Review: The Stone Virgins - Review Summaries

The Stone Virgins
by Yvonne Vera

Review Summaries

The LA Times 16/2/2003 - S.S. Reynolds
The NY Times Book Review 23/2/2003 - Alix Wilber
The New Yorker 24/3/2003 - Edna O'Brien
San Francisco Chronicle 23/3/2003 - Eric Grunwald
The Washington Post 4/3/2003 - Jabari Asim




From the Reviews:

*    "Reading about how a young girl survived the guerrilla war in Rhodesia in the early 1980s is an exercise in unflinching commitment that Yvonne Vera makes easier with pure fictional art. (...) The combinations of beauty and horror, as terrible and bizarre as they sometimes are, etch themselves into a reader's skin and memory." - Susan Salter Reynolds, The Los Angeles Times

*    "Unfortunately, the strength of Vera's style is also this novel's weakness. Her prose is so densely poetic, her opening chapters so preoccupied with ambience, that at times it is almost impossible to discern what she is talking about." - Alix Wilber, The New York Times Book Review

*    "This is a strong, haunting story. The zest and innocence of the two girls, random casualties of war, provide its unifying pulse (.....) Vera loves language and sometimes immerses herself and us in it to the point where emotional impact, the raw moment of terror, is blurred or lessened." - Edna O'Brien, The New Yorker

*    "It's a vivid introduction to that clearly beautiful but violence-torn (and now hunger-torn) nation. Writing no more and no less than necessary, Vera demonstrates what fiction does best: showing us how it felt to be there." - Eric Grunwald, San Francisco Chronicle

*    "If you'd like to meet some fully realized characters while learning some specifics of Zimbabwe's postcolonial struggles, as I did, you're likely to come away with a vague feeling of dissatisfaction. If you're willing to settle for first-rate writing and provocative meditations on memory, corruption and loss, they are all here in abundance." - Jabari Asim, The Washington Post


Please note that these ratings solely represent The Complete Review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.



The complete review's Review:

The Stone Virgins is set in Zimbabwe, the first section focussing on the pre-independent Rhodesia (1950-1980), the second on the often violent post-independence transition (1981-1986). The book tells the story of two sisters, Thenjiwe and Nonceba. They are among the victims of some of the horrific violence perpetrated in those times.
Vera's novel is rich in imagery and scents. It begins fairly impressively in Bulawayo, as she follows Selborne Avenue, a defining street and a place she uses to anchor her text. But the actual story lies elsewhere, far off the Selborne-Johannesburg axis. No, to get where her story really takes place you have to turn off Selborne "into Grey Street" and head west. Two hundred kilometres later you're in distant, provincial Kezi.
"Kezi is a rural enclave", but it's also more. For example: "To be in Kezi, to be in the bush, is to be at the mercy of misfortune". And things go from bad to worse, and in conclusion one can define it as "a naked cemetery where no one is buried and everyone betrayed".
Also: "Kezi starts and ends at Thandabantu Store", the focal point of the small, changing community.
Vera's book follows the change of the country, mirroring it in the horrors visited upon Kezi and people like Thenjiwe and Nonceba. There are moments of hope and love, but these are almost entirely extinguished by irrational brutality. One of the girls is killed, the other suffers greatly. Natural beauty -- flowers, fragrances -- contrast starkly with acts of pure, mindless evil. Only at the end is there some sort of tentative hope for the surviving sister, with acts of compassion and the possibility of a future -- tellingly only in Bulawayo, far away from the hell that Kezi became.

There's a story in this book, somewhere. We've outlined it above, though more does happen. But Vera isn't that interested in telling the story -- or rather she has a specific idea of how to convey it. And it's something many readers might have trouble with.
Vera's writing could be described as vivid and graphic. It also strains for poetry and could possibly be described as lyrical. It certainly is full of fancy prose. Unfortunately, only a few bits are effective -- and the bulk of the book is more annoying than anything else.
Much of what she writes might, to some readers, sound somehow impressive, but doesn't make any sense. Much sounds like a bad literal translation from a language that uses metaphor quite differently than English. Among the examples:

The river had been so burned by the sun, you can measure it grain by glittering grain, and by the number of children swarming on it like bees.

Their voices more temporary than darkness

The soil is chaos and ash. I enter into its burning. The soil is warm like a liquid.

Day is deep, sonorous, reverberating.
Some of this sounds like it might mean something, or make sense, but read closely it doesn't. Why on earth: "warm as a liquid" ? What is the point of that ? Or: "more temporary than darkness". Surely, darkness can last any variety of periods -- ended with the flip of a light switch or continuing almost endlessly for the duration of an entire night -- or a whole Arctic winter. (Or is it that, once there is light, all evidence and memory of darkness is gone ? But darkness always returns -- and there are always hints and pieces of it around, in shadows and dark corners .....)
A few such sentences can be endured or overlooked, but the problem here is that practically the whole book consists of them. Some readers might be able to appreciate this sort of writing. We can't.
There are a few occasions when Vera doesn't try too hard and gets it right. A page on 1981, when hope receded, is probably the most impressive effort, the succinct descriptions not overreaching, the simplicity appropriate:

The war begins. A curfew is declared. A state of emergency. No movement is allowed. The cease-fire ceases. It begins in the streets, the burying of memory.
But most of the book is presented in an almost dream-like fog, as though the reality were too ugly to be described with precision, better pictured as a bleary water-colour than a sharp photograph. It's a shame: towards the end there are a few scenes in which there is dialogue between some of the characters. Forced to be naturalistic, Vera displays actual talent: some of these exchanges are truly vivid and sound authentic (as almost nothing else in the book does), and one wishes she had reined in her fancy efforts throughout the book.

