Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The Book of Not by Tsitsi Dangarembga

Here are my first impressions of The Book of Not

by Tsitsi Dangarembga. I'd welcome a dialogue with anyone else who has read this book. (Warning: spoilers ahead)

Dangarembga, Tsitsi.
Oxfordshire: Ayebia Clarke, 2006.

I’m trying to figure out whether my disappointment in this novel is that of a literary critic or merely that of a reader who had loved Nervous Conditions
and identified with the forceful yet ambiguous narrative of the main character Tambudzai. Perhaps it is unfair to impose my own expectations of a sequel so long awaited on the author, but this is the sequel I had imagined: Tambudzai continues at the Sacred Heart academy, does well, receives a scholarship to study in England, and discovers in exile the regretful, cynical voice with which she narrates both novels—finding too late that in her desire for advancement in the European world she had lost her connection to family, to history, and to herself. In the second novel, I imagined, she would begin to retrace her steps to find what she had lost. In any case, I expected that I'd still like the plucky yet imperfect narrator, whatever obstacles she may have to overcome.

This is not what happened. Instead the hints at selfishness and the craving for acceptance that we see in Nervous Conditions (her lack of grief over her brother’s death, her relief to get away from the homestead, etc) develop into a character who, by the end of her first person narrative in The Book of Not, is thoroughly un-likeable. Tambudzai dreams of greatness—greatness being that which will propel her ahead of her classmates, to a position where her family have no option but to be proud, a position in which she can have the vengeance of success to hold over her disapproving mother; she will demonstrate to her white classmates and teachers that she is capable of surpassing them. Although Tambudzai is clearly capable of achievement, her frustrating desire to please, her suppression of her rage, results failure. Tambudzai’s interest in school has little to do with an actual interest in what she is studying but with honours, awards, and exam results. Nervous Conditions is a Dickensonian bildingsroman tracing the successes of the homestead girl who had the support of a benevolent uncle, an optimistic structure ironically undermined by psychological loss of self a la Black Skins, White Masks. In The Book of Not, Dangarembga systematically tears down Tambudzai’s accomplishments achieved in Nervous Conditions. The trajectory of the narrative is a steady descent into lower and lower levels of a self-negating hell.

Like Nervous Conditions, the story is told through Tambudzai’s unreliable first person narration, yet there are fewer moments of tenderness here. The author doesn't seem to like her narrator very much. Dangarembga takes a particularly bitter swipe at Tambudzai when she comes back to the mission on vacation and finds her subdued cousin Nyasha reading Ngugi’s A Grain of Wheat. Although Tambudzai has been attempting to memorize the complete works of Shakespeare for her exams, she displays an aggressive ignorance of African literature, saying, “[Nyasha] was reading a book she had not bothered to share with me, which rather than being revolutionary seemed to be about agriculture for it was called A Grain of Wheat, written as far as I could see by someone like poor Bongo in the Congo, a starving Kenyan author” (117). Not only is she ignorant of Ngugi’s work but she disdains the efforts of the other African girls to speak Shona together: “These seniors were planning to spend the entire evening trying futiley to turn back time by speaking Shona! Just imagine! Inviting a mark for refusing to accept which language was allowed and which was not when you were as far as the sixth form!... I was not going to identify with a group that spoke in the only language, out of all the ones that were known at the school, which was forbidden” (169). Success for her is in becoming what she is told to become, in rejecting that which is African to embrace that which is European. To speak Shona is to be out of date, to be insubordinate. Having had her early rebellion over using the white girl’s toilets beaten out of her, she no longer questions any rules placed upon her. This is the point where I miss the fiery character Nyasha, who plays only a peripheral and sedated role in this sequel, and whose blunt observations might have provided a balance to Tambudzai's desperate self-delusion.

The history of Zimbabwe here presented is bitterly cynical. The book opens with Tambudzai’s disjointed, almost incoherent, description of her freedom-fighting sister’s leg being blown off and her uncle Babamukuru being beaten by the villageres for being “not exactly a collaborator, but one whose soul hankered to be at one with the occupying Rhodesian forces” (6). This opening accounts for the terror the elite African students as well as the white students at Sacred Heart feel for the Zimbabwean freedom fighters. Tambudzai locks away her memories of her sister’s leg, until her classmate Ntombi comes to weep in her room about a baby cousin being drowned by “terrorists,” because “[t]hey said my aunt is feeding terrorists… Yes, she talked because of what they did to the baby. But it was too late. My little cousin was broken, just broken!... Then my aunt killed herself, because when it’s like that, you’ll never live… No one is alive!” (172). In an initial reading it is hard to tell whether the “Rhodesian” army or the “Zimbabwean” army has committed these atrocities. Tambudzai’s pain is so deep that she tries not to think about it at all.

