Nervous Conditions

nervousconditionsTambu, the narrator of this 1988 novel by Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga, begins her story with what seems like a confession:

I was not sorry when my brother died. Nor am I apologizing for my callousness, as you may define it, my lack of feeling. For it is not that at all. I feel many things these days, much more than I was able to feel in the days when I was young and my brother died, and there are reasons for this more than the mere consequence of age. Therefore I shall not apologize but begin by recalling the facts that led up to my brother’s death, the events that put me in a position to write this account.

Tambu was 13 years old in 1968, the year her brother, Nhamu, died. He died at the mission where he went to school, an opportunity he was given because he was a boy. Nhamu was a bully and a snob, and his death opened a door for his clever and hard-working sister, Tambu, to get the education she had been denied. So it’s no wonder she was ambivalent about his death.

Education, however, is not a ticket to a perfect life. In fact, as Tambu moves out of the village where she grew up to live with her uncle, the headmaster of the mission school, she sees that injustice takes many forms, and moving from one class to another is always complicated.

The novel focuses on the trials women faced in post-Colonial Rhodesia, but the challenges depicted are not unique to women or to that particular place and time. Tambu, like all the women in the novel, is figuring out who she can and will be in a society that is changing around her. The traditional society she hails from values clear hierarchies and respect, evident in the sometimes confusing rituals surrounding who sits where. But her uncle and his family, educated in England, have different values—though these values are not entirely egalitarian, as Tambu’s cousin Nyasha learns when she begins to rebel. Nyasha is in a particularly difficult position, having moved with her family to England when she was young and returned to Rhodesia when she was a teenager. She has a foot in two worlds but is secure in neither. Her cousin Tambu is the only person she trusts, and that trust wavers as Nyasha tries on new identities, one after the other.

Race, sex, class, and colonialism all inform this story and complicate the characters’ situations. Each person in the book seems caught between worlds in one way or another. And every choice, whether to embrace traditional ways or become Westernized or try to mix both cultures, has consequences. No path is easy, and the novel’s exploration of these dilemmas is interesting, although at times the story felt overstuffed with characters and traumas to sort through. What really made the book work for me is how universal much of the story is. Women in 21st-century America still struggle to escape patriarchal mind-sets and set out on their own paths. Children from poor families who get an education find it difficult to go home again. Everyone has to figure out who they are and who they will be in the world. The specifics of these question vary from place to place, and age to age, but the questions don’t go away.

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8 Responses to Nervous Conditions

  1. I’ve been meaning to read this book for some time now. Thanks for the review, Teresa. :-)

  2. I love this book. I read it on my own and then again for graduate school and totally enjoyed it both times. Have you read My Brilliant Career? It’s set in Australia but deals with many of the same themes, a young woman struggling to get an education to better herself. They are both bildingsromans, about the artist as a young woman.

    I’m still waiting for Dangarembga’s second book. In graduate school I heard that she has become a film maker, but I’m hoping for a second book.

    • Teresa says:

      According to Wikipedia, she did write another book in 2006, a sequel to this one called The Book of Not, so that’s good news!

      I’ve not read My Brilliant Career, but I see it’s written by Miles Franklin, and she’s an author I have on my list. I’ll look for it!

  3. I’ve never even heard of this before! Just added it to my TBR list — I love reading about cultural clashes in (former) European colonies.

    • Teresa says:

      I can’t remember where I heard of it. Maybe the 1001 Books list, which I scoured a few years ago looking for international authors. It’s well worth looking for.

  4. aartichapati says:

    I must check this one out! I too have never heard of this one, but I think I would really enjoy it. Great review!

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