Vera's writing might appeal to some; perhaps we simply don't have an ear for it. (Readers familiar with our reviews might be attuned to our sensibilities, and able to guess whether they might disagree with us on this type of writing.) Despite some powerful images -- of a country and people subjected to considerable horror -- we couldn't possibly recommend this title.

Review: The Stone Virgins - Primorac

Journal of Southern African Studies
Yvonne Vera, The Stone Virgins (Harare, Weaver Press 2002), 165 pp.,
ISBN 1-77922-002-2
Reviewed by Ranka Primorac/
Source: Journal of Southern African Studies, Vol. 29. no. 4. December 2003 pp.
995-97.

Yvonne Vera is one of the most prolific and important creative writers to emerge from post-independence Zimbabwe. Since 1992, she has published six volumes of fiction: a short story collection (Why Don’t You Carve Other Animals, 1992) and five novels - Nehanda (1993), Without a Name (1994), Under the Tongue (1996), Butterfly Burning (1998) and The Stone Virgins (2002). Her texts (novels in particular) are marked by their women-centred subject matter, their ‘difficult,’ lyrical style and their deliberate breaking of thematic taboos (they deal, unflinchingly yet compassionately, with violent and traumatic events such as rape, incest, abortion and infanticide). In all of these respects, Vera’s latest novel, The Stone Virgins, is typical of her opus.
However, there are also several senses in which this novel represents a new departure for its author and an important benchmark for Zimbabwean fiction in English. I would argue that The Stone Virgins is Vera’s most accomplished and powerful work so far. Unlike any of Vera’s other novels, The Stone Virgins spans the pre- and postindependence periods of Zimbabwe’s history. (Nehanda is set in the 1890s, Butterfly Burning in the 1940s, Without a Name and Under the Tongue in the 1970s.) The novel is divided into two parts - one entitled ‘1950-1980,’ the other ‘1981-1986’ –
and it starts and finishes with chapters containing descriptions of Bulawayo, the capital of Zimbabwe’s southern province of Matabeleland. The colonial Bulawayo described in chapter one is a city of sharp edges and divides, where black men and women are seen meeting literally underground, dreaming of freedoms that they do not possess: ‘All they want is to come and go as they please. At independence, they just want to go in there, and leave, as they please, not to sneak or peep, but to come, and go, as they please.’ (p. 9) In the novel’s final chapter, on the other hand, a black woman wonders freely among the city’s streets. There are flowers everywhere; there are also, after independence, black mannequins in department-store windows,
‘recently employed black bank tellers and trainee managers’ (p. 149) and black residents in apartment blocks with colonial names such as ‘Kensington Flats.’ The Stone Virgins makes it clear that independence has brought about an irreversible social advancement. It has, however, also brought suffering, tragedy and trauma.

Most of the novel’s narrative (framed by the descriptions of the city) does not take place in Bulawayo. It is set, instead, in a rural enclave called Kezi, some two hundred kilometres away, and focuses on the kind of people and places that are normally considered peripheral. ‘In truth, the bus drives from Bulawayo to Kezi, then back to Bulawayo. But (…) in the minds of the residents of Kezi, of course, Kezi comes first: the bus, therefore, is seen as driving from Kezi to Bulawayo to Kezi during the entire week.’ (p. 17) (In emphasising her narrative’s potential function as an alternative, unofficial history, as in matters of style, Vera owes a significant debt to the Zimbabwean novelist Chenjerai Hove.) The story that unfolds in Kezi comprises four
narrative strands. The first is about the love between Cephas, a young man from a distant part of the country, and Thenjiwe, a Kezi woman ‘more beautiful than rain’ (p. 30). The second is the story of Sibaso, a former nationalist guerrilla who has, after independence, become one of the ‘dissidents’ – armed men unhappy with the new dispensation who roamed rural Matabeleland in the 1980s. The novel’s third narrative strand tells of how Sibaso murders Thenjiwe (spectacularly, by beheading her), then violates and mutilates her younger sister Nonceba, whom Cephas later befriends and
takes to the safety of Bulawayo. The fourth strand narrates the destruction of the social centre of Kezi – the Thandabantu (literally ‘love-people’) general store, and the torture and murder of its owner Mahlathini by the soldiers of the new, independent government.

The Stone Virgins presents this narrative material with unprecedented compositional balance and clarity, and in a style that is more measured and controlled than in any of Vera’s previous novels. Her usual deluge of ‘poetic’ images and figures of speech (which has, on occasion, given free reign to less-than-disciplined critical outpourings) is here carefully restrained. Images are embedded within the text with greater precision (see, for example, the recurrence of the word ‘bone,’ or the references to the African continent); one of the most shocking events in the novel – the murder of
Thenjiwe – is told with extraordinary grace and economy of language. A further dimension of the uniqueness of The Stone Virgins is the presence in it of a male character who makes no attempts to appropriate or control a woman’s body, and who is allowed access to the intimate circle of healing, reserved in Vera’s other work for women alone. In addition to that, Cephas is by profession a historian; and although he has come to Kezi from Mashonaland, he is, at the novel’s end, working on restoring kwoBulawayo, the seat of the pre-colonial Ndebele state. ‘A new nation needs to
restore its past.’ (p. 165) The novel may therefore be said to associate him with the kind of nationalism that is positive and emancipatory because it is non-violent and pluralistic. Nationalism’s dark, violent and destructive face is in part embodied by Sibaso.

