Book review: Nervous Conditions, by Tsitsi Dangarembga

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This review is quite long. It was going to be twice as long, but I cut it in half because people on the internet have ten second attention spans. If you’re intimidated by walls of text, here’s the tl;dr –

TL;DR – Nervous Conditions is great. Tsitsi Dangarembga writes really well. You should totally read this book, if you like books that deal with serious issues.

Alright. On to the full review.

 

The blurb:

“This stunning first novel, set in colonial Rhodesia during the 1960s, centers on the coming of age of a teenage girl, Tambu, and her relationship with her British-educated cousin Nyasha. Tambu, who yearns to be free of the constraints of her rural village, especially the circumscribed lives of the women, thinks her dreams have come true when her wealthy uncle offers to sponsor her education. But she soon learns that the education she receives at his mission school comes with a price. At the school she meets the worldly and rebellious Nyasha, who is chafing under her father’s authority. Raised in England, Nyasha is so much a stranger among her own people that she can no longer speak her native language. Tambu can only watch as her cousin, caught between two cultures, pays the full cost of alienation.

goodreads.com

Nervous Conditions is one of those books that arrest you ten pages in and leave you with no doubt that what you’re reading is a Very Good Book.

First off, the opening line is brilliant. Right from the beginning I was invested:

“I was not sorry when my brother died. Nor am I apologising for my callousness, as you may define it, my lack of feeling.”

Straight away I’m like:

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Who are you and why weren’t you sorry? This is your brother we’re talking about! I immediately wanted to know what was going on here, how she could be so indifferent to her own flesh’s passing. It turns out she has good reason to despise her brother, Nhamo; read and find out.

As I followed the author develop a wonderfully set scene in the first four pages, describing the setting, its fields, its river—what it meant to the community and how it lead to the development of their commercial area, I knew I was going to enjoy this book a lot.

Tsitsi Dangarembga’s writing style is beautiful. Her prose manages to be lyrical and accessible at the same time. She avoids overwriting and crafts incredible passages that further immerse you in the story, not take you out of it. One of my favourite passages:

Maiguru, keening softly, helped my father to coax my mother, now quiet and limp and bewildered, to the kitchen.

Keening. I remember keening that seemed to go on all through the night: shrill, sharp, shiny needles of sound piercing cleanly and deeply to let the anguish in, not out.”

This book is full of great prose.

The tone of the book is semi-autobiographical, and the story’s progress is driven chiefly by the protagonist, Tambudzai’s experiences, internal dialogue, and observations about her world, more so than by plot points or dialogue; and what a rich inner life Tambu has! Tambu, at age thirteen thinks more complexly about the world than many of the adults around her (certainly more so than her idiot father). She recognizes that just because things are a certain way doesn’t make them right, and much of her growth is in learning to navigate the minefield of who she wants to be, and who she is expected to be in a patriarchal landscape.

Tsitsi explores important themes in this book, and brilliantly too. She in some places directly addresses them (read: Tambu’s observations), but for the most part uses her characters as vehicles for her arguments. She doesn’t only make her point; she shows you. I found the author’s use of symbols and not-so-obvious imagery to make her arguments added a layer of depth to this book. Take for instance the way she relates women and meat in this book. A woman’s value is to either cook a man’s meat or earn her father a fat dowry of many cows. The idea that this society effectively reduced a woman to being a piece of meat is easy to miss, but when I realised it, I was floored.

This book is not an easy book. It’s an Important Book because, like every Important Book it is a mirror. It forces you to examine the ways you think about its subject matter. This book showed me that a lot of the ways I think about women’s rights is wrong. I thought being polite and nice to women was enough, but this book showed me no, it’s not enough to be passive about it, there’s a need to be a lot more active. I’m not talking about neo-feminism (or even old feminism), because I don’t believe that’s the answer, but justice. I won’t get into that now, as that’s for a whole other post.

The most obvious themes of the book (entrapment, patriarchy, self-discovery) are addressed up front, but the sub-themes of nationhood, cultural identity, and colonial rule are addressed almost in passing; you might miss them if you’re not paying attention. Yes, Nervous Conditions is about women and patriarchy, but it’s also about colonisation and the African, about Western ideas that don’t quite take root in African hearts, bearing malformed shoots and poisonous fruits. This is realized in what I personally think is the central conflict of the story: the conflict between Babamukuru and his daughter, Nyasha.

