First Street in Harare Photo: Gary Bembridge, Flickr

What Tambu did next

The third instalment of Zimbabwean novelist Tsitsi Dangarembga's new book has an oppressive feel
March 4, 2020

Tsitsi Dangarembga’s debut novel Nervous Conditions (1988) was the first by a black Zimbabwean woman to be published in English. In 2018, it was named by the BBC as one of the top 100 books to have shaped the world. Dangarembga published a sequel, The Book of Not, in 2016 and This Mournable Body is the third book in this series, although it can be read as a standalone novel.

Dangarembga returns to the story of Tambu—a teenager in Nervous Conditions, now a single middle-aged woman. Having recently left her disappointing job as an advertising copywriter, she is living in a women’s hostel in Harare.

Her lack of options haunts her: “Fear, your recurrent dread that you have not made enough progress toward security and a decent living, prickles like pins and needles.” The precarity of her position is underscored by her repeated reference to the “Lady Di heels of real European leather shoes that were a present received some years ago from your cousin who travelled abroad to study,” which she is so keen to preserve that she replaces with plimsolls after each failed job interview.

There is some lightness here: at the hostel she piles her plate with pot roast beef and boiled potatoes—“you don’t lose your appetite over another person’s problems,” she says—but her misery and sense of failure become oppressive.

Early in the narrative, Tambu’s predicament is such that “every minute of each twenty-four hours taunts you with what you are reduced to.” Her situation seems to worsen with each fresh humiliation and although her response is often spirited, the sense of suffocation can be overwhelming for the reader. The episodic nature of the action is also frustrating.

Dangarembga can pack so much meaning into an individual sentence—“a plea in her gaze turns over onto its back in submission”—but it is hard to find much else to savour in this instalment of Tambu’s story.

This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga (Faber, £14.99)