The Stone Virgins is not the first novel to refer to the post-independence war that ravaged Matabeleland in the 1980s. The conflict between the ‘dissidents’ (the Ndebele former guerrillas unhappy with the way they were treated after independence) and government forces is also represented in Chenjerai Hove’s 1991 novel Shadows, and Alexander Kanengoni’s Echoing Silences, published in 1997. Kanengoni’s text sees the post-independence violence in Matabeleland as an extension of the ethnic clashes between the two African nationalist armies that fought the liberation war. Hove’s novel, on the other hand, highlights the plight of rural peasants who, after all the hardships of the war of independence, find themselves at the mercy of further, dissident-inflicted violence. In as much as it does not analyse the
political causes of Sibaso’s discontent, but concentrates instead on the harm he causes
to civilians, Vera novel is written in Hove’s wake. (Unlike Shadows, however, The
Stone Virgins enters a dissident’s psychological world: Sibaso has, during his time as
a guerrilla, turned inwardly into stone. He sleeps in, and desecrates, a sacred hillside
cave decorated with ancient paintings, ‘the stone virgins.’) But it also takes a step
further: to my knowledge, it is the first Zimbabwean novel in English to refer to and
openly condemn the violence against civilians sponsored by the government of
independent Zimbabwe.

The novel draws a parallel between the destruction of Mahlathni and the Thandabantu
store, and Sibaso’s act of mindless brutality. The store had functioned as the social
heart of Kezi: a place where people met to trade and talk, and where, as a sign of
social change brought about by independence, female freedom fighters had won the
right to sit on the veranda on upturned empty crates - something previously reserved
for men only. It is precisely because it was a place of meeting and dialogue that the
store was destroyed, its owner accused of providing a space ‘where anything could be
spoken, planned and allowed to happen.’ (p. 121) At the time of ‘dissident’ revolt, the
Zimbabwean government sent to Matabeleland a specially trained military unit (the
Fifth Brigade) which wiped out countless civilian families. Written in an equally
violent historical moment, Vera’s text has the courage to assert that such acts were
deliberately executed and planned, then just as deliberately deleted from the nation’s
official memory. ‘The team of soldiers who congregated on Thandabantu store had
demonstrated that anything which had happened so far had not been random or
unplanned. Atrocious, yes, but purposeful.’ (p. 124) ‘Mahlathini’s death would not be
registered. There would be no memory desired of it. It was such a time; such a death.’
(p. 122) After independence, rather than being liberated, the rural space of Kezi
becomes ‘a naked cemetery.’ (p. 143)
When I met and interviewed her in Bulawayo in 2001, Vera was working on The
Stone Virgins. Speaking of the transformative effect of writing on her life, she said:
You must feel it and experience it as something which transforms you. I
always feel, with each paragraph I write, I have to be at a new threshold.
Either in my own mental state, or in the voice and the language, in what I have
discovered about the character, about the moment, about the art of writing, the
act of writing. Paragraph by paragraph. I feel transformed. And I always feel
at the end of the day, when I manage to write, I panic, my heart beats, and I
think, if I had not written today, I would not be where I am right now, right
now, this moment.
With this brave and balanced novel, Vera has transformed the present moment of
Zimbabwean fiction.
Ranka Primorac, Nottingham Trent University

Review: The Stone Virgins - The New York Times

Delivered-To: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Reply-To: "ZWNEWS"
From: "ZWNEWS"
Subject: ZWNEWS - 7 October 2002
Date: Mon, 7 Oct 2002 10:04:42 +0100
The unofficial truth commission – NY Times
From The New York Times, 6 October

Zimbabwe's writers explore despair and violence under black rule
By Rachel L. Swarns


Bulawayo - Every year after the dry, hungry winters, old women pray for the spring rains to cleanse the earth and revive parched fields. The first rains,
known as gukurahundi in the Shona language, are usually hailed as a symbol of life, fertility and prosperity. But here the term gukurahundi is also a symbol of blood and violence. It is the name given to the killings that began a few years after white rule ended in 1980. Just as blacks were beginning to enjoy their newfound freedoms, their newly elected leader, Robert Mugabe, sent soldiers to cleanse the land of rival black insurgents. By 1988, thousands of people had been killed here in the province of Matabeleland. The years of terror left many people traumatized, fearful and silenced. Public discussion of the violence still remains taboo in many places, which is why Yvonne Vera's new novel, "The Stone Virgins," has attracted such attention. Ms. Vera, one of Zimbabwe's most prominent writers, describes the violence through two sisters whose lives are shattered by the battle between soldiers and dissidents.

Thenjiwe is decapitated by a black insurgent. Nonceba survives, but the attacker slices off her lips. Her struggle to heal reflects, in many ways, this nation's struggle to acknowledge and come to terms with its raw, self-inflicted wounds. Government officials often chronicle the suffering endured by blacks during decades of white oppression, but they speak little of the blood spilled by black soldiers and guerrillas. No one knows how many people died in Matabeleland. Some say more than 3,000; others more than 10,000. And some book critics here are already comparing the troubles of the 1980's as depicted in Ms. Vera's novel to the political violence that batters this country today. Over the past two and a half years, President Mugabe's militant supporters have killed scores of black opposition party members, human rights groups say. Journalists, writers and artists who have criticized his government have been harassed, arrested and jailed. Ms. Vera, 38, who runs Zimbabwe's National Art Gallery here, is not a political activist, and her novel is not a political tract. She loves Zimbabwe, she says, and spends her time nurturing young artists and huddling over her computer, constructing the haunting imagery, dense narratives and lyrical language that characterize her novels. But she could not ignore the violence swirling across the country. She was frightened at times that the government might take action against her. But she wrote the novel anyway, believing that Zimbabweans must confront the troubled past to move forward. "I asked some friends and they said, `Don't write it,' " Ms. Vera said as she sat in her art gallery, describing the warnings she heard whenever she discussed the violence of the 1980's. "It has been a silenced subject," she said. "There has been an absolute fear of even talking about it. For two years I did not write it. But it was not possible for me to have that self-censorship. I wanted to say, This is how it was. Just that. These destructive people were created, and they roamed the land. I cannot pretend to have been unaware of the
relevance now. We weren't past this violence; we have remained in that." By confronting the troubles of the past and acknowledging their continuing
relevance, Ms. Vera is following one of Zimbabwe's most striking literary trends. Black writers here have written eloquently about black suffering under
the white government and the jubilation that followed Mr. Mugabe's election in 1980. But since the late 1980's many writers who were in their 20's when white rule ended have focused on the damage and disillusionment experienced by blacks during and immediately after the struggle for self-determination. In "Shadows," Chenjerai Hove, 46, describes how some black guerrillas commandeered homes from their supporters and abandoned the children they fathered in rural villages. In "Harvest of Thorns," Shimmer Chinodya, who is also in his mid-40's, depicts the brutal public killings of blacks who were viewed as collaborators with the white government. In her collection of poems, "On the Road Again," Freedom Nyamubaya, a poet and a former guerrilla, describes how many female fighters, including herself, were raped by their commanders. And Ms. Vera - in her first published work, "Why Don't You Carve Other Animals?" a collection of short stories released in 1992 - describes how Chido, a female fighter, returns from the war and finds herself jobless and misunderstood as the country celebrates its new freedom.

