Bukhosi, 17 years old, has gone missing. His father, Abed, and his mother, Agnes, cling to the hope that he has run away rather than been murdered by government thugs, but only the lodger seems to have any idea. Zamani has lived in the spare room for years now. Quiet, polite, well-read and well-heeled, he’s almost part of the family – but almost isn’t quite good enough for Zamani.
Cajoling, coaxing and coercing Abed and Agnes into revealing their sometimes tender, often brutal life stories, Zamani aims to steep himself in borrowed family history, so that he can fully inherit and inhabit its uncertain future.
House of Stone is a novel in three parts, Book One centres around Zamani’s determination to befriend his landlord Abed, accompanying him in his misery as he searches for his son, applying subtle, manipulative, and ultimately devastating pressure on him, prising Abed’s family history open, in order to find a way in. In Book Two his focus is on converting Mama Agnes and the final slim Book Three are a series of revelations.
We know from the opening pages that Zamani and Bukhosi were together when he disappeared, along with their friend and mentor Dumo, though nothing of what we know is ever shared with Abed and Agnes.
I’m the one who’s survived and he’s the one who’s disappeared, thanks to those mad antics of his. Poof! Like a spoko. He too was gobbled up by one of those police vans the day of the Mthwakzi rally, and has not been regurgitated since.
Like Bukhosi, I doubt I’ll ever see Dumo again. It was he who taught me that a man could remake himself by remaking his past. So when Abednego said I was like a son to him and that he would, from then on, call me his surrogate son, I felt a swell of pride and the prick of opportunity. Perhaps, as my surrogate father’s son, I can be blessed with sole familial affection and, in this way, finally powder away the horrors of my own murky hi-story bequeathed to me by parents I never knew.
As he draws the personal and family history out of Abed and Agnes, we traverse 50 tumultuous years in the region, years Abed would prefer not to remember, they contain his happiest and most traumatic memories, as the country witnesses the death of colonial Rhodesia and the bloody birth of modern Zimbabwe.
It’s a discomforting read, the author doesn’t hold back with the detail, some scenes come at you so quickly, you don’t have time to look away. In that respect I remembered the visceral detail of a novel I couldn’t finish, Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North.
Somehow, despite those scenes, I was able to continue with this book, but I was put into a state of literary vigilance for much of it, which wasn’t always comfortable. Humanity showed itself to be unpredictable and despicable in its newfound possession of unregulated power. It was a bittersweet victory that saw the introduction of a despot leader and made an entire population feel unsafe.
One of the periods we are taken back to was the Gukurahundi, (a series of massacres of Ndebele civilians carried out by the Zimbabwe National Army from early 1983 to late 1987. It derives from a Shona language term which loosely translates to “the early rain which washes away the chaff before the spring rains”). I hadn’t heard of this term, and in the novel the younger generation hadn’t either. Zamani pressures Abed to tell him:
Isn’t this the hi-story Bukhosi always wanted to know, before he went missing? For which he got a beating whenever he asked our father ‘Baba, what happened in the ’80s, what was the Gukurahundi?
That was the Gukurahundi, Bukhosi. It was the lead rain of our new country, Zimbabwe, sent to wash away us, the chaff. It was the state-sponsored murder of twenty thousand of your kin. How was our father to tell you that? How was he to tell you that within that number were the only two people he ever really loved?
On reading this, I was compelled to look it up, it’s not a story you want to linger on, nor are they images you want to see. You don’t have to read far to learn that none of the perpetrators have been held accountable for the atrocities committed. Those implicated include many who became or are now senior political figures in the Zimbabwean government.
In an interview, Novuyo Rosa Tshuma when asked about setting her novel amidst the backdrop of this massacre, said:
“We speak about the Liberation War all the time. But when it comes to the genocide, it is always a matter of shutting it down,” she says, adding that by not addressing the psychological, social and communal issues, by not acknowledging people have died, healing cannot begin.
