From the city of Bulawayo in southern Zimbabwe comes an entertaining family saga in the novel, A Family Affair by Zimbabwean Sue Nyathi.
"It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman of childbearing age must be in want of a husband." This is the opening line of the book, influenced by Jane Austen’s acclaimed classic Pride and Prejudice. It immediately sets the tone for the romantic journeys of the three Mafu sisters whose lives are full of ups and downs.
Xoliswa, Yandisa and Zandile are the daughters of Pastor Abraham and his wife Phumla. The well to do, tight-knit family looks perfect on the outside, but the real side tells a different story.
Strong, dependable Xoliswa has relocated back to Zimbabwe after many years of living in the British Virgin Islands. She wants to restart her life and pours herself into salvaging the family business, hoping to assuage her broken heart after an abrupt breakup with her long-time boyfriend. Yet her svelte good looks naturally attract male attention although not always of the right kind.
Traditional view of marriage
Zandile has recently gotten married to the love of her life in a big white wedding. Idealistic and compliant, she embraces the traditional view of marriage, focusing on her husband, home and children. But matrimony and motherhood turn out not to be the bed of roses she imagined. She will have to make hard choices about career and family, and the sacrifices this will entail.
The second-born Yandisa is a buxomly, insolent and rebellious young woman with few academic strengths. She makes no pretenses about her flaws and I found her the most endearing character. She is the product of unresolved childhood trauma, which cloud her judgment and drive her misguided actions.
She parties hard, drinks heavily and puts up with an abusive boyfriend. Nevertheless, her determination to rise above circumstances is admirable and you can't help but root for her to succeed.
The youngest child in the Mafu family is 12-year-old Babalwa, a much-loved child who longs to know who her real father is.
In their quest for a "happily ever after" the sisters land into a quagmire of adulterous affairs, unplanned pregnancies, theft, attempted suicide and more. When Babalwa discovers the truth about her birth it shakes her to the core and threatens to break-up the family. Through it all, Pastor Abraham will not tolerate any failures in his children that may blight the family's reputation.
Time and again issues are swept under the carpet, with the pastor hurling threats and intimidations to subdue his family. Then his day of reckoning arrives, when the past catches up with him and long-hidden secrets are uncovered. Despite their many tragic experiences, love and strong bonds keep the Mafu family together.
The story is set in the Zimbabwe of the 2000s, a time of biting economic hardship and hyperinflation. Goods are exchanged on the black market and bundles of banknotes are needed to buy basic items. But the wealthy can afford to fly to South Africa for their grocery shopping.
Though not the central theme, we are exposed to the vast inequalities between the haves and have-nots, and understand how destitution is a driver of female inequality.
This is Nyathi's third book and she has penned an enjoyable account of real-life issues, interspersed with sexy love scenes, pious ardour and humorous encounters among family members. She gives an authentic view of sisterhood, family relations, dating and marriage in modern day Zimbabwe, although the issues could be applied to many African countries.
She explores the woes facing women beset by sexism, patriarchy, gender violence, undue pressure to marry, and a religious ardour that turns a blind eye to glaring crimes against girls.
To some extent, A Family Affair presents a stereotypical view of men as none of the male characters are presented in a good light. At over 400 pages, the story could have benefited from having fewer characters, who are more developed and get us really engaged with the key personalities. There are an infinite number of topics and threads covered here, but many felt incomplete or abruptly concluded.