Irene Staunton, who has edited and published many of these books, including "The Stone Virgins," calls them Zimbabwe's unofficial truth commission. Eva Hunter, an associate professor of English at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa, agrees. "Yvonne Vera is very concerned about recapturing some of the truth of the liberation struggle, the truth of the past," Ms. Hunter said. "Her emphasis is on the communal suffering, what happens to the people who are not in uniform. She sees recapturing that past as important for individual and national healing." Ms. Vera, who grew up here and earned a doctorate in literature at York University in Downsview, Ontario, has never shied away from controversial subjects in her novels. "Without a Name," published in 1994, tackles infanticide. "Under the Tongue," published in 1996, deals with incest.  "Butterfly Burning," published in 1998, deals with abortion. All are still available in paperback. The liberation struggle, the constant backdrop, sometimes spills into the lives of her main characters, mostly women on the sidelines of battle. The man who rapes his daughter, for instance, has returned home from fighting the white government. In "The Stone Virgins," the people of Kezi are celebrating the end of the war and the arrival of the country's first black government. Triumphant guerrillas gather with their supporters at Thandabantu Store. Villagers are giddily envisioning the day when the government will bring running water to their community. But a few years later, violence explodes across the land. Thenjiwe is killed by a black dissident. The shopkeeper is tortured and burned to death by soldiers. The hospitals are full of silenced, broken people with psychological wounds that may never heal. It would be easy to demonize Thenjiwe's killer, but Ms. Vera chooses not to. Instead, she steps inside his mind and finds an ordinary man, like many of the sons, brothers and neighbors who went to war hopeful and returned numb, damaged, forgotten. In her novel, both killers and victims are battered by war. Sibaso,
the insurgent who kills Thenjiwe, complains that people have forgotten the sacrifices that guerrillas made to win the country's freedom. "They remember nothing," he says of his countrymen. "They never speak of it now, at least I do not hear of it." Then he speaks of the damage within him. "The smallest of my fingers no longer bends," Sibaso says. "Something went quiet inside my head. I heard it stop like a small wind . . . I bit my thumb and felt nothing. I bit hard and reached the bone. This is how I lost the flesh there. I wanted to reach something, to restore feeling." Hope and despair intermingle throughout the novel. Mutilated and battered, Nonceba tries to rebuild her life in a country where government officials move steadily to expand access to education, health care and jobs to blacks even as they send soldiers to the battles that terrorize the countryside. Amid the violence, there is still some sense of progress. "You see her taking her own steps toward independence," Ms. Vera said of Nonceba. "We don't see her heal. We see her extremely wounded, but we certainly see her looking ahead. Ms. Vera was determined to describe that kind of damage and healing, but she also seemed careful to avoid language that might outrage the government. Her violent character is a dissident, not a soldier. She does not
apportion blame to either side in the conflict, even though most people attribute the majority of killings to the government. The explosive word
gukurahundi, which evokes such emotion and anger here, never appears in "The Stone Virgins."
The novel is expected to be released in the United States early next year. It
was published here in May and Ms. Vera has had no trouble so far. But she still admits to a lingering sense of unease. Some artists and journalists who have
criticized the government, including Mr. Hove and the musician Thomas Mapfumo,
have left the country after reporting threats by government supporters. She
wonders, sometimes, whether she will be next. "I shouldn't panic, but I panic,"
Ms. Vera said. "The subject is taboo. Am I seen as a government critic? I don't
know. I don't want to be embroiled in politics." "One thing is for sure: I don't
want to leave Zimbabwe," she continued. "But I don't want limits, barriers to my
creative energy. What I like is to make someone witness what is occurring in my
work. If they can do that, it's a big step in breaking silences."

Review of The Stone Virgins - Yvonne Vera

Delivered-To: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Reply-To: "ZWNEWS"
From: "ZWNEWS"
Subject: ZWNEWS - 7 October 2002
Date: Mon, 7 Oct 2002 10:04:42 +0100

The unofficial truth commission – NY Times
From The New York Times, 6 October
Zimbabwe's writers explore despair and violence under black rule
By Rachel L. Swarns


Bulawayo - Every year after the dry, hungry winters, old women pray for the spring rains to cleanse the earth and revive parched fields. The first rains,
known as gukurahundi in the Shona language, are usually hailed as a symbol of life, fertility and prosperity. But here the term gukurahundi is also a symbol
of blood and violence. It is the name given to the killings that began a few years after white rule ended in 1980. Just as blacks were beginning to enjoy
their newfound freedoms, their newly elected leader, Robert Mugabe, sent soldiers to cleanse the land of rival black insurgents. By 1988, thousands of
people had been killed here in the province of Matabeleland. The years of terror left many people traumatized, fearful and silenced. Public discussion of the violence still remains taboo in many places, which is why Yvonne Vera's new novel, "The Stone Virgins," has attracted such attention. Ms. Vera, one of Zimbabwe's most prominent writers, describes the violence through two sisters whose lives are shattered by the battle between soldiers and dissidents.

