BookBlast review of What Happened to Us by Zimbabwean writer Ian Holding, set amidst the faultlines of modern Africa.
The bleakness and violence of life in modern Zimbabwe underpin this powerful coming-of-age tale, as thirteen-year-old Danny comes to understand critical truths about himself, his family and their milieu – and his country. His social observations and attempts to put to rest some of the painful questions surrounding the brutal event which lies at the heart of the novel offer an eye-opening look at life in another culture, and the tensions that lie behind the news headlines.
“I think what happened to us started the day I as out playing on the streets of our neighbourhood and accidentally pissed on the President’s face. I was a thirteen year old kid, skinny, lean-boned, full of shit.”
Upturned fruit slats balanced on bricks serve as makeshift street stalls from which rotund ladies perched on small stools sell vegetables. Danny Walker has fun doing wheelies and sharp turns, braking so hard that clouds of dust billow behind him. Everyone yells angrily at him. On his way home down the hill in the searing heat, he passes three men in blue overalls – two are tall, the third is short and stocky. The boy feels a sense of sinister unease as he turns into the driveway of his well-to-do suburban house in Alice Smith Road.
Danny flirts over the wall with pouty Amy next door, swims in the pool, plays with the dogs, and hangs out online with his friends. It is very, very hot and very, very dull. His gorgeous, leggy older sister Becca enjoys dance classes and is dating a school prefect who is a rugby first XV winger. Danny’s dad manifests an entitled and patronising attitude towards Ignatius who looks after the garden and washes the car, calling him a “bloody munt” when he makes a mistake.
All is not as it seems beneath the apparently comfortable surface of white suburban life. Odd things start to happen: there is a power cut, someone rings the gate bell on a couple of occasions yet no one is there. Then Petra the cook is panicked and upset by juju objects placed by the front door, “balls of long bush grass, four of them, about palm-sized, definitely shaped and woven by hand. Through the centre of each one, inserted into the apex of these grassy globes, were two narrow sticks, ties at their centre with layers of black thread, making the shape of an X.”
Danny’s dad complains about the “indigenisation” law, and becomes the business partner of Mr Sithole who bails out his struggling business; “a distorted balance of power hovering between them.” As Walker puts it to his family, “Just think of it as banking a nice cheque and getting a highly connected business partner while the going’s good . . . and willing.” Mr Sithole’s son, James, is at Danny’s school and longs to be part of Dannys’ group of friends, but he is just a bit too anxious; a bit too keen to please. Then Danny is obliged by his parents to be friendly to James as part of the necessary diplomatic niceties between his father and new business partner. During a visit to their bling-bling house, Danny confesses that, “I did something very mean to James Sithole, very unnecessary . . .”
The intense heat magnifies the uneasy sense of foreboding. Dozing off in his room at 11.30p.m. one night after dinner, Danny hears a sudden muffled cry, and his father’s steps coming to his bedroom door. The key turns in the lock. The words, “There’s no one else in the house, no one” are said loudly as though to tell him to be quiet. There are cracking noises, and voices taking in garbled English and Shona. Then silence. “The domestic quarters were hidden behind a thick, tall hedge at the far back of the property, behind the kitchen, the garages, neatly out of sight . . .” Danny hollers for help out of the window.
The police finally arrive. Danny’s parents had been tied up and locked in the dressing room – their money and jewels stolen from the safe – and Becca tied up in her bed. The inference is that she was raped although it is not stated explicitly. “I couldn’t get to grips with anything, couldn’t grasp the gravity of it,” says the boy. Family harmony and humdrum routine is shattered.
The top cop from Special Branch does not get very far in solving the crime as there are no substantial leads, and break-ins are common. So Danny begins his own investigation, based on a hunch that if the intruders belong to a gang he can find out if other homes in the area have also been attacked in a similar way. “I wondered what exactly went on in Special Branch. How many files on shady citizens they collected, persons of interest, people in high places? What top secret scandals did they keep tabs on, political intrigue, affairs of state, people of prominence, gay encounters, dodgy mining deals, acts of corruption? Then I wondered if that’s what they did at all.”
The deceptively simple storytelling narrates a disturbing and layered tale with admirable grace. The author’s sensory detail, imagery, and strong descriptions build up tension and a textured impressionistic feel of domestic life that is destroyed by a random and traumatic act of violence coming in from the outside. Nothing is stable. Nothing is safe. Nothing is serene.
And no one is innocent. The onslaught of violence on which the book ends is a chilling reminder of Dr Martin Luther King’s words said in 1958, “Hate begets hate; violence begets violence; toughness begets a greater toughness. We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love.”
To discover new talent from Zimbabwe which has such rich literary and linguistic heritage makes me hungry for more. Ian Holding is regarded as being at the forefront of a new generation of Zimbabwean authors and commentators. So up next for a very good read are his two earlier novels, Unfeeling and Of Beasts & Beings.
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