Despite the struggle for freedom from white rule, the new Zimbabwe, which has emerged by the end of the narrative, mirrors the old. Language is cloaked in political correctness. At school, the girls are "consumed by ... terror" that they might inadvertantly break the school rules about physical seperation between the white and black students. If a black girl should accidentally touch a white girl in an assembly queue "looks of such horror flooded their faces at this accidental contact that you often looked around to see what horrendous monster caused the expression, before you realised it was your person" (58-9). This history is countered with hypocritical inter-racial hugs between the co-workers at the end of the story. But under this shallow familiarity lurks the old racist structures. Tracy, the white student, who knowingly stole Tambudzai’s trophy for the best 0-levels in secondary school, becomes Tambu’s boss. A white copywriter praises Tambudzai’s advertising copy for a hair straightening product and then takes the copy as his own, going on to win a company prize for the text. (The hair straightening product represents the continued structures of idealizing Europeans ideas of what is good, under new leadership. And Tambudzai’s ability to write sentimental copy about it demonstrates her imbrication in these mental structures.) Tambudzai’s dreams are crushed over and over again. She is the ultimate victim. Although she gets the best O-level results in the class, a white girl gets the prize, while Tambudzai goes unacknowledged. Upon becoming a senior, she chooses to focus on math and science, yet because of her race she is not allowed to attend the national boy’s school the other girls from Sacred Heart attend for the science classes. She is left trying to make sense of the sciences from the handwritten notes of a white classmate. Despite hours of study, she miserably fails her A-levels.

The reader sympathizes with her victimhood, until it becomes obvious that Tambudzai is unwilling to take any action to protest these inequities. She seems to almost aggressively seek a silent martyrdom in pursuit of her own interpretation of unhu, “that profound knowledge of being, quietly and not flamboyantly; the grasp of life and of how to preserve and accentuate life’s eternal interweavings that we southern Africans are famed for, what others now call ubuntu, demanded that I consoled myself, that I be well so that others could be well also” (103). Despite her resentment of racist rules which segregate bathrooms by race, she volunteers to knit socks for Rhodesian soldiers in the fight against her “elder siblings,” to comfort the children of a farmer killed by the “elder siblings,” to ensure that she is viewed favourably by the administration. When Tracy is announced the winner of the prize for the best O-levels, most of the girls know it is a lie because they saw Tambudzai’s results. Yet, when her classmate Ntombi urges her to go talk to the headmistress, telling her that she will come along with her for moral support, Tambuzai refuses and silently sits through the award ceremony in an agony of self-mortification. When the white copywriter takes her out for coffee to inform her that he will be stealing the credit for her “brilliant” advertising copy, she deludes herself that it is a sacrifice she must take for future credit. When he receives an award for the copy, she resigns the job, but she does not even take the satisfaction of claiming her rights in her resignation, but lies that she is quitting to get married.

Much of Tambudzai’s problem is the suppression of her rage: she accepts the position given her by the whites, while taking out her aggression on those who have not achieved her level: the chirpy secretary, her vengeful mother at the homestead. Indeed, although Tambudzai has spent her whole life trying to get away from the bitterness her mother represents, Tambudzai has become exactly what she resents about her mother: she is consumed by bitterness, passive-aggressive vengeance, self-defeating negativity. Like her mother, she is so eaten by self pity that she has no friends, nothing that she enjoys except her own martyrdom.

By the end, the reader has become wary. Even Tambudzai’s smallest goals must be viewed with suspicion, since it is obvious that she is to be allowed not even the smallest of triumphs. At the end of the novel as Tambudzai takes an account of her failures, she realizes that “I had forgotten all the promises made to myself and providence while I was young concerning carrying forward with me the good and human, the unhu of my life. As it was, I had not considered unhu at all, only my own calamities, since the contested days at the convent” (246).
The question I had after plowing through this swamp of self pity is whether Tambudzai, whose cycle of self-imposed goals for recognition, victimhood, and aggressive self flagellation repeats again and again with little new insight, has remained an interesting enough person to warrant the 250 pages Dangarembga spends on developing her voice?
Note: 9 December 2007
Today I googled reviews of The Book of Not and came across these three reviews by Helon Habila, Percy Zvomuya, Helen Oyeyemi.


Fred said...