Thenjiwe is decapitated by a black insurgent. Nonceba survives, but the attacker slices off her lips. Her struggle to heal reflects, in many ways, this nation's struggle to acknowledge and come to terms with its raw, self-inflicted wounds. Government officials often chronicle the suffering endured by blacks during decades of white oppression, but they speak little of the blood spilled by black soldiers and guerrillas. No one knows how many people died in Matabeleland. Some say more than 3,000; others more than 10,000. And some book critics here are already comparing the troubles of the 1980's as depicted in Ms. Vera's novel to the political violence that batters this country today. Over the past two and a half years, President Mugabe's militant supporters have killed scores of black opposition party members, human rights groups say. Journalists, writers and artists who have criticized his government have been harassed, arrested and jailed. Ms. Vera, 38, who runs Zimbabwe's National Art Gallery here, is not a political activist, and her novel is not a political tract. She loves Zimbabwe, she says, and spends her time nurturing young artists and huddling over her computer, constructing the haunting imagery, dense narratives and lyrical language that characterize her novels. But she could not ignore the violence swirling across the country. She was frightened at times that the government might take action against her. But she wrote the novel anyway, believing that Zimbabweans must confront the troubled past to move forward. "I asked some friends and they said, `Don't write it,' " Ms. Vera said as she sat in her art gallery, describing the warnings she heard whenever she discussed the violence of the 1980's. "It has been a silenced subject," she said. "There has been an absolute fear of even talking about it. For two years I did not write it. But it was not possible for me to have that self-censorship. I wanted to say, This is how it was. Just that. These destructive people were created, and they roamed the land. I cannot pretend to have been unaware of the
relevance now. We weren't past this violence; we have remained in that." By confronting the troubles of the past and acknowledging their continuing
relevance, Ms. Vera is following one of Zimbabwe's most striking literary trends. Black writers here have written eloquently about black suffering under
the white government and the jubilation that followed Mr. Mugabe's election in 1980. But since the late 1980's many writers who were in their 20's when white rule ended have focused on the damage and disillusionment experienced by blacks during and immediately after the struggle for self-determination. In "Shadows," Chenjerai Hove, 46, describes how some black guerrillas commandeered homes from their supporters and abandoned the children they fathered in rural villages.

In "Harvest of Thorns," Shimmer Chinodya, who is also in his mid-40's, depicts the brutal public killings of blacks who were viewed as collaborators with the white government. In her collection of poems, "On the Road Again," Freedom Nyamubaya, a poet and a former guerrilla, describes how many female fighters, including herself, were raped by their commanders. And Ms. Vera - in her first published work, "Why Don't You Carve Other Animals?" a collection of short stories released in 1992 - describes how Chido, a female fighter, returns from the war and finds herself jobless and misunderstood as the country celebrates its new freedom. Irene Staunton, who has edited and published many of these books, including "The Stone Virgins," calls them Zimbabwe's unofficial truth commission. Eva Hunter, an associate professor of English at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa, agrees. "Yvonne Vera is very concerned about recapturing some of the truth of the liberation struggle, the truth of the past," Ms. Hunter said. "Her emphasis is on the communal suffering, what happens to the people who are not in uniform. She sees recapturing that past as important for individual and national
healing." Ms. Vera, who grew up here and earned a doctorate in literature at York University in Downsview, Ontario, has never shied away from controversial subjects in her novels. "Without a Name," published in 1994, tackles infanticide. "Under the Tongue," published in 1996, deals with incest.
"Butterfly Burning," published in 1998, deals with abortion. All are still available in paperback. The liberation struggle, the constant backdrop, sometimes spills into the lives of her main characters, mostly women on the sidelines of battle. The man who rapes his daughter, for instance, has returned
home from fighting the white government. In "The Stone Virgins," the people of Kezi are celebrating the end of the war and the arrival of the country's first black government. Triumphant guerrillas gather with their supporters at Thandabantu Store. Villagers are giddily envisioning the day when the government will bring running water to their community. But a few years later, violence explodes across the land. Thenjiwe is killed by a black dissident. The shopkeeper is tortured and burned to death by soldiers. The hospitals are full of silenced, broken people with psychological wounds that may never heal.


It would be easy to demonize Thenjiwe's killer, but Ms. Vera chooses not to. Instead, she steps inside his mind and finds an ordinary man, like many of the sons, brothers and neighbors who went to war hopeful and returned numb, damaged, forgotten. In her novel, both killers and victims are battered by war. Sibaso, the insurgent who kills Thenjiwe, complains that people have forgotten the sacrifices that guerrillas made to win the country's freedom. "They remember nothing," he says of his countrymen. "They never speak of it now, at least I do
not hear of it." Then he speaks of the damage within him. "The smallest of my fingers no longer bends," Sibaso says. "Something went quiet inside my head. I heard it stop like a small wind . . . I bit my thumb and felt nothing. I bit hard and reached the bone. This is how I lost the flesh there. I wanted to reach something, to restore feeling." Hope and despair intermingle throughout the novel. Mutilated and battered, Nonceba tries to rebuild her life in a country where government officials move steadily to expand access to education, health care and jobs to blacks even as they send soldiers to the battles that terrorize the countryside. Amid the violence, there is still some sense of progress. "You see her taking her own steps toward independence," Ms. Vera said of Nonceba. "We don't see her heal. We see her extremely wounded, but we certainly see her
looking ahead. Ms. Vera was determined to describe that kind of damage and healing, but she also seemed careful to avoid language that might outrage the government. Her violent character is a dissident, not a soldier. She does not apportion blame to either side in the conflict, even though most people attribute the majority of killings to the government. The explosive word gukurahundi, which evokes such emotion and anger here, never appears in

"The Stone Virgins." The novel is expected to be released in the United States early next year. It
was published here in May and Ms. Vera has had no trouble so far. But she still admits to a lingering sense of unease. Some artists and journalists who have criticized the government, including Mr. Hove and the musician Thomas Mapfumo, have left the country after reporting threats by government supporters. She wonders, sometimes, whether she will be next. "I shouldn't panic, but I panic," Ms. Vera said. "The subject is taboo. Am I seen as a government critic? I don't know. I don't want to be embroiled in politics." "One thing is for sure: I don't want to leave Zimbabwe," she continued. "But I don't want limits, barriers to my creative energy. What I like is to make someone witness what is occurring in my work. If they can do that, it's a big step in breaking silences."

