.” The narrator adds: “Fear rode along and stood next to her, its hand in hers” (205). A week later, Shamiso gets home to the terrible news that “Jeremiah had been found beaten and thrown dead in a ditch close to his house” (211). In that day’s newspaper, Shamiso sees, the headline reads: “Muloy exposes corrupt minister from the grave”. Her mother is not home, and Shamiso is overcome at the thought of her dearest friend still in mortal danger at the hospital, “in tubes and surrounded by beeping machines” (212). She is still in a post-operative coma, and there is anxiety that if she does not regain consciousness within five days, the machines keeping her alive will have to be disconnected. Even as Shamiso tells herself that she, too, must maintain her courage and follow the examples of her father and Jeremiah, who died for the truth, she remains permeated with horror and tension. In desperation, she hurls a glass bottle holding a candle to the floor, only to incur a dangerously deep gash on her hand from a piece of broken glass. She recovers her senses in a hospital bed, to her relief spotting her mother and her grandmother walking towards her bed. Her mom seems “worn out”, but Shamiso feels how “[a] soft gratitude settled on her. Her mother had always been there for her, through everything” (215). Some days later, after witnessing the very low state into which the overwhelming events have brought her mother, Shamiso feels grateful that her grandmother is there to help.
A few days later, she braces herself and goes to Tanyaradzwa’s bedside, where she finds the band playing softly. They will perform what Timotenda calls “a tribute” to “Tanya” at the festival – clearly thinking that she may die. Shamiso is called from just outside the room by an unexpected voice – Paida’s! She has actually come to commiserate with Shamiso, despite all that has happened, saying, “I’m really sorry about your dad. And … and about Tanyaradzwa.” Timotenda has lingered, making a few light-hearted remarks to alleviate the terrible gloom and tension that have settled around the comatose girl’s bed – which Shamiso appreciates. When she gets home to find her mom still in bed, her grandmother calls her and shows Shamiso her father’s mbira. Her grandmother insists that, despite finding it painful to her fingertips and difficult to master, she must allow herself to be taught how to play it. Her father, too, had struggled initially, the old lady relates. Shamiso is persuaded, and soon afterwards the two share fond memories of Muloy over the mbira. Afterwards, Shamiso goes to check on her mother, embracing her. The old woman joins them, switching on the radio. The main news is that Paida’s father has been dismissed for corruption and is awaiting trial regarding “Patrick Muloy’s death” (232). Justice has been achieved at last – though at a terrible cost. Days later, on the crucial fourth day of Tanyaradzwa’s coma, Shamiso tries the effect of mbira music on her – also seeing whether berating her for allowing things to end the wrong way might shock her awake – but to no avail. Her parents request time alone with their precious daughter. Back at Shamiso’s home, there is a telephone call for her. The voice at the other end has Tanyaradzwa’s “gentle, husky” tone (237). I end my profile of this beautiful novel at this point. May the author write several more such texts!