I must read this book. After your review, something inchoate makes me believe (think?) I'll come away with a different insight. I'll tell you why in full afterwards but here's a precis: I think this book describes, in very sharp relief, the African Experience; sounds very interesting though, more later, as promised.

For a fuller view, d'you think I should read the first book first or does Not stand on its own?

Talatu-Carmen said...

I'll be interested in your thoughts once you read the novel. I think, after writing the review, that much of my disappointment was not so much with the novel, which is written quite skillfully, but with the charachter. I LOVED Nervous Conditions, and it hurt me to see Tambudzai fail so miserably in this sequel. But my own subjective identification with Tambudzai doesn't mean that Dangarembga's work is not well done or does not reflect very well actual experiences; it just means that I liked the first book much better.

And, yes, I think that for the fullest view, it would be best to read Nervous Conditions before you read The Book of Not. Nervous Condition is an amazing book that captures an experience I recognize and identify with.

Fred said...

Those are very interesting reviews you posted. I'm noting some "iffy" points that may make reading a slog, but I'm still very interested. Once I finish the thousand and one book I have to read!! :-(

Anonymous said...


I just finished Nervous Condition; read nearly the whole novel in one sitting. I went straight to the web to see if in fact a sequel had been published and found your review of The Book of Not...

I don't think I will bother to read it; it sounds like it would simply frustrate and depress me. Your review speaks to what I was afraid might be true for the sequel--a descent into hard lessons learned, or a sort of treatise on the suffering wrought by Africa being co-oped by the Europeans with the greedy consent on some Africans.

What I liked about Tambudzai in Nervous Condition was the strength and determination of the character and her steadfast efforts to over-ride the conditioning placed in her both by those who were trying to hold to the ways of Africa past, and by those who were seeking to erase the ways of Africa past. These opposing forces were pulling her in opposite directions with such force that they were making it impossible for her to find a central self that could exist and thrive apart from others needs and expectations of her. What I was hoping the sequel would address was a strong black female character finding her central self and thriving in spite of those opposite forces and other obstacles as they came along.

That central self would have been decidely African and decidely Female, and would have been good for me to read about because as implausible as it sounds, I grew up in the American South in the 1960s in circumstances not unlike the homestead scenario of Tambu. And much like Tambu, I was plucked out of that poverty and chaos by an uncle who became a benefactor to assist in the process of my education and the general uplift of my mother's "branch" of the family. I went on to obtain a B.A. and a masters degree, and in the process...I left the world of the black poverty classes, in my case the southern-working-poor, and entered, step-by-step, the world of the northern black and white middle and affluent classes. These places were altogether foreign to me. And now find I am rather like a social-class orphan--I cannot easily, truthfully call where I came from home [I can't go back], and yet my "home" in the place where my education has brought me is precarious and seems to teeter on the edge of the chasm I leapt across to get here.

It was interesting to read the story of a female African character whose story so reflected my own and to consequently understand that there are perhaps many Africans who share these sorts of stories in common with some Americans of African descent. It would have been equally interesting to read a continental African writer's creative effort to grapple with the divide created in the "African" psyche by its encounters with Anglo/western education systems of higher learning.

I am familiar with the sufferings and failures that can come, and have come, after the "African" leaps or is pushed or pulled into the white world. I want to read more stories of Africans who ultimately figure out how to triumph, to find and maintain that central self, whether the characters are Africa born, or New World African born as Toni Morrison has on occasion labeled us of African descent born off the African continent.

I know this is not an exact response to your quest for thoughts on the sequel, but these are some thoughts sparked by my experience of Nervous Conditions and your review of The Book of Not.

I know my response is also not timely, but there it is.

Talatu-Carmen said...


Thank you so much for your thoughtful and beautiful response to my review. Nervous Conditions is such an evocative book.

I've been trying to think of other novels you might find interesting: I'd suggest South African writer Bessie Head, Ghanaian author Ama Ata Aidoo, Nigerian author Buchi Emicheta, Possibly Jamaican author Erna Brodber's Myal, American author Paule Marshall's Praisesong for the Widow, and some of the more contemporary Nigerian authors, perhaps Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Purple Hibiscus, Helon Habila's Measuring Time, Teju Cole's Every Day is for the Thief, Diana Evan's 26A, Helen Oyeyemi's The Opposite House... etc Sefi Atta is good too, but I'm blanking on her novel that you'd probably like...

Randi said...