Review of The Stone Virgins - Geoff Wisner

Date: Mon, 24 Jan 2005 16:36:53 +0200
http://www.itsbho.com/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=7
Book Reviews: The Stone Virgins : Yvonne Vera
(Review by Geoff Wisner)

Violence is harsh and ugly, we are told. Yet when carried out by a hardened warrior, a soldier who kills with no hesitation, it may be as graceful as ballet. A strange man appears, "like an eagle gliding," at the hut of Nonceba and her sister Thenjiwe. As Nonceba looks up, the man beheads her sister so swiftly and
cleanly that he seems to take her place, "replacing each of her moments, taking her position in the azure of the sky". Before he leaves he cuts Nonceba’s face, a gesture she feels as a "fleeting touch" but that leaves her badly wounded. The sisters live in the rural settlement of Kezi, not far from Zimbabwe’s second
city of Bulawayo. Near their home are the Kwakhe River and the hills of the Matopos, like enormous mounds of potato-shaped boulders (and not at all like the craggy cliff pictured on the jacket of this book). Thenjiwe, the murdered sister, has recently found love with a man she met at the one-room shop that is
the social center of Kezi.

Facts like these emerge only gradually from a sensual, poetic narrative voice that renders sights and sounds and smells but offers few explanations. It is even some time before any character begins to emerge. We follow Selborne Avenue out of Bulawayo, smelling the eucalyptus trees that border it and noting the purple blooms of the jacaranda. We observe the cobra-skin belts, "Slim Jim" ties, and nervously tapping fingers of the men who have returned from working in the gold mines of Johannesburg. We see the soldiers returning to their homes: the women more confident than before, "spitting onto the ground, rubbing the smoke of fires from their eyes," while the men "wear lonely and lost looks but have a touch mild as honey". Independence "Facts emerge from a sensual, poetic voice that renders sights and sounds and smells but offers few explanations" has come, and new mothers give their children names like Ceasefire and Freedom.

But if independence has come, the war is not really over. During the first years of Zimbabwe’s independence, Robert Mugabe (mentioned here in passing only as "the prime minister") terrorised the people of the Matabeleland province in an effort to crush the power of his rival, Joshua Nkomo. Government soldiers, some of them belonging to a notorious South Korean–trained brigade, burned crops, destroyed villages, and committed mass murder and other atrocities. The author never spells this out, and to those who don’t know the history, what happens to Thenjiwe and Nonceba may seem like a random horror. All we have to explain it is vignettes of the sisters’ attacker camped in a sacred cave, eating the legs of spiders, then returning to his home in a township where each house has a stenciled number and finding his father gone. We are privy to his thoughts, but they are too cryptic to be much help. "A spider," he thinks, "knows the true agony of ecstasy, that violence is part of the play of
opposites."

For all its frustrating indirection, though, The Stone Virgins is a brave book that offers a searing picture of a little-known episode in Zimbabwean history, and its human cost. It is even, in its way, a love story, and it ends not with hopelessness but with the tender movements of Cephas, Thenjiwe’s lover, as he
struggles with his feelings for Nonceba, the wounded survivor, whose suffering has turned her into stone but who is slowly beginning to rediscover her humanity.

Geoff Wisner is a copywriter in the USA and is working on a book called A
Literary Tour of Africa.

Review of The Stone Virgins - Bostone Globe

Boston Globe
Sunday 2nd February 2003
The Stone Virgins
by Yvonne Vera
Published by Weaver Press, Harare
Farrar, Strauss Giroux, New York
Birth of a nation: a vivid portrait of war-torn Zimbabwe
By Eric Grunwald, 2/2/2003


