Disturbing realities

2011-07-20 00:00

THIS accomplished novel is the winner of the Penguin Prize for African fiction. Literary prizes are flying around like autumn leaves at the moment, and while recognition for good writing should be welcomed, I wonder whether Ellen Bandu-Aaku’s work isn’t being unfairly pigeonholed. Yes, it is a novel by an African writer, and yes, the action takes place in an African setting, but the story is universal. Too many booksellers already have shelves creepily labelled “African writing”, and always positioned behind the “bestsellers”. It makes as much sense as having a “Scandinavian writing” shelf for all those endless, gloomy Swedish thrillers that pour out from those endless, gloomy Swedish winters.

That off my chest, let’s turn to the book. The narrator is Pumpkin, so called because she was a fat child. She is nine years old when her story starts in the late seventies, living with her mother in a Lusaka flat, paid for by her father, her mother’s lover. This Tata is a looming presence throughout the novel: promiscuous; clever; rich and, in an off-hand sort of way, kind. When he discovers Pumpkin’s mother’s alcoholism, he takes the child off to be raised with his other children, outside Lusaka on his farm. But it is not a safe time to live on the outskirts of Lusaka, especially when the neighbours are Zimbabwean freedom fighters.

Seen through her young eyes, Pumpkin’s coming-of-age is often disturbing. In it, the reader can watch the seeds being sewn of problems the adult woman will have to confront. She worships her Tata, though he has treated her mother badly, but she doesn’t know why her grandmother hates him as well. And adult role models are hard to find.

The last third of the book deals with an adult Pumpkin, returned from overseas study, and now a married woman and a mother. Tata has ambitions to enter politics, though his womanising is a potential hindrance. However, he is still a great fixer for his daughter and her problems, and it is only when she is forced to confront some unpleasant realities — her own, and those of the wider society — that she will reach a true maturity. Banda-Aaku has created a believable, flawed heroine, in a fine novel.

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