I understand that this is years after the fact and the post but I had a question I'd like to pose to you. I couldn't agree more with your analysis of The Book of Not- and the let down it was. I think you articulated it perfectly- even giving your version of how you saw the sequel going. Now, I'm using both books in my Master's thesis on the representations of women, education, and identity and I also teach first years at Stellenbosch University- we are starting Nervous Conditions now. In the lectures, the prof noted that the story can be seen as an allegory of nationhood. Seems to makes sense as we note the struggles for independence in the book and in the nation. With that in mind, couldn't The Book of Not be seen in a similar way? I am still trying to pin down ways in which I can make that argument because both the opening and closing pages of Nervous Conditions state that it is a story about the women and their men so we want the continuation of the story to be about them all still. Maybe we have just misread it this entire time and The Book of Not is following the ups and downs of Zimbabwe (particularly the downs). Would love to hear your thoughts.

Randi- rodge103@mail.chapman.edu

Gamu said...

This is 4 years overdue, but I was looking for reviews of the Book of Not (just finished reading it) and I stumbled upon your blog post.

I've read Nervous Conditions about seven or eight times now and honestly it is one of my favourite novels of all time. I am Zimbabwean as well, and although I was born in a different time and into different circumstances than Tambu in the novel, I relate immensely and I recognise her story as the story of the women who grew me up. Everything about it, in Tambu's imperfect but unique voice, was brilliant. I also related to Nyasha and she was, for me, my favourite character of the novel, and how it ends, with her breakdown and everything, I could not wait to read the sequel.

I have to admit I was bitterly disappointed by The Book of Not, severly let down. I expected so much from it, and I do understand it took her 17 years to write and publish the sequel, and her voice would change, but I did not expect Tambu to become so defeatist, so eager to please and so completely self-depricating. I expected more from her, I expected at least some measure of happiness or success or for something of actual importance to happen to her, not her resignation to and acceptance of the racism, the war, the self-hate propagated by the social system, unrecognised achievements, etc etc. This was the most frustrating novel to read.

Nyasha's plot in this novel made me literally want to cry, I think every mention of her amounts to a page of text or less, and after being so pivotal to Tambu in Nervous Conditions, I expected more. I also think the details, though painful for Tambu and whatnot, of her sister's injury and her uncle's beating needed to be included, it was too vague, and the way the injury that puts Babamukuru into a wheelchair is written so offhandly pissed me off. Yes I understand the novel highlights how self-centred Tambu was, but, I was so frustrated, I mean Babamukuru pretty much catalysed Tambu's entire life, from leaving the homestead til her working days. I wanted to slap Tambu.

For long spells I was bored (all the agonising about standing in line at school, the dormitory, obsessive memorising, using the wrong toilets at school, the woman at the hostel who never gets her name right, Miss Plato's irritating English, Tambu just really really really really annoyed me) but compelled to read in the vain hope that the novel got better. I hated her spinelessness, and how she just gave in to everything without bothering to fight or attempt to be better. I can't decide whether the author just got lazy or what with this. I think as a book on it's own, it is okay (but barely), but as the sequel to such a ground-breaking novel for Zimbabwean women, oh my word, it was an epic disappointment. I keep wondering if maybe the novel was a bit over my head, but I honestly doubt that - it just wasn't very good, and Nervous Conditions deserved a better sequel.

A final word on Tambu, she reminds me insanely of Bella Swan of the Twilight Saga. Not since Bella have I thoroughly disliked the main character of a novel - and not dislike in the manner an author would like you to dislike the murderous serial killer protagonist - but in the way that means you were completely annoyed and baffled that this character made it into print.

I may re-read this in a few months, to see if my low opinion changes, but, I highly doubt I can stomach The Book of Not again. I am dreading to see what she does with the third book in the trilogy.

Talatu-Carmen said...


Thank you so much for your long thoughtful review! I recognize in your response a lot my own! Four years later and I've never gotten around to re-reading The Book of Not--just too depressing to slog through all that self defeatism.

I do wonder what she'll make of the third in the trilogy, though. Is it possible to pull Tambu out of the slog she's fallen into?

stormygayle said...

Hi I just finished the book Nervous Condition and am so very please that I dicide to google to see if there was a sequel and then I discovered your review as like you I was so excited to find out the book "the book of not" but after reading your review I was so sad already to think I wasn't going to get another book of similar vein to the previous one. I absolutely loved this book and one would wonder why the second one took so long after the great success with the first ...could it be some terrible thing that happened in the authors life maybe? Maybe she didn't write the first book?? There are a lot of questions for an explanation after such a wonderful book ...it is a mystery that is for sure.