It's almost better if you don't know the modern history of Zimbabwe (nee
Rhodesia) before reading Yvonne Vera's new novel, ''The Stone Virgins.''
This short, powerful book, which won the inaugural Macmillan Writer's Prize
for Africa and should be read again and again, is a vivid introduction to
that clearly beautiful but violence- (and now hunger-) torn nation. Writing
no more and no less than necessary, Vera demonstrates what fiction does
best: showing us how it felt to be there.
The novel's first half spans the period 1950-80 and the struggle for
independence from white rule, the second the six shocking years following.
We begin in Bulawayo, the second-largest city, which Vera describes in an
economic but elegant and provocative mix of hard nouns and verbs and
abstract ideas, of rambling sentences and staccato fragments that connect
civilization, nature, and us: ''The city revolves in sharp edges; roads cut
at right angles.... Streets are wide. Widest at intersections.... The edge
of a building is a profile, a corner ... ekoneni. The word is pronounced
with pursed lips and lyrical minds, with arms pulsing, with a memory begging
for time. Ekoneni, they say, begging for ease, for understanding.'' The
fragments can seem affected and overdone, yet once accepted they create a
rhythm suggestive of the country's lurching history.
For it is the best of times - lovers rendezvous at these ekoneni and in
hotel basements, sipping beer, listening to jazz, talking about the time
Satchmo played there - and the worst: These are the only places blacks are
allowed; they must drink from glasses cut from empty beer bottles; war rages
in the bush.
From there to Kezi, 200 kilometers southeast, a village that fits how we are
used to imagining Africa: thatched huts, trees bearing aromatic fruit, a
crowded, barely running bus. Off of which comes a Bulawayo man whom
Thenjiwe, one of two Kezi sisters, meets and takes home. ''She has a lot to
forget, so this is all right. She has no idea now, or ever, that some of the
harm she has to forget is in the future, not in the past.'' Such masterful
bits of foreshadowing are frequent. The intense ensuing love affair falters
due to, like so many other things in the novel - and Zimbabwe itself, Vera
implies - a lack of words.
Following a beautiful chapter describing the quiet, stunned joy of
independence, one of the sisters is brutally murdered, the other raped and
maimed. The remainder of the novel movingly interweaves the survivor's
excruciating recovery with an exploration of the killer's mind. In both
threads, but particularly the latter, we are witness to one of Vera's great
strengths: her fantastic ability to conceive and get inside her distinct and
complicated characters down to the last thought and detail: ''I am a man who
is set free, Sibaso, one who remembers harm. They remember nothing. ...
These scarred hands, the flesh missing, are scented hands. An inch burned
from every finger. The smallest of my fingers no longer bends. Something
went quiet inside my head. I heard it stop like a small wind. ... I bit my
thumb and felt nothing. I bit hard and reached the bone. This is how I lost
the flesh there. I wanted to reach something, to restore feeling. A nerve
had vanished.'' Rather than condemn Sibaso, Vera seeks to understand him.
And although he's one of the dissidents who took up arms against Mugabe's
then-new government, there is plenty of blame to go around, and Vera
elsewhere describes ''soldiers'' committing atrocities, thus implying
government forces. Imply is all she can do, however, for Zimbabwe is now a
one-party dictatorship, and Mugabe is burnishing his image for the history
books. Over the past few years his militant supporters have killed numerous
opposition party members and harassed and jailed journalists, writers, and
artists who have criticized his government.
''There has been an absolute fear of even talking about [this period],''
Vera told The New York Times in October. ''For two years I did not write it.
But it was not possible for me to have that self-censorship. I wanted to
say, This is how it was. Just that. ... We weren't past this violence; we
have remained in that.''
Vera's goal is not to assign guilt but to break the silence, to end the lack
of words, and thus her answers are indefinite and speculative. ''The Stone
Virgins
'' is, I believe, her way of asking why.
We must thus keep an eye on Yvonne Vera, who, unlike a number of her
colleagues, has not fled Zimbabwe, and runs the National Art Gallery in
Bulawayo. Not only because after this book we will hunger for more, but also
because she dares speak unpleasant truths inside her own country.
Eric Grunwald is managing editor of Agni magazine and is currently writing a
novel.
The Stone Virgins
By Yvonne Vera
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 185 pp., $18
This story ran on page D8 of the Boston Globe on 2/2/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.

Review of The Stone Virgins - Reviewers of The Stone Virgins

Reviewers of The Stone Virgins have stated that:

Yvonne Vera gives us a 'A powerful and lyrical narrative with an original voice that blurs distinctions between poetry and prose . . .[The Stone Virgins] is a story of resistance, struggle and betrayal . . . a lament, and a stringing together of a people's history.' Vera has  'excelled in sheer power of writing and forceful storytelling'. (Judges: Macmillan prize)

This is a wonderful novel. Vera is to Ben Okri what Jeanette Winterson is to Salman Rushdie: as magical and rich but shorter, stronger and more elegant. Vera’s writing is constantly fresh and mind-altering. She begins this novel with a celebration … of Selbourne Avenue in Bulawayo 'long, straight, jacaranda-lined', she ends it musing on the virtues of a grass hut: '... the manner in which the tenderest branches bend, meet and dry, the way grass folds smoothly over this frame and weaves a nest, the way it protects the cool livable spaces within — deliverance'. Jane Rosenthal, Weekly Mail and Guardian


This is a must-read: a book that will help many to deal with the turmoil of the independence struggle, the dissident war and the current political violence.
It is a book of pain but it is also a book of hope. Grace Mutandwa, Financial Gazette


Yvonne Vera’s work is a veritable feast: there is enough for every imaginative bent. It is this democratic spirit of her work which poses new vistas for the post-colony. There is an upsurge of insurrectionary feeling in the small people of her world. They negotiate the practice of everyday life in the cracks into which they are shoved by public histories. Yet, they insert their own ‘discordant’ voices in what Terence Ranger called the pauses and expectations of official history. These small men and women may not have body-bags to remind us of their roles in the liberation struggle; but they record their own stories as struggles, as memory; as history. Hence, Yvonne Vera’s work is a study in liberation politics: it portrays epic struggles against silence. She  struggles against the tyranny of being pinned down in a single narrative, a single history; and the terror of  a single capacious hell, and a narrow path to a single, exclusionary heaven. Her characters insist on living life on their own terms, and experiencing history bodily and psychically. It is a struggle against ‘nationalists’ and other self-proclaimed martyrs who insist on struggling, suffering, remembering and ruling on behalf of the ‘nation’. In this vein, what we may say about the present crisis in Zimbabwe is about the volcanic eruption of previously suppressed narratives, which are given presence and voice in Yvonne Vera’s poetic prose. It is a struggle about whose signs and taboos should rule us.

For Yvonne Vera’s characters, the ability to post a counter-voice to all-embodying histories and experiences, and the ability to draw the boundaries of one’s hell or heaven, is liberating. It is a creative moment. Her work is ultimately about setting off these creative moments and voices. It is  a refusal to have one’s biography pared down to the details of one’s space and history. The terrifying fates of some of her most promising characters illustrate the desire to transcend the limitations of a history, a space,  a body, a psyche, a soul. It is the desire to map one’s way in the world, without being circumscribed by it.  Robert Muponde in a speech.

