In Nyathi's 'A Family Affair', a troubled society mirrors the crumbling facade of an 'ideal' family

16 November 2020 - 11:17
By Margaret von Klemperer

Published in The Witness (16/11/2020)

Although there is some humour, 'A Family Affair' is actually a very dark tale.
Image: Supplied Although there is some humour, 'A Family Affair' is actually a very dark tale.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman of childbearing age must be in want of a husband.”

So begins Sue Nyathi’s A Family Affair. But in a reversal of Jane Austen’s plotting, Nyathi begins her tale with a wedding and things go downhill from there.

The opening leads the reader to expect a social comedy, but though there is some humour, it is actually a very dark tale, dealing in gender-based violence and abuse as it tells the story of three sisters from Bulawayo – Xoliswa, Yandisa and Zandile Mafu – in the early years of this century when the economy of their country first boomed and then collapsed and social cohesion was wearing thin.

The patriarch of the Mafu family is Abraham, once a successful businessman but who has become a pastor, leaving his company to other family members to run while he concentrates on his version of religion. Xoliswa, in between being dumped by disastrous men, takes over his former company and proves herself more than competent. But none of the sisters, with the possible exception of the youngest, Zandile, show any ability at all in the business of picking partners. And even Zandile begins to wonder whether life could offer more than the wife-and-motherhood she has settled for.

By 2007, the Zimbabwean economy is tanking, and cracks in the facade the Mafus have created of a devout, successful middle-class family are widening as Nyathi’s saga of sex, lies and cultural clashes builds towards a climax. The story moves fast, despite its considerable length, and while the bickering aunts offer a little light relief, it is a bleak look at a society in trouble. The three main characters are sharply differentiated, and Nyathi tells their stories with empathy, though readers are going to wonder why on earth they can’t see that the men who appear in their lives are a particularly nasty bunch. At a time when gender-based violence is so often in the headlines, it is a sobering look at its prevalence.

One thing that must be said is that the publishers have done the book no favours in the editing process. Misused pronouns – “her” when it should be “she” for example – turn up with irritating regularity and spoil the reading experience.