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This Mournable Body


Tsitsi Dangarembga (Faber & Faber: 2020)

Whether Tsitsi Dangarembga's This Mournable Body wins the Booker Prize this year or not, this book is worth reading. Good novels take us deep into worlds different from our own, and this one has taken me far into the world of Mugabe's Zimbabwe, and the mind and body of a feisty, hard woman, trying to make her way in an unkind place and time. It is not an immersion I am likely to forget, and I don't want to forget it either.

Tambu, the woman with whom I have been allowed to share some living, was the central character of Dangarembga's earlier novel, Nervous Conditions. But that was long ago, and now Tambu is struggling with her life,and losing. A brilliant device of the book is to narrate Tambu's story in the second person. ‘You cannot look at yourself’, the novel says in its second paragraph. And page by page we as well as Tambu are addressed by this voice, which neither passes judgement nor flinches from the truth. Her frightening, alienating world becomes ours, with its textures and its tragedy but also its surprises and its hopefulness. Tambu experiences change.

Our sympathies are always easily engaged with the leading character of a novel. But by putting Tambu under this constant, steady scrutiny, we ourselves are questioned. Both Tambu and the reader have to reflect: Can this woman, the one who has said and done these things, really be you? Is this the truth you can acknowledge, Tambu? And gradually we realize that the action of this book is a searching judgment of this embodied person, not just a body but a soul who must find herself. If she can. And you, reader, what have you made of your life?


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