Friday, 20 February 2015

Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga

"The business of womanhood is a heavy burden.  How could it not be? Aren't we are the ones who bear children? When it is like that you can't just decide today I want to do this, tomorrow I want to do that, the next day I want to be educated!  When there are sacrifices to be made, you are the one who has to make them. And these things are not easy: you have to start learning them early, from a very early age."

Nervous Conditions is the coming of age story of fourteen year old Tambudzai, who lives in rural Zimbabwe but is able to attend a missionary school following the death of her older brother, Nhamo. Living with her aunt and uncle in a house on the mission grounds, Tambu is at first overwhelmed by their lifestyle. But the more she becomes accustomed to it, the more she starts to feel herself better than her beginnings. Tambu is determined to be educated and to provide for herself, but she keeps coming up against prejudices and barriers based on her gender, meaning that she has to battle for what she wants. Her story is contrasted with the stories of the complex women in her life; her Westernised cousin Nyasha, starting to examine the effects of colonisation, her uneducated mother, tied to a man she doesn't love by her children, and her mother's sister, forceful, outspoken and determined to do what is right for her and the people she loves.

Nervous Conditions is a wonderful book, and lots of that is to do with Tambu herself. As a narrator she is self-aware, honest, intelligent and full of complicated thoughts about the people around her. It helps that Dangarembga's writing is vivid, peppered with Shona vocabulary; reading Nervous Conditions is like being immersed in the Shona culture of the mid twentieth century.  This isn't a novel written with a Western audience in mind, and I liked that.

What I loved most about Nervous Conditions is that Dangarembga never over-simplifies the complex issues of gender, race and colonisation. Tambu is quick to realise the limitations placed on her by her gender, for example when her father states that it isn't worth educating her, as she will only get married and belong to another family.  Tambu also notes the powerlessness of her mother in the family, and the negative effect of her many pregnancies, but Dangarembga also writes about powerful Shona women, who are uneducated, but still refuse to accept gender boundaries. And the same is true of race and colonisation - Tambu views a Western education and lifestyle as her ticket to happiness, but her cousin Nyasha, who has actually lived in England for a spell, is torn between her conflicting identities and feels isolated from her Shona heritage. The portrait of both of these issues is complicated, many-layered and realistic,

To be honest, the only thing I didn't like about Nervous Conditions was the cover, which I think looks too cheaply made for the quality of the book. Although this book is set in a specific place and time period, it's coming of age theme is universal and it's one I would highly recommend.

Source: Library
First Published: 1988
Edition Read: Ayebia Clark
Score: 5 out of 5


Project 1001 Books: Book 2/80
My list of titles and reviews can be found here.

9 comments:

  1. I love the sound of this book. I didn't find it in my library so hopefully I will be able to find it somehow. I am with you on the cover. I wish these amazing books would just get a new cover, and not just depending on their sales.

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    1. It's a shame your library doesn't have a copy of this one. And it's lucky I had researched the book before picking it up - otherwise the cover would definitely have put me off!

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  2. My bookstore sells the textbooks for the college across the street from us, so every fall I encounter this book on our shelves when it's being taught. I always found the cover to be compelling, so I'm thankful to your review to give me a context for it. This book sounds right up my alley.

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    1. I wonder what course it is for? I'd love to see the reading list :)

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  3. I'm so glad you wrote about this book. It sounds like one I would really like to read, but not one that I would've found on my own. So, thanks! :)

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    1. I'm glad you like the sound of this one. I love discovering new books through blogs as well!

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  4. Wonderful review, Sam. I've read only good raves about Nervous Conditions and it's on my list of books to purchase. Shouldn't be too difficult to lay my hands on a copy. Just that I haven't had the time to go book-shopping in ages!

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  5. There's a good twist and the ending is unexpected and heartbreaking, as well as inconclusive enough to leave you desperate for a sequel. This is certainly the best book I've read this year. Fans of Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche (Half of A Yellow Sun, Purple Hibiscus) will enjoy this book as the two authors have a similar style. If you haven't read either, do try them - I can't imagine you'll be disappointed.

    Mica
    AC Repair Richardson information

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  6. Starts off a little slow, but the story line picks up. I like how the character evolves and how her perspectives change as her world opens up. Great insight into the lives of a culture where some grow up with 'privilege' and others are not as fortunate, but both have to overcome challenges. Classic case of 'things are not always as they seem', and 'the grass is not always greener on the other side'.

    Mariz
    Great data for Seattle Janitorial Services group

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