House of Stone is a scathing love letter to Zimbabwe, says author

A country's violent past is seen through a family's woes in Novuyo Rose Tshuma's debut novel. She tells us more

29 January 2019 - 14:37 By Jennifer Platt
Novuyo Rose Tshuma.
Novuyo Rose Tshuma.
Image: Alon Skuy

Some books have perfect timing. They become the literary works that underline a particular time in history. That's what House of Stone does when it comes to providing insight on how lost, angry, bewildered and traumatised people in Zimbabwe feel. But it's not a novel of the moment, it's certainly not zeitgeisty - it's more solid than that.

Novuyo Rose Tshuma, 31, took six years to write her debut novel which is an epic telling of Zimbabwe's immediate history. "I could never have published this book before now," she tells us, visiting our offices before she flies off to Texas to complete her PhD at the University of Houston.

"When I started this novel I had just moved to SA. I was missing home but not the home I left. I left for a reason. I was in SA for university. I'm in this new place and I had questions about home. How did we become what we are? What is Zimbabwe? So I started reading up on our history."

'House of Stone' by Novuyo Rose Tshuma, Atlantic Books, R295.
'House of Stone' by Novuyo Rose Tshuma, Atlantic Books, R295.
Image: Supplied

The history she learnt is told through three characters. It's narrated by the mysterious and quite disturbed 24-year-old Zamani who has moved into the "pygmy" backroom of Abednego and Mama Agnes Mlambo. Their son Bukhosi is missing and Zamani is determined to take his place as their child. He wants to forget his troubled past and take their history as his, so he wheedles their stories out of them by any means necessary - manipulation, alcohol and drugs.

Through telling their stories, their personal history becomes the traumatic past of Zimbabwe, from its days as Rhodesia to the present in the book, which is 2007.

"It's interesting as you go back," says Tshuma. "To the '90s, probably our golden years, to the '80s and the genocide, and then to the '70s and the liberation struggle. You keep on seeing these connections, these linked elements. Almost cause and effect, even if it's haphazard. It made me want to write something. So I essentially wrote this book for myself as an exploration."

House of Stone is propelled through the voice of Zamani, whose creepiness and psychopathy is a likeness to Patricia Highsmith's signature character in The Talented Mr Ripley. This was one of the books that influenced Tshuma.

"One of the big questions was how does one write a fictional novel about a country like Zimbabwe, blending history, philosophy and psychology and showing all the traumatic history that it went through? Some of my models were Gunther Grass's Tin Drum, Salmon Rushdie's Midnight's Children and The Talented Mr Ripley. All books I've enjoyed and tried to figure out some aspects. I wanted to discover how to write a comic farce with some seriousness. My novel is satirical. A scathing love letter to Zimbabwe."

The satire is laden with the stylistic choices Tshuma's characters speak in. This hampers ease of reading as some of the writing becomes heavy with affected language.

Zamani embraces revolutionary speak but fails to become what he preaches. He then tries to tackle retelling the past, but his flowery language becomes even more bloated as he unravels.

This was deliberate, says Tshuma. "Our country had this one linear historical voice as if it's the only story but it leaves out other narratives. That's why I liked Zamani. He added the psychological dimension to the story. Zamani is also silly. For me that's where the language worked. I couldn't write all of this history in a deadpan voice. I had to bring some pleasure into the reading experience."

This silliness is needed for balance as the trauma of the Mlambos and Zamani is rooted in the horrors of the Gukurahundi massacre. Tshuma humanises this horrific part of Zimbabwe's history by allowing the reader to see what happened to her characters. It's not easy to read. Or talk about.

Tshuma becomes emotional when we broach this aspect of the novel. "What has living in Zimbabwe done to us? Done to our psyche? I was reading the Catholic Commission reports on the massacre. It's a repressed part of our history. It felt unbelievable. The concentration camps, the torture camps in Matabeleland. What has happened to these people who survived something like that? We never really dealt with the genocide. There was never counselling. How have people moved on?"

This novel is telling this history and the trauma it has inflicted on Zimbabweans and how the violence and sorrow lingers through the generations. "We have to unpack our traumas so we can move on. We like to look away in Zimbabwe. There's so much denial and confusion about what has happened. It's difficult, but we need to look. We need to humanise the horror."