This Zimbabwean debut is not an easy book to describe. To call it clever or ambitious is to do it a disservice – it is both, but also more than that. It is definitely not faultless, but it is large enough and unusual enough to shrug off its defects and still leave the reader impressed.
The opening section features a tenant, 24-year-old Zamani, who aspires to make his landlord his father and his landlady his mother – to make them love him more than they loved their missing son, Bukhosi. A simple enough conceit, but Novuyo Rosa Tshuma is a wily writer, perhaps as wily as her main character; for as soon as the reader thinks he or she has figured out the story’s trajectory, the narrative takes an unexpected turn.
Bukhosi went missing in 2007, during a secessionist rally in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. The protesters want to form a majority Ndebele republic, which they will call Mthwakazi, after a precolonial kingdom. Their revolt is fuelled by the massacre of the Ndebeles by Robert Mugabe’s government in 1983. This massacre, dubbed Gukurahundi – “the early rain that washes away the chaff before the spring shoots” – is Zimbabwe’s original sin, and here forms the central and recurring concern of the novel. Zamani was conceived, violently, symbolically, on the night of the Gukurahundi massacres. Tshuma exhumes her country’s history, starting with the arrival of Cecil Rhodes, through the vanquishing of Ndebele royals King Lobengula and Queen Lozikeyi, and on to the Ian Smith years as prime minister and the war of independence, and finally to independence and beyond. On the eve of independence on 17 April 1980, we see Bob Marley performing in front of the new black leaders, and police whipping and tear-gassing the masses, a foreshadowing of dark days to come: “The police, overcome by fear, slipped into animated violence like a second skin; they began thwacking the people with their batons, and the people wailed, so that their independence brimmed over into the night in a collective howl.”
Tshuma balances this broad retelling of history with the personal narratives of Zamani and his hosts, Abednego and Mama Agnes, through an almost dizzying ability to shift focus from character to character. Zamani uses whisky and drugs to seduce his “surrogate father”, who is a recovering alcoholic, into recounting his personal history – or “hi-story” as Zamani likes to call it, alluding to the fragmented and troubled past of his country.
House of Stone is not a book for the faint-hearted. There are rapes and the cutting open of pregnant stomachs; a barn full of screaming women and children set aflame. There are no heroes here, only people forced by circumstances to perform the most unspeakable acts to survive. And yet, not all the characters are villains: there is the beautiful Thandi, who dreams of becoming the mother of the revolution – Zimbabwe’s Angela Davis – but ends up settling for the unimpressive Abednego and is later killed by agents of the new independent Zimbabwe. This is how nations are built, Tshuma seems to be telling us: nothing is ever what it appears to be. The past is filled with pain and shame. Abednego’s father, we learn, is not really his father. When Abednego becomes uncooperative and uncontrollable, even with the promise of more whisky and drugs, Zamani turns his focus on to Mama Agnes, who is not the pious woman she appears. She is deep in an adulterous relationship that goes back to her teenage years.
Sometimes the book is too dizzying: as soon as we have accepted one revelation we are blindsided by another; and yet we keep suspending disbelief, for by now we are complicit with the author in this playful, tongue-in-cheek yet serious game of recreating “hi-story”. We wait to see how far the two-faced narrator will go to ingratiate himself with his hosts, even as he hints at the real reasons behind his scheming. There seems to be method in his madness after all.
Tshuma is incapable of writing a boring sentence: she inhabits her narration so totally that even the most absurd and silly actions become believable. The wordplay and absurdist plot lines act as comic relief, but the author never lets us forget the serious stuff even for a minute, and it is this balance that makes the book work. By the end she has managed to not only sum up Zimbabwean history, but also all of African colonial history: from devastating colonialism to the bitter wars of independence to the euphoria of self-rule and the disillusionment of the present. It is an extraordinary achievement for a first novel.
• Helon Habila’s The Chibok Girls is published by Penguin. House of Stone is published by Atlantic. To order a copy for £12.74 (RRP £14.99) go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.