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Yvonne Vera: Under the Tongue

Vera’s stock in trade is using a very poetical language to show women’s issues in Zimbabwe. Sometimes that works but sometimes, as in this book, it is frankly tiresome. She has a very important story to tell here but banging away in her poetical, impressionistic style throughout the book makes the book difficult to read. I like a poetical style when done well and when it enhances the story but not, as here, when it obscures the story. You just want to say to her Get on with the damn story. And while I am on about annoyances, jumping chronologically can also be a useful plot device but, as here, it can also be really annoying.

Enough of my complaints. As said, Vera has an important story to tell. There are three main, closely connected themes. The first is the main plot line. Zhizha is a young girl when her father, returning from fighting for independence in the late 1970s, comes home and rapes her. Incest, apparently, is or, at least, was then a major issue in Zimbabwe and though it does not make for pleasant reading, we can only credit Vera for raising the issue in a male-dominated society. Closely related to this plot line is the issue of violence, resulting in part, but only in part, from the war for independence and, in particular, violence towards women. Zhizha may be the main victim here but she is not the only one. Finally, there is the very important issue of how women communicate with one another, both with and without language. Zhizha clams up about her rape and it is her grandmother with her spoken and unspoken communication who helps her through. Her relationship with her mother, who kills her husband when she finds out what he has done to Zhizha and is sent to prison for it, is also strong. Indeed, Vera’s portrayal of a women’s world where men are barely necessary evils could have been done much better without the poetical fluff and we can only regret the book that this could have been.

Publishing history

First published 1996 by Baobab Books, Harare