From the Booker shortlist, today I want to catch up with Tsitsi Dangarembga’s This Mournable Body. This is a third-in-a-series book; I intended this fall to reread the first volume, Nervous Conditions, which I initially read for a college class several years ago, and then with that refresher jump into this third volume (the second book, The Book of Not, proved too difficult to get my hands on for now); I had the best of intentions, but the library due date snuck up on me before I was prepared for it so I ended up just going straight into This Mournable Body. This is the context for my review.
In the novel, Tambudzai is fast approaching middle age, and feeling stuck in her life. She is a native Zimbabwean woman who was born in an impoverished rural village and given the chance in her youth by a wealthier relative to improve her education and earn a degree. Now she has left a decent job at an advertising agency after facing discrimination, and has difficulty finding other work and even a suitable place to live. Down on her luck and giving into the temptation of thinking of herself as a failure, Tambudzai ignores gestures of kindness from her family in the village in favor of clawing her way into more prosperous circumstances, no matter the personal cost.
“You blob chilli sauce onto your eggs, wondering why everything, especially when white people say it, must come back to the village and your mother.”
First off, yes, this book can be read as a standalone. If you’re looking to complete the Booker longlist or shortlist this year without reading a full three-book series on top of the nominated titles (or two three-book series if you’re also reading the Mantel books from the longlist), it is possible to pick this one up without prior knowledge of the rest of the series- this plot will still make sense. But I think the best approach is to read the entire trilogy together, if possible.
This Mournable Body is a reactionary sort of book; Tambudzai is already in a hard spot when the story starts, and much of her struggle throughout the book harks back to earlier experiences in her life which have been explored in depth in the previous books. Key details are conveyed well enough here, but as memories of Nervous Conditions came back to me while reading This Mournable Body I realized there’s a lot of nuance packed into relationships and choices depicted in this book that will provide a deeper richness to readers who take the time to read the earlier volumes as well. Tambu’s emotions are clear in This Mournable Body, but perhaps they are more impactful if you’ve followed her through the difficult early years of her life. Take this statement, for instance, which sums up and builds on a chapter of Tambu’s life from Nervous Conditions satisfactorily enough to make its point, but does not quite equate to reading through the difficult years she spent at the school:
“How restoring it is, even as you plod toward middle age, to reap a positive outcome from the convent that, while it educated you, rendered you ‘them,’ ‘they,’ ‘the Africans.’ “
You may have noticed from the quotes I’ve included that this book is told in second person. It’s done very seamlessly- usually I find second person a bit clunky and very noticeable, but I actually did a double take here about halfway through the book when I realized all along I’d been reading Tambu as “you.” (Nervous Conditions is told in first person; I can’t speak to The Book of Not.) I think this is a great move on Dangarembga’s part; it helps readers who aren’t familiar with Zimbabwean culture to sympathize with and understand Tambu easily as the point of view puts the reader right into Tambu’s head and heart. At the same time, the second person also shows how disconnected Tambu is from herself for the duration of this story. She is stressed and traumatized, trying to suppress some powerful emotions and memories, and her mental state is fractured. This is emphasized for the reader as you are told you feel a certain way or do a certain thing that perhaps doesn’t always make immediate sense or fit with what is expected. So too is Tambudzai blindsided by some of her own actions and emotions, responses that have the ability to alter her life though they also feel very separate from the core of herself and who she wants to be. I feel I should include a CW for Tambu’s frame of mind, which drives her to violence and a mental institution, but I’m not sure exactly what term best covers it. Depression? Severe self-doubt? Disillusionment? The negativity and hopelessness visited upon her despite her best efforts can be hard to read, especially given the book’s point of view, so I’d suggest treading lightly.
“You labour under a sense that something unspeakable is about to occur, or that you will execute this abominable happening. Many times you come to believe you are the unutterable occurrence.”
Tension builds steadily throughout the book. Tambu is anxious, depressed, sometimes panicked about her circumstances, and the focus of the novel is very much on the injustice of her feeling this way when she’s done everything she could, when she’s essentially been forced into the position that she’s in because of the white people who have come into her country and changed the way it operates. I originally read Nervous Conditions for a postcolonial lit class in college, where we discussed longlasting effects and afteraffects of colonization; Tambu is made to feel othered from a young age, and the racist and sexist discrimination brought by white colonizers has shaped the way she views the world and herself, and the way her own people (family, friends, colleagues) see her. A lot of these themes of othering, loss of sense of self, and imbedded racism are laid out in the first book and simply expanded upon here, so starting at the beginning of the trilogy would probably be the right call for anyone who wants a deeper dive on postcolonial issues.
” ‘Sometimes forgetting is better than remembering when nothing can be done.’ / ‘Forgetting is harder than you think,’ says Nyasha. ‘Especially when something can be done. And ought to be. It’s a question of choices.’ “
The main downside for me, despite some incredible writing and weighty themes (which almost always win me over) was that the crux of the final confrontation seemed obvious early on. The details of the scene remain hazy until it occurs, but from the opening chapters it is clear where Tambu has to go and who she has to see, in order to shake out her bottled up feelings and begin to heal herself. Things continue to happen along the way, but from the moment it becomes known that Tambu is avoiding something she can’t evade forever, the stepping stones along the way lose a bit of their potential impact. Much of the story felt like filler to me, like marking time and trying to build a bridge from one main event to the other; this is unfortunate, because there’s plenty to value in Tambu’s journey and the lessons she learns and imparts along the way, but because the book is structured to focus on theme over plot I did find the bulk of it a bit stagnant even while Tambudzai wallows in extreme emotion. This Mournable Body is a book with much to say, but I’m not convinced its framework is strong enough to bear all of its messages.
Nevertheless, there are great messages here of racial injustice and inequality built into the very structures of society, and Tambu is as always a very heartfelt and sympathetic character. If you’re at all interested in giving Dangarembga’s work a try, I’d highly recommend starting with Nervous Conditions, which in my opinion is the strongest book of the trilogy, and deciding from there how far you’d like to go.
My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. This middling rating is not necessarily a reflection of the merit of the book, but as with all of my ratings, a reflection of my personal reading experience. I think that if I had had the time and ability to reread the first book and get my hands on the second, I might have had a stronger reaction to this third book in Dangarembga’s trilogy. As it is, I don’t think its Booker nomination is out of place and I was thrilled to learn that Nervous Conditions had sequels that hadn’t been on my radar, but This Mournable Body won’t be my top choice for the Booker win.
The Literary Elephant