Nervous Conditions, the first novel by a black Zimbabwean woman in English is an engaging and elegant book about what it means to belong to more than one culture. The simple but engaging story is told by a young woman named Tambudzai. The opening paragraph gives a good sense of the unusual and sophisticated narrative voice of the book:
“I was not sorry when my brother died. Nor am I apologising for my callousness, as you may define it, my lack of feeling. For it is not that at all. I feel many things these days, much more than I was able to feel in the days when I was young and my brother died, and there are reasons for this more than mere consequence of age. Therefore I shall not apologise but begin by recalling the facts as I remember them that led up to my brother’s death, the events that put me in a position to write this account.”
Tambudzai grows up in a very poor rural family, and when her brother dies is taken in to her wealthy uncle’s home as her brother’s replacement. At her uncle’s home, for the first time, she sees a western-style toilet, hot and cold running water, and encounters the idea that one might grow plants for pleasure or beauty, rather than necessity. She becomes close to her cousin Nyasha, a young girl who feels out of place at the mission school as she has spent some years at England. Tambu then receives a scholarship to a convent school of an even higher standard. She is delighted to escape the life of hard work and obedience she endured in the rural areas, and the plight of her mother in this regard is movingly drawn. However, Tambu begins to feel more and more that she is losing as much as she is gaining, particularly when her cousin Nyasha begins to develop some apparently serious mental health issues related to her sense that she does not belong anywhere.
Nervous Conditions therefore deals in a complex and interesting way with issues not just of culture, but of gender and class as well. It is however often a very funny book, as for example here, on the subject of Tambu’s first morning at her uncle’s home:
“. . . I found time to be impressed by these relatives of mine who ate meat, and not only meat but meat and eggs for breakfast. As for roasting bread before you ate it, as if it had not already been baked, well, yesterday I would have been surprised, but today I was aware that all things were possible.”
The book on occasion makes sweeping generalizations about white people that a modern reader may find distasteful; but they are, I think, understandable if we consider this book within its period. Overall, I found Nervous Conditions to be a thought-provoking novel that packs a huge number of complicated ideas into a simple and engaging story. Zimbabwe can certainly be proud to have contributed this book to the shelves of African fiction.
Sarah Norman is a Zimbabwean who splits her time between Harare and Nairobi. She documents her reading life in the blog White Whale (www.booksof2010.blogspot.com)