The Book of Not

The Book of Not
By Tsitsi Dangarembga
Ayebia Clarke Publishing Ltd.
August 2006
Available from
Dangarembga makes a welcome return in The Book of Not
The Book of Not is Tsitsi Dangarembga's second novel and a seque

l to Nervous Conditions, the award-winning first book published in 1988. In the simple tale of Tambu’s thirst for an education, set against the background of the oppressive settler regime in Rhodesia three years after UDI, Dangarembga reveals the contradictions inherent in a society founded on patriarchy buttressed with colonialism, and the alienation and identity-loss peculiar to the colonised and oppressed.
The Book of Not picks up where Nervous Conditions ends. Tambu is now at Scared Heart College, where she discovers that entry into the world of elite education comes at its own cost. Away from the school, war is raging between the African guerrillas and Rhodesian security forces. The promised self-awareness at the end of Nervous Conditions, “[quietly, unobtrusively and extremely fitfully, something … began to assert itself … and refuse to be brainwashed” is far from being fulfilled; Tambu is not only in serious danger of being brainwashed at school, but also of brainwashing others. She must efface her village life, and especially her sister’s participation in the guerrilla war. She battles contradictory feelings of inferiority and rebellion, choosing at every instance the path of least resistance, even if it means knitting balaclavas for the boys of Rhodesia’s green and white flag, the same forces that have perpetrated the cycle of devastation wrought on her family, and later, even if it means leaving a job at which she has become competent.
Despite Tambu’s best efforts to forget the subject, the war encroaches even on Sacred Heart’s manicured lawns. In the internecine strife between the girls of the school’s African dormitory Dangarembga mirrors deftly the wider nationalist struggle between those who sought to accommodate the settler regime, to fit within it as good assimilated natives, and those who sought to challenge it and to destroy it. Dangarembga has an excellent eye for mannerism and detail; her description of school life and its characters feels true.
Dangarembga’s exploration of racism reveals self-evident truths about the colonial experience. But these seem frivolous in the light of the plight of Tambu’s various family members. In focusing primarily on white supremacist engagement with black people, Dangarembga misses an opportunity to tell the darker story, tantalisingly hinted at, of the effect of the war on Tambu’s family. In The Book of Not, our glimpses of what the war really meant for ordinary people, and of one family we have come to care about, are revealed in bursts that are then hidden behind the conifers and jacarandas of Sacred Heart College.
Missing from The Book of Not are the two most memorable characters from Nervous Conditions. Lucia who refuses to have her sexual needs treated as the concern of the men of the household, is completely absent, while Nyasha, whose rebellion ended in debilitating bulimia, is catatonic from antidepressants for the most part. And while the opening chapter of the novel compels with its raw power and searing images, “up, up, up in the sky, the leg spun … [a] piece of person up there in the sky”, the narrative is sometimes weighed down by excessive adverbs and distracting onomatopoeia. The kongolo and tingili of the school bell, the doof-doof of both Tambu’s heart and pestles on mortar, and the ko-ko-ko of high heels pop up with repetitive regularity.
The Book of Not is a polished, competent, and sometimes lyrical novel. Readers will rejoice that Dangarembga has overcome successfully what the American novelist Thomas Wolfe called the “terrible, soul-shaking, heart-rending barrier of the accursed second book”. As a sequel to Nervous Conditions, however, the novel ultimately leaves an unshakeable dissatisfaction that one associates with stories hinted at and begun but not completed. Sequels generally disappoint, especially where the predecessor was as stunning and revelatory as Nervous Conditions. Dangarembga is currently writing the third novel in what is to be a trilogy. This reviewer hopes that even after she is done with telling Tambu’s story, there will be more novels from Dangarembga. – Petina Gappah is a lawyer and writer who lives in Geneva, Switzerland. She is currently completing her first novel.

Post published in: Arts

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