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My short story diet this week has been An Elegy for Easterly, the debut collection by Petina Gappah, published last year and winner of the Guardian First Book Award. The thirteen stories, set in Gappah’s native Zimbabwe, are portraits of a foreign place full of familiar people.
The Zimbabwe of Ian Smith and Robert Mugabe is there in the background of these stories, a country in turmoil, plagued by hyperinflation, corrupt politicians and propaganda-filled newspapers, but these are tales about people, not politics. The stories are sad, angry and funny, focusing on sharply drawn characters and suffused with love for Zimbabwe and frustration at its failings.
It takes a couple of stories to get properly immersed in the atmosphere and emotional turbulence of the collection. The first, At the Sound of the Last Post, told from the point of view of a disillusioned wife at the funeral of her politician husband, is rather a cold opening, and the eponymous second story, dealing with one woman’s desperate need for a baby and the illicit pregnancy of the local madwoman, is perhaps one of the least subtle in the collection. But after this the stories rapidly become deeply moving, full of emotional truth that leaves you breathless.
The stunning endings of stories such as Something Nice From London, in which a family await the arrival of the body of their youngest son from England, and My Aunt Juliana’s Indian, about a the relationship between an Indian shopkeeper and his Zimbabwean employee during the struggle for independence in 1980, stick in the memory. These are stories with twists, but they are twists of feeling, of despair, of fate, rather than of plot.
Gappah’s prose is sparse and economical, pared down to almost the barest observational essentials. But the thoughts and dialogue of the characters are a lyrical hybrid of Zimbabwean Shona and English, making the words on the page dance with life.
It is often the world of African women that the stories inhabit: wives, mothers and daughters tied to husbands, sons and fathers by love, money, tradition or family history. The women in the stories are often trapped in positions of dependence: a maid in a wealthy household, a rich woman with a cheating husband, a student sectioned in a mental hospital. There seems little chance of escape from these confinements, but these women are resilient all the same. They recount stories, pass on traditions, tell jokes, laugh. The voices are angry but never bitter, humorous but never mocking. These are gentle stories full of hard themes, and they will stick around and mutter in your ear long after you’ve finished reading.