Babamukuru grew up before being westernized. He already had ideas about the way the world worked and what he expected of it, ideas shaped by his cultural identity. Nyasha, however, grew up in England, displaced before any sense of cultural identity could be formed in her, before she could think of her father’s society as “normal”. The conflict between Baba and Nyasha is painful, because they appear to be on opposite sides, but are they really? They both find themselves having to navigate a society that is changing (however cosmetic that change may be). One of them is too traditional to adapt to this change; the other is too forward in her expectations of how this change should be realised. Their conflict is painful, because here we see that they are really opposite sides of the same coin; the African forced to accept the Western culture’s ways and values.

I could go on and on about this book. I could rave about each character and why I hate (oh my days, Nhamo!) or love them. I could write paragraphs and paragraphs about Nyasha and why she is the real main character of the book, but I’d rather you read it. I’d rather you read it and form your own opinions about it, your own ideas about its themes and symbols and characters. Read it and let it have its effect on you, then make notes or write a review. When you do, please let me know. I’ll be excited to talk about it for hours.

I give Nervous Conditions 5/5 stars.

 

I read Nervous Conditions as SEEK International’s Book of the Month in May. It’s a great book club for Ghanaians primarily, you should totally join. For more information visit their Facebook page: SEEK International.

I believe there’s a paperback available at the Legon Bookshop, if you prefer hard copies.

 

Book review: Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor

I’ve always loved fantasy and liked sci-fi. Fantasy has a special place in my heart, because good swords-and-sorcery fiction is just made of win. There’s a lot to love in the genre, especially when it’s done well (a la Brandon Sanderson, Patrick Rothfuss, Scott Lynch).

All my life I’ve been reading these books, and not once have I read an author who looks like me. Almost every book of the genre that I’ve read was by an American author with your typical nerd history (played D&D, huge Star Wars/Star Trek fan), and I think they’re to blame for my geek leanings. I mean, what business has a Ghanaba like me have wishing we had LARP meets in Ghana?

Not once have I read a fantasy or sci-fi book by a black author. I’m sure there are a couple out there, I just never read one. Then I stumbled upon Nnedi Okorafor, and her novella Binti. I saw a picture of the cover art on my Twitter feed, and was immediately intrigued. A black protagonist? A Nigerian name on a sci-fi book? A female Nigerian sci-fi writer? And she’s getting good press? I immediately had to read this book, and so I did. Let me tell you, Binti is a great book. It’s sci-fi, which as I said is a genre I like, but don’t read much of, and so I came to this book with no expectations. I was only hoping for an engaging read and some interesting characters.

Binti is a Nebula Award winning novella that follows the titular character on her journey across space to Oomza University, the finest institution of higher learning in the galaxy. She is the first of the Himba people to ever be offered a place at Oomza, but her decision to accept the offer upturns her life and is strongly opposed by her family. Binti is willing to acquire knowledge no matter the cost, and determines to make the journey regardless. She had no idea that what was supposed to be a routine flight would take a disastrous turn, and her life would be changed forever.

I’m trying to not spoil much, because I’d rather you read it as I did, with no idea what to expect, and form your own opinions about it. I really, really wanted to love this book totally and completely, with no reservations, and be completely blown away by it, but I wasn’t. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the writing, the attention to detail, and the effort it takes to craft a great story and a convincing world in under 100 pages, so I’m not being hypercritical. It’s just some things felt a little forced for me, some things did not play out the way they should have (I’m talking about consequences for atrocious actions), and I had a sense there was far more that Nnedi could have done with this. The resolution felt a little too bow-tied and perfect, but the sections in which Binti talks about the history of her people, their suffering and the richness of their culture are amazing. It’s not a perfect book, but it’s not half bad either. I really recommend you pick it up if you can. The sections about the Himba people alone are worth it.

I like this book for another reason. Nnedi Okorafor is an inspiration to me, being Nigerian and yet writing sci-fi. I’ve always had trouble with the fact that African writers seemed to only write a certain kind of book, that was always set in a certain kind of place, and dealt with a certain kind of theme. I don’t like the fact that the phrase “African writer” evokes images of savannas for cover art and themes of colonial oppression and race and hardship. Yes, much of African history is similar in certain regards and many people in many places across the continent have had similar experiences, but I do not believe there is one “African narrative.” We are many things. We are not an undifferentiated mass of shared experience and choices. We should be allowed to tell our stories how we want to, and I believe Nnedi Okorafor did exactly that, in a fresh approach that resonated with me immensely. I really liked this book. My only gripe was with some of the storytelling choices she made. That said, this is a great book that explores themes of importance to us, and the fact that it’s done in a fresh, unconventional format makes this novella a must read.

I give Binti 4/5 stars.

 

 

Binti is available in audio format on audible.com, and I recommend you get the audiobook if you can. I enjoyed it a ton.