The White Shadow by Andrea Eames
29 April, 2012
March’s book group choice was The White Shadow by Andrea Eames, kindly sent by Harvill Secker via Kim (do check out her review too). I don’t read many books by African authors or set in Africa as my interests primarily lie in the Far East, South Asia and Europe. I’m not really sure why as my family lived in Nairobi for five years and I regularly went there on my holidays during university. It was a magical time and a treasured life experience. Maybe there is a mystique that I can’t quite grasp, something different from all the other cultures with which I am so familiar.
Set in Zimbabwe during the Second Chimurenga when the Shona rose in uprising against and which led to the end of the white minority rule in Rhodesia, Eames’ second novel is essentially a tale of complex sibling relationships. Tinashe grows up in a village with his wise and kind Baba and Amai, happy in an idealic, material-free world. When his sister Hazvinei is born, his life becomes a little more complicated, for Hazvinei weaves an enchantment upon everyone who comes in contact with her. In a world where the spiritual and the political are forever bubbling in conflict on the surface, it’s a dangerous gift. As Hazvinei matures and the whispers start, Tinashe must try and protect his sister even from those who are supposed to protect them.
Although The White Shadow is set during a period of turmoil in Zimbabwe’s history, it is more a family drama than a political one. What impressed me most was the character of Hazvinei. For someone who is named ‘it does not matter‘, she has such a strong pull on everyone around her that it isn’t long before she is accused of being a witch. In a society where superstition still holds a strong grasp on people’s beliefs, it is only the fact that Tinashe’s uncle, Babamukuru, the only person from the village to go to university and who lives in a big house in the city doing an important job, holds such respect that they leave their family alone. But when a child is hurt and cholera strikes, it is only a matter of time before things fall apart.
And Babamukuru isn’t what he seems. Although it may seem rather simplified that the big man from the city likes to unwind with a drink and a bout of domestic violence, nevertheless, it is a chilling realisation for both Tinashe and Hazvinei when they go and live with Babamukuru. And as Abel, their cousin who used to come and stay in the village during the holidays, is drawn into the fervour of the freedom fighters, can the boys keep Hazvinei safe?
Eames is great at showing how deep, and hence how shallow, people’s feelings are for each other. Although I’m not a huge fan of magical realism in novels, The White Shadow retained enough of the domestic drama and political tensions of a country on the brink of civil unrest to keep me entertained. And I cared enough about Tinashe and Hazvinei to hope that things will end well. However, the ending was rather abrupt and made me wonder what it was all about. Ultimately, Hazvinei probably did not know what she was doing, as much as Tinashe did. And I’m not really sure, except that it gave me a glimpse into a different life.
One of things which made me feel very uneasy and kept the tension for me as I read this book was the fragile place of women in Shona society and the ever looming threat of domestic violence. Hazvinei is everything a man is afraid of. They way women are looked at, their worth in society, the chains which bind them, made me wonder whether things have really changed today, and not just in Zimbabwe. And it’s probably the most chilling aspect of this novel.
And I’m rather jealous of Eames who has managed to produce such a beautifully written novel and is only 27!