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Merle

Merle

Nervous Conditions [Import] - Tsitsi Dangarembga, Kwame Anthony Appiah I wasn’t going to read this book, because I already had one for Zimbabwe and thought it was just another coming-of-age story. Then I read this critical essay, which made me sit up and pay attention. And so I wound up reading the book, which is good, but oh, so depressing.

I should say that the books I find depressing are somewhat idiosyncratic. A lot of people have trouble reading about war and related atrocities, but those books rarely affect me much; they’re just too far beyond my realm of experience to evoke strong reactions. But give me bureaucratic stupidity or, as here, oppressive societal structures ruining people’s lives, and yikes! That’s awful! How can people enjoy reading that!

So, this book. It’s about colonialism and patriarchy, but more specifically it’s about the ways families enforce patriarchy, about struggles within families for dominance on the one hand and independence on the other, and about the ways these systems hurt and distort and destroy people--particularly girls. It’s heavy stuff. And I’m not so sure it’s a coming-of-age novel at all: Tambudzai, the narrator, is a teenager, and she gains knowledge and experience, but along the way she loses her confidence, perhaps even her sense of identity.

There isn’t a lot of plot here in the traditional sense, but at the same time there’s a lot going on: there’s Tambu’s struggle to get an education; there’s her relationship with her more worldly cousin, Nyasha; there’s Nyasha’s rebellion against her father’s authority; there are the various other relationships within the family. Tambu’s impoverished mother and her well-educated aunt are both unhappy with their roles in life, but resigned to them; there’s really nowhere else for them to go because--this is crucial--their family is shaped by the larger society and doesn’t seem to be any better or worse than anyone else’s. There’s a tendency in books about oppression of women to lay all the blame at the feet of some particularly awful man--which makes for a more optimistic story, because then all the heroine has to do is escape that man, find a nice one and ta da! Happy ending! But the patriarch here, Babamukuru, is far from a monster: he’s a successful man who’s generous with his extended family, and in return he expects gratitude and obedience. After all, he knows what’s right, and everyone else is his responsibility.

So, the characters are well-drawn and believable, and their relationships have the depth and authenticity you’d expect from a literary novel. The writing is also good and the themes are handled well. The book does perhaps over-explain its characters’ psychologies, in the way old-fashioned novels do, but it was only written in 1988 and might have benefited from telling less and trusting readers more. It’s written from Tambu’s perspective as an adult woman, with a much greater understanding of the events and characters than she had at the time, but we never see how she reached that understanding; the ending is abrupt, and feels more like a beginning than an end. But maybe it had to be told this way; maybe the dynamics portrayed here are so subtle and so unexceptional that if not pointed out they would be lost entirely.

At any rate, this book was a bit of a struggle for me--although short, it’s not a quick or light read. But it is well-written and thoughtful enough that it’s worth the effort.