Review by Tess Tabak
In This Mournable Body, a woman named Tambudzai grapples with the harsh realities of living in Zimbabwe after the Revolution of the 1990s.
The author, Tsitsi Dangarembga, writes on familiar topics (anxiety, existential dread) but set against a backdrop that’s truly harsh and depressing. Tambu is mistrustful of white people living in Zimbabwe – but this isn’t the crystal clear “us vs. them” of books set further in the past, like Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. The white people in this novel are somewhat further removed from the atrocities of their ancestors. In modern Zimbabwe, the lines have blurred. The white people that Tambu loathes haven’t done anything “wrong,” per se, except for profiting off the crimes of previous generations. Tambu acknowledges her advantages – she received a Western education at a prestigious school – but oppression means that she still can’t find a suitable job, unable to tolerate the way that white men steal her work for their own, or how she’s paid far less than her peers just because she’s black.
Meanwhile, Zimbabwe’s Revolution has put the entire country in a state of upheaval. The author doesn’t fill in the history, but it’s clear something bad happened, that upset the balance of power – and that the new government is filled with corruption. In her struggle for survival, Tambudzai becomes selfish. She watches her cousin trying to spread social good, creating a workshop to empower Zimbabwean girls, and reflects on the fact that not everyone “has the luxury of surviving without being obsessed with one’s own person.”
We are deeply inside Tambu’s head for most of the novel. Tambu has a rich internal narration – the author’s use of the second person is very engaging. It simultaneously draws the reader closer into the action and conveys Tambu’s sense of depersonalization. Tambu is a very relatable narrator, in that she’s not extraordinarily brave or heroic or virtuous. She does what most of us would do in a dire situation. There’s a scene early on in the book where Tambu watches one of her white hostelmates beaten and does nothing – she’s paralyzed by her own thoughts, mired in anxiety.
The publication of this book is aptly timed, as President Mugabe recently died, leaving Zimbabwe once again in a state of turmoil. Aside from telling an engaging story about a woman plagued by fear and dread, This Mournable Body will hopefully open the eyes of Western readers to the history and politics of a region they may have been unfamiliar with.
This Mournable Body will be released August 7, 2018 from Graywolf Press.
The Furious Gazelle received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.