An Elegy for Easterly, by Petina Gappah

Memories of oppressing matters
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The Independent Culture

Born in Zimbabwe in 1971, Petina Gappah came of age after independence in 1980. As a child, she also lived through the ending of the liberation war and the start of majority rule. Today she belongs to the Zimbabwean diaspora, working in Geneva as a lawyer. All of this experience has shaped the 13 stories of An Elegy for Easterly, 12 set in Zimbabwe.

The title story is, literally, an elegy for the Easterly shanty town, razed by Robert Mugabe's thugs. But the book is an elegy in a broader sense – for the optimism and hope of 1980, beautifully evoked in "Aunt Juliana's Indian". Juliana swallows independence with "gasping thirst", seizing on the opportunities for education unavailable when Zimbabwe was Rhodesia, under white rule. Now she can realise her "top-flight" dream of becoming a secretary.

Gappah plays with point of view to suggest that none of her characters is simply good or evil – not even Mugabe. In "At the Sound of the Last Post", he presides over the funeral of a man who succumbed to "a long illness", a synonym for Aids. The narrator is the disenchanted widow, offering a lens through which to mock the hypocrisy. But suddenly she sees Mugabe as "the very old man that he is. Unexpected pity wells up inside me."

The men here may be human, but few behave well towards women. "The Maid from Lalapanzi" is a woman who spent the war in guerrilla camps, providing domestic services and sex: "That is what we were told to do." But her hope of happiness is shattered when the man she loves, who has made her pregnant, refuses to marry someone "not a maiden". With nowhere to turn, she kills herself.

Gappah's language is clean and crisp, with a musical quality that frequently draws on her first language, Shona. An Elegy for Easterly is a powerful debut from a fresh voice, with themes – from disappointment and betrayal to promise and love – that will resonate with readers everywhere.

Faber And Faber, £12.99

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