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This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga review

You want nothing more than to break away from the implacable terror of every day you spend in your country – where you can no longer afford the odd dab of peanut butter to liven up the vegetables from Mai Manyanga’s garden.”

Robert Mugabe Road in Harare’s CBD. Photograph: Thomas Cockrem/Alamy Stock

This is the voice of Tambu, first encountered in the Zimbabwean writer Tsitsi Dangarembga’s much-praised 1988 book Nervous Conditions, a passionate, first-person account of a 1960s Rhodesian childhood scarred by the war of independence.

Now, in the final instalment in the trilogy, Tambu is middle aged and writing in an appropriately distanced second person. Dangarembga sets herself the challenge of writing about how alienated personhood becomes when life stories lose hope and in a country where effort is no longer followed by reward.

Tambu has recently abandoned a prestigious job as a copywriter because she was angry that white colleagues took the credit for her achievements. She’s running through her savings in a hostel, feeling unentitled to nourishment or respect. “You feel you are creeping up over the edge of a precipice and that this cliff beckons you; worse… that there is no way to stop that fall because you are the precipice.”

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At first, this seems to be a novel portraying Tambu’s gradual decline into increasingly desperate poverty, but the structure becomes more episodic – even picaresque – as Tambu seizes small opportunities for advancement, only to fall again. It feels as though Dangarembga loses confidence in the realist novel, returning to a less developed form, at the same time as Tambu loses confidence in the narratives of progress running through her early life.

Along the way, there’s a brilliant portrayal of contemporary Harare with its juxtaposition of energetic worldliness and violence: the nightclubs where whites and blacks dance good humouredly together until a fight breaks out, the start-ups vying for desk space in the small enclaves of prosperity, the bourgeois houses falling into decrepitude, with optimistically amassed pay phones rotting in the garden. Because the novel is episodic, it takes us into several of these worlds, most compellingly into the eco-tourism business offering the so-called real ghetto and village experience.

Throughout, a lot of the interest is in the parallel arcs of worldly success and moral worth. These are tellingly disconnected: it’s when Tambu’s fortunes are relatively stable that she performs her most morally shocking act. It’s hard to reconcile morality and survival, especially in a hybrid culture where the moral frameworks of the Shona villages and white society in Harare have not been well aligned. If there is progress amid the book’s structure, then it’s in Tambu’s realisation that she must learn to balance prosperity and kindness. “Sometimes your own good is the common good,” Tambu’s cousin tells her. This isn’t often true, but when it is, a more tempting world half-promises to emerge.

Lara Feigel is the author of Free Woman: Life, Liberation and Doris Lessing(Bloomsbury)

• This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga is published by Faber (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15

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