Harvill Secker, £12.99, 297pp. £11.69 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
The Cry of the Go-Away Bird, By Andrea Eames
Friday 04 March 2011
It was always Them versus Us." This is the bleak conclusion of Elise, the white teenager who narrates The Cry of the Go-Away Bird, a coming-of-age novel set in post-independence Zimbabwe. Racial prejudice is its dominant motif, dramatised in the cruel divisions and inequalities of the white farming community. Though fiction, it reads like a memoir, with a first-person narrative and an episodic story that draws on the experience of Andrea Eames herself.
Elise's mother believes it is time to redistribute the land: "we need to give it back if we're going to move forward as a nation". But hers is a lone voice: the white farmers cling tenaciously to their land and their old ways, referring to black women as "girls" and men as "boys". The codeword for Mugabe is "Tim" – "That Ignorant Munt". When the farm invasions begin in 2000, the whites return swiftly to the siege mentality of the war after UDI. One farmer cackles that he will pack his house with explosives and when the "bluddy War Vets" arrive, they'll blow themselves up: "Bang! Bits of black everywhere".
Eames gives a moving account of the onset of puberty, which inflicts physical humiliation on young Elise and a confusing awareness of boys. But Elise's moral development is less clear: she contrives for Jonah, a gardener, to be falsely accused of stealing and sacked. Elise is motivated by fear, not malice, but it is a despicable act. Jonah's wife is also fired and the family, with two daughters, thrown out of their tiny house. After this shocking event, it becomes difficult to sympathise with Elise and her point of view – which is a problem in a novel written as her memoir. It is also a missed opportunity: Eames fails to explore the episode in terms of character or plot.
A recurrent theme is the spirit world, involving visits to the "witch doctor", "black magic" and inexplicable shapes in the night. "There were older things here than Christianity," writes Eames darkly. "They were here first. They were stronger." This is heart-of-darkness stuff: inchoate clichés which add little to the narrative. Equally formulaic are the many episodes involving snakes, elephants and sunsets – the familiar ingredients in an African childhood memoir.
Much more successful is Eames's delineation of character, especially of Elise's Mum, who is built up layer by layer into a rounded and intriguing human being. "She had her phone voice on," observes Elise in a revealing insight, "which is how I knew straight away that Mr Cooper must be good-looking." Eames is a fluent and engaging writer and this debut novel signals real promise for her future.
Susan Williams's 'Colour Bar' is published by Penguin
game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers
North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama
Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Lucy Hawking: Stephen Hawking's daughter writes impassioned open letter to Katie Hopkins about rights of disabled people
- 2 How the language you speak changes your view of the world
- 3 Russell Brand backs Ed Miliband: 'You gotta vote Labour'
- 4 General Election 2015: 14-year-old boy asks Nick Clegg – 'can you kill Katie Hopkins?'
- 5 Uploading pictures to find out how old you are gives Microsoft the right to post them wherever they want
Over 50,000 families shipped out of London boroughs in the past three years due to welfare cuts and soaring rents
EU asylum policy is 'a direct threat to our civilisation', says Nigel Farage
The Rothschild Libel: Why has it taken 200 years for an anti-Semitic slur that emerged from the Battle of Waterloo to be dismissed?
General Election 2015: UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power, Labour warns
In defence of liberal democracy
Schools forced to act as 'miniature welfare states' with teachers buying underwear and even haircuts for poor pupils