We first meet Tambudzai Sigauke, a Zimbabwean woman not young but not yet middle-aged, in a hostel in Harare. She is in a predicament: Despite her impressive education, she is unemployed.
Escaping the hostel, Tambu moves in with an eccentric Christian widow whose niece, Christine, is an ex-combatant in the war for liberation that still hangs over people’s minds. “You know,” Christine observes of Zimbabwe’s Independence Day, “it is better to call it April 18. What do we really know about independence?”
Author Tsitsi Dangarembga, who lives in Zimbabwe, writes this often grim story with a great deal of wit. Tambu was also the protagonist of her debut novel, "Nervous Conditions” (1988), which won the Commonwealth Writers Prize. Now, in "This Mournable Body,” Dangarembga gives us something rare: a sparkling antiheroine we find ourselves rooting for.
At the widow’s, Tambu listlessly looks for jobs and obsesses about her major regret: events at an advertising agency that she “wilfully quit.” The white men there took her best copy and put their names on it. Living off money saved from that job, she’s determined to discover her destiny, preferably something upwardly mobile.
Eventually, she finds a job teaching biology, even though she has no experience. After that, she goes to stay with Nyasha, her cousin who always “wins and gets the best of everything,” and is now married with children.
Despite her independence, Tambu is uninterested in the feminist consciousness-raising group Nyasha organizes. “You cannot think of anyone who is interested in women’s issues, apart from the woman who has issues,” Tambu thinks. (The book is seamlessly written in the second person). Coming on the heels of several scenes of shocking degradation and violence against women, this statement is remarkable. Tambu is strangely apolitical; she simply wants to succeed for herself at nearly all costs.
She’s given a chance later in the novel, and her hard work is well rewarded. But as the story marches to a close with Tambu heading back to her old village, it’s unclear what might happen when her ambition and her family collide with the new demands of capitalism. Tambu can be seen as a symbol as well as a character: Her striving to become prosperous amid dysfunction echoes modern Zimbabwe’s ongoing struggle to outgrow stifling corruption.
By Tsitsi Dangarembga
Graywolf. 284 pp. Paperback, $16
Sheila McClear is a New York journalist and author.