House of Stone “dzimba dza mabwe” or “Zimbabwe” in Shona comes from her personal quest to learn more about that dark spot in modern Zimbabwean history, the ethnic cleansing/genocide carried out against the Ndebele people in the early 1980s after the liberation struggle. The strengths of her characters come from an immersion into reading first hand personal accounts of people who survived that period, works that are not available in Zimbabwe, that she was able to access from the Iowa University library when she was studying her MFA.
Interested in the question of whether it is possible for a person, or a nation to rewrite itself, it will become the central motive of her flawed protagonist Zamani and finds that present day Zimbabwe has some parallels. Since the political coup that recently ousted Robert Mugabe, a new President has announced to the population that the past is dead.
When Tshuma began asking questions about the Gukurahundi of her immediate family, including her mother and Uncle, they were visibly upset – people continue to be haunted, they haven’t found closure for the dead, nor been able to process their experiences to heal from them.
I was reminded of the experience of reading Han Kang’s Human Acts, a powerful novel that centered around the little known Gwangju massacre in South Korea in 1980, that she discovered by accident and became haunted by. It left her with pressing questions she explored through the novel.
Despite the traumatic events that haunt or affect every character, the plot of House of Stone moves swiftly with its well fleshed out characters, sense of mystery, its rage, outrage and her own brand of wit – including the hypocritical Reverend who Zamani doesn’t trust.
Did that Reverend Nobody really think he could take me on? Did he really think he could come out as the hero in all of this, mooching off my hard work, destroying my relations with my surrogate family.
It’s an accomplished novel that confronts harsh truths and pursues questions about the reinvention of a nation and the individual. A gifted storyteller who has been able to weave the essence of those personal narratives into richly formed characters that goes some way towards acknowledging a history no-one will talk about. Bereft of redemption, a feeling that pervades the narrative and one that seems to hold many in its grip today worldwide.
The interview below provides an interesting addition to the reading experience, exploring the fictitious and the personal – in particular given that some of the perpetrators of those traumatic events still hold positions of power today.
rFi The World And All Its Voices: Honoring those who lived through Zimbabwe’s Gukurahundi in Novuyo Rosa Tshuma’s novel, House of Stone
Review: Lisa Hill of ANZLitLovers
My Reviews of Zimbabwean Literature
Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga
The Book of Not by Tsitsi Dangarembga
This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga
I read this too (https://anzlitlovers.com/2019/01/05/house-of-stone-by-novuyo-rosa-tshuma/) and I agree, it’s confronting reading. But I liked the cheeky voice of that no-good narrator, and I think the humour is what makes the book bearable.
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Yes, I included a link to your in my Further Reading section. 🙂 He didn’t really come across for me as cheeky, more obsessive and narcissistic, clearly he had no empathy for the parents or guilt for Bukhosi. The elements of humour lighten the narrative somewhat, but for me there was always that overshadowed sense of foreboding.
Yes, definitely narcissistic. But I did feel a bit sorry for him because he has no family…
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And bad genes, he could have chosen a different direction and been helpful to them, but I guess by the end we know that course was never open to him and alien to his character. It’s interesting what the author says though about how even middle class families had to find out how to trade things to get basic commodities, she said they all had to learn how to wheel and deal everyday just to get basics, to get food, introducing a level of corruption to their society that hadn’t affected those layers of society previously.
This sounds a worthwhile read. Although our current political troubles are not in the same league at all, I think there’s only so much I can take at the moment. I will bookmark this for later.
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I understand Margaret, even though they’re in the same league, paranoia seems to be setting in, making people feel more vulnerable than ever. Keep to uplifting reads for now perhaps.
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I think we may all need to…
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House of Stone is quite a difficult book to read, but it has a way of keeping you drawn in right to the end. Just as the character Zamani experienced resistance in the recounting of atrocities so too is it still even now, its a dark past that some try very hard to stay hidden, but that only makes things fester and those who got away with all those heinous acts, what stops them from getting away with other things …… scary thought right there
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