Opening sentence: "Two days after I turned fourteen the son of our neighbor set his stepmother alight."
Summary: "In Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, the son of Lindiwe Bishop's white neighbor, seventeen-year-old Ian McKenzie, is arrested for a terrible crime. A year later Ian returns home, the charges against him dropped. He is brash and boisterous, full of charm and swagger, and fascinating to fifteen-year-old Lindiwe. She accepts a ride from him one day, despite her mother's warnings, and something grows between then -- becoming stronger and stronger in a world that wants nothing more than to divide them. A secret that Lindiwe keeps hidden, and which Ian discovers years later, ensures that their lives will be irrevocably entwined as their country crumbles around them."
My take: Similar to Commencement, my last read, in two respects: first, both were the first novels of female authors; and second, both have vivid, interesting settings that are at least as important as the characters and plot. The novel opens in early 1980 in newly-independent Zimbabwe, shortly before the election of Robert Mugabe as president. Lindiwe, a sheltered, bookish 14 year old, has just moved with her parents to the formerly whites-only Baysview neighborhood of Bulawayo when something awful happens next door. Although Lindiwe hears only snippets of conversation between her father and the new chief constable, it's enough to make the crime haunt her for years:
"'This is a very sad business we have come about. We ... We are looking for evidence ... We have thoroughly investigated the McKenzie property, and now we are checking all the neighboring land. We would like to take a look by the perimeters. ... He was smelling heavily of smoke, Mr. Bishop, shaking nonstop, you could think he was suffering from heavy-duty malaria. We have never had any problems from that place before. It seems the boy has only just come from South Africa for his father's funeral. ... It was very bad, very bad over there ... The youngster, only seventeen, came into the station, gave himself up. And you are quite sure you have never seen this boy before? ... We found the remains at the back of the house by the boy's kaya. Eighty or so percent of the body burnt, just bone left in some parts. ... But, madoda, this is a strange case. There is another woman also; the young man brought her first to the hospital before he came to us. ... It is not at all sure she will survive ... And we do not know the precise identity of this woman. We are not sure of her age, if she is even local. ... He will not talk about her, nothing. Tsh, he will have enough time to think about all this in the stocks.'"A month later, as Lindiwe settles into her new, former whites-only, Group A school, and is befriended by British-born newcomer Bridgette, Ian is convicted of his stepmother's murder, and sent to jail. However, a year later, his conviction is overturned, and he returns to Bulawayo. Defying her mother's explicit prohibitions, Lindiwe begins allowing Ian to drive her to and from school, and a closeness grows between the two:
"The fourth time was when it really began. ... This time I noticed things about him: how his hair was cut so short it looked as if he had meant to shave it and then changed his mind at the very last minute, how his hands were bruised. ... It was only later, lying on my bed, that it came to me -- not once sitting there with him did I think of him as the boy who might have done that terrible thing. Not once."Months later, she confesses,
"Day after day, I keep opening my diary; the pages all flick past, empty. I try to write things, like how I started off in March, when I was so excited about finally having my own diary. Things about what had happened in school or at youth group. But I've stopped writing because what I want to write now is too big to be safe in there, even if I do have a lock and key. So I just put X's, my secret secret."Fast-forward ten years, to the early 1990s. Lindiwe, a university student in Harare, has taken up with an older crowd of French expats, her 45-year-old lover Jean among them. Ian, a photographer, is back from an extended stint living and working in South Africa. The pair take off on a spontaneous trip to Nyanga National Park, during which Ian inadvertently stumbles across Lindiwe's secret. Their relationship, to put it bluntly, is forever changed.
We follow Lindiwe and Ian through the end of the 2oth century, as they struggle with challenges great (Zimbabwe crumbles under the increasingly mismanaged and repressive Mugabe regime; Ian's photos garner the mixed blessing of presidential attention) and small (living as a mixed-race couple in a polarized society; Lindiwe's father withers away in the wake of a stroke and his wife's condemnation; Bridgette contracts AIDS).
The story is an interesting one, if a bit confusing at times. It can't quite decide whether it's primarily an historical novel or a tale of love and friendship, which isn't altogether bad -- but I did sometimes find myself wanting more of one or the other. The larger political and social events are pretty much always there in the background, but are mostly alluded to rather than explained outright. This makes sense, given that the narrator is a native Zimbabwean, and I have seen many a story weakened by too much background ... but was still occasionally perplexing for those of us less familiar with the subject matter. On the other hand, although Lindiwe is our narrator, she doesn't tell us everything about her experiences and motivations. The effect is similar to how a real-life friendship develops; you learn bits and pieces of who the person is and what their life has been over time, but sometimes, even after you think you know each other, your friend still surprises you.