Peace and Conflict, by Irene Sabitini - book review: A boy's-eye view of the world that doesn't ring true


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The Independent Culture

The experience of being from another culture, especially a deeply traumatised one, has become increasingly popular as a subject for contemporary, post-colonial fiction. Robert, the narrator of Irene Sabatini's second novel is a 10-year old Zimbabwean boy – but he is not what you might expect.

Far from being dispossessed, he lives with his family in Geneva. A nerdy bookworm, who loves fantasy, his worst problems are that he is mocked by his teenage brother George, longs for a pet, and gets screamed at by an elderly neighbour, Monsieur Renoir, for making too much noise. His mother is a successful young-adult novelist who writes about vampires, his father is Italian, and his family mock Zimbabwe's Mugabe as "Bob the Butternut". Not bad for the grandchild of a Bulawayo cowherd: Robert's family are so well situated that they can even go back to Zimbabwe for their summer holidays – at least until funny and charming Aunty Delphia disappears, imprisoned by her country's dictator for speaking too openly.

It's good to read about middle-class Zimbabweans rather than refugees for a change, and Sabatini once again mines what seems like fairly autobiographical details with aplomb. Like the mother in her novel, she herself is married to an Italian, hails from Bulawayo and now lives in Geneva. The boys at the centre of the novel are well drawn: George is carving out his identity as a cool mixed-race football fanatic, obsessed by every modern gadget going, and Robert loves the books, history and freedom of Geneva.

Yet there is a mystery about his irritable old neighbour, and when somebody leaves a Victoria Cross medal on the family doorstep, our narrator begins to find out more, especially when just asked by his school to write about a real-life hero. Robert hopes Monsieur Robert can help get his aunt out of prison, but it turns out that his story involves another historic tragedy in a different part of Africa.

Once again Sabatini yokes the political to the personal but here the plotting is skimpy, and the drama too slow in coming. A difficulty of writing in the voice of a child is that often what emerges is a novel which is for, rather than about, the young. This reads like the work of an affectionate mother recording her son's intellectual curiosity rather than inhabiting his world-view.

The psychological richness and political drama of Sabatini's debut The Boy Next Door, which won the 2010 Orange Prize for New Writers is only sketched in here. Peace and Conflict displays humour, charm and thoughtfulness, but to fulfil her promise, a more adult engagement is required.