In the book House of Stone, Novuyo Tshuma has crafted an ingenious account of Zimbabwe’s history.
The year is 2007, and 24-year old Zamani is lives in Bulawayo, the main city in the Matabele region of southwest Zimbabwe.
He rents a tiny back room in the home of Abednego and Agnes Mlambo. The Mlambos are deeply distressed by the recent disappearance of their teenage son, Bukhosi, in unclear circumstances.
Zamani knows what happened to Bukhosi, but has no intention of telling the Mlambos. Instead he has hatched a plan to become their surrogate son by ingratiating himself to them, extricating their histories and purging his own doubtful identity.
Not an easy task since Abednego is consumed with finding his lost son and constantly shuns his tenant, at least when he is sober.
Zamani has resorted to secretly feeding Abednego, a recovering alcoholic, liquor that is sometimes laced with stronger stuff.
Book One of the novel focuses on Zamani coercing an inebriated Abednego make his confessions.
In due course you sense that Abednego’s tale runs deeper and darker then the immediate trauma of a missing child. In Book Two, we spend time with the tight-lipped and long-suffering Mama Agnes, who dedicates an inordinate amount of time to the local church.
What starts off as a formulaic tale of a scheming young man with a creepy agenda suddenly unrolls into an impressive retelling of Zimbabwe’s history and an intricate family drama.
Naming a country
In the Shona language, house of stones is translated as “dzimba dza mabwe” which is where the name Zimbabwe is derived from.
This blunt review of the country’s chequered past stretches back to the conquest of the Matabele kingdom by colonialists up to the tenure of former president Robert Mugabe.
The story revolves around people who have had a disturbing life, perhaps a reflection of the volatile history. There are minor, colourful characters: A colonial farmer who had an affair with a local beauty; a church minister with a penchant for expensive Italian suites; and Thandi, Abenego's first wife who is a confident, urbane revolutionary and a huge admirer of the American activist, Angela Davis. Her militancy is put to the test when faced with real atrocities of war.
We read about a heinous military character called Black Jesus, the Gukurahundi massacres, and secessionist rallies, all linked to Zimbabwe’s worst atrocities.
Bit by bit we get the back stories. Why did Zamani end up a tenant in the house where he grew up? What is the story behind Abednego’s parentage? These and many other conundrums keep you turning the pages.
The narrative flips back and forth between the past and the present, from one person's story to another, with little preamble. Yet somehow Tshuma manages not to lose the reader.
Nor does she shy away from describing, in shocking and stomach churning detail, the carnage meted out by both white and black people during the freedom struggle and the civil upheaval in the 1980s.
Courage, betrayal, festering trauma, identity, and a deep need to belong are key themes throughout the book.
I admire how Tshuma, 28, has created a main character who is not likeable, but is definitely engaging. She has a lyrical style of writing and skilfully incorporates humour, the bizarre and romance.
Her earlier book, a novella and collection short stories called Shadows, received ritical acclaim. House of Stone is her first novel. Last year, it was voted by Oprah Magazine as one of the top 10 books to read.