An Elegy For Easterly by Petina Gappah | Book Review

elegy2‘An Elegy for Easterly’ is the first book by Geneva-based, Zimbabwean writer and lawyer Petina Gappah. It is a collection of short stories about the lives, loves and derring-do of various citizens living in the country formerly known as Rhodesia.

I admit I approached an ‘Elegy…’ with some trepidation. The more than questionable antics of head of state Robert Mugabe, in spite, or maybe because of, his initial good intentions have been well documented. In truth I anticipated ‘…Easterly’ to be a literary excuse for a diatribe against Mugabe and Zanu-PF. However this is one of those instances where I was happy to be wrong.

‘An Elegy…’ follows the Chekov-esque tradition of short story writing, capturing snap shots of every day life and ordinary people in extra-ordinary circumstances. Gappah does not gloss over the political and socio-economic horrors facing her country today; instead she puts them in context. She deftly weaves the history of her country pre and post-Independence into her stories. Her approach is subtle; at no time does the reader feel as if we are being lectured one-to-one. Gappah clearly has a vast amount of knowledge about her country at her fingertips yet she educates the reader without condescension or arrogance. In ‘An Elegy…’ the author shows us that there’s much more to life in Zimbabwe than political and economic unrest.

Gappah’s tales cover the mixed fortunes of the ‘great’ and the humble, the poor, the rich, the good and the morally reprehensible. Here are stories of bored housewives of Zimba men enriched by dubious means (‘The Heart of the Golden Triangle’), deluded newlywed brides turning a blind eye to their groom’s HIV symptoms (‘The Cracked, Pink Lips of Rosie’s Bridegroom’) and the wronged consorts of dead statesmen (‘At The Sound of the Last Post’).

PEOPLE/GAPPAHPetina adopts a straightforward, prosaic style. She lets the humanity of her characters add all the spice necessary without the need to overdo it with elaborate descriptions. All the stories end in some ambiguity leaving the reader with the distinct feeling that we were only ever getting a glimpse of a larger tale. I appreciate this approach because it is much more true to life in which there are few tidy resolutions; it is a journey after all.

Personal favourites were the eponymous story about a woman struggling to conceive whilst her husband’s reckless infidelity turns out to be a blessing of sorts. ‘The Mupandawana Dancing Champion’ which gets off to a slow start but wins the reader over with its tale of a nimble old codger whose agility on the dance floor belies his advanced age. There’s the hapless and tragically trusting conman’s mark in ‘Our Man in Geneva Wins A Million Euros’ and the pretentious, freeloading relative in ‘My Cousin-Sister Rambani’ who quickly acquires the accent of whatever Western city in which she is an illegal resident at the moment. ‘The Maid from Lalapanzi’ is a demonstration of Petina at her best. It is, ostensibly, an account from a child’s perspective of an over-bearing but affectionate maid. At the same time it is a subtle commentary on the haughty attitude of some of the native Zimbabweans whose fortunes improved with independence.

I had only two main reservations about ‘…Easterly’. Firstly, there are times when a story’s open ended denouement gave the whole thing a sense of randomness and futility – a tale perhaps that didn’t need to be told. Some of the stories just seemed pointlessly perverse (‘Midnight at the Hotel California’). Thankfully these only amount to a minority of an otherwise worthy collection. My only other real gripe with ‘An Elegy…’ was that the author insisted on interspersing the story with Zimbabwean phrases yet refused to include a glossary. It is without a doubt commendable that Gappah does not revere the English language so much as to lose the feel of things that only the indigenous tongues could adequately convey. I recently read an interview with Gappah in which she downplays the relevance of glossaries finding them ‘condescending’. However for the benefit of the many other Africans and readers of the world who do not speak Shona or Ndebele, a glossary explaining the meaning of terms that could not be properly deduced by context would have been the considerate thing to do.

My ignorance of Zimbabwean lexicon and the author’s reluctance to alleviate it aside, Ms Gappah makes a strong and lasting impression with this enjoyable debut.

By Tola Ositelu.