NOMA AWARDS Press Release for The Stone Virgins



PRESS RELEASE

For release on Friday 9 October 2003


BIOGRAPHY OF THE HEROIC LIVES OF WALTER AND ALBERTINA SISULU WINS 2003 NOMA AWARD


Walter and Albertina Sisulu. In our Lifetime by Elinor Sisulu is announced as the 2003 Noma Award Winner. The book was published in 2002 by David Philip Publishers, an imprint of New Africa Books (Pty) Ltd, of Cape Town, South Africa. This is the third time that David Philip Publishers have won the Noma Award.

The Jury’s citation reads:

“This is a powerful and searing book, told with honesty and authority, of the lives of two heroic figures in South Africa’s history. Bringing together the personal and political, the Sisulu story is a compelling account of their struggle against apartheid; the history of a close family transcending the separations of banning orders, imprisonment and exile; and a profoundly touching love story.

The moving and inspirational story is told in a riveting and wholly lucid manner. The author has an unerring command of the history and handles the narrative deftly, without losing sight of her goal to reveal the complexities of the political and personal choices of her protagonists. It is carefully researched, in full command of the wealth of original oral evidence, rich family correspondence, archival records, and all relevant secondary sources.”

The author, Elinor Sisulu, is uniquely placed to tell the story, as journalist, academic and daughter-in-law of Walter and Albertina Sisulu. She successfully marries personal engagement and an insider view, with the demands of historical scholarship. Walter and Albertina Sisulu shared extraordinary courage, fine judgement and unimpeachable integrity; the stories of their children and grandchildren, and their contribution to the liberation struggle and post-apartheid South Africa, are woven into the rich tapestry, providing a vivid illustration of Walter and Albertina’s extraordinary personal qualities, and their ability to imbue their family with moral purpose, transcending the long years of persecution.

The $10,000 24th. Award will be presented at a special ceremony to be held in Africa in 2004, details of which will be announced.

The Jury singled out two further books for Special Commendation (alphabetical order by publisher):

Le Collier de Paille by Khadi Hane (Libreville: Editions NDZE, 2002). A remarkable novel, a classic love story handled in a wholly original way and impeccably written. It addresses a neglected subject, that of an African woman’s right to a sexual identity within the confines of traditional cultural attitudes.

The Stone Virgins by Yvonne Vera (Harare: Weaver Press, 2002). A novel about ordinary people and everyday lives, set against the drama of colonialism and decolonisation. A mistress of prose, the author mirrors, in subtle transformations of language, subjective experiences reflecting the wider political landscape. A masterful combination of poetry, representation of landscape and locality, and use of the English language.

Three further titles were singled out for Honourable Mention:

Eilande by D. Sleigh (Kaapstad, SA: Tafelberg Publishers, 2002). A novel in Afrikaans, set in the 17th century. It renders the story of two Khoi women into a living past. Beautifully written, historically totally convincing, and moving at all levels of interpersonal relationships.

Poisonous Plants of South Africa by Ben-Erik van Wyk, Fanie van Heerden & Bosch van Oudtshoorn (Pretoria: Briza Publications, 2002). A beautifully produced and illustrated book presented in a clear, concise, and well-laid out manner; it is accessible, but at the same time scholarly and authoritative.

Field Guide to Insects of South Africa by Mike Picker, Charles Griffiths & Alan Weaving (Cape Town: Struik Publishers, 2002). A project on an enormous scale, the organisation is superb; the presentation of the information is outstanding, and powerful in its subtlety. The photographs are consistently beautiful, educational, informative and spectacular.

113 titles, from 71 African publishers, in 15 countries, in 8 languages, were submitted for the 2003 competition.

The Noma Award Jury is chaired by Walter Bgoya from Tanzania, one of Africa’s most distinguished and respected publishers, with wide knowledge of both African and international publishing. The other members of the Jury in 2003 were: Professor Peter Katjavivi, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Namibia; Dr. Fatou Keita, University of Cocody, Abidjan; Dr. Ato Quayson, Director of the African Studies Centre, and Fellow of Pembroke College, University of Cambridge; and Mary Jay, Secretary to the Managing Committee (the Jury). The Award is sponsored by Kodansha Ltd, Japan.

For further information about the Award, please contact:
Mary Jay, Secretary to the Noma Award for Publishing in Africa, PO Box 128, Witney, Oxon OX8 5XU, UK. Tel: +44-(0)1993-775235 Fax: +44-(0)1993-709265 Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
www.nomaaward.org

Review of The Stone Virgins - The New Yorker

Review in the New Yorker
Issue of 2003-03-24
Posted 2003-03-17

STONE OF THE HEART
by EDNA O’BRIEN
A novel of love and war in Zimbabwe.



In 1929, Virginia Woolf delivered a passionate polemic about the odds facing a woman born with a great gift for writing. She suggested that in the preceding centuries such a person would have become crazed, shot herself, or been stigmatized as a witch. She imagined the case of Shakespeare’s hypothetical sister, in whom genius lay dormant and mute, who died young, and was buried ingloriously at a crossroads near the Elephant and Castle, where omnibuses trundled past. If Woolf were speaking to us now, she would surely voice indignation at the fate of Amina Lawal, the adulterous Nigerian woman whom an Islamic court has ordered to be executed once she ceases to breast-feed her baby. Sharia law prescribes that the culprit be buried in sand up to the neck and stoned to death. An added nicety in certain instances is the stipulation that the stones be large enough to cause pain but not so large as to kill the condemned immediately. The case has drawn a flood of outrage, curiosity, sympathy, and prurience. The young woman, heavy-lidded and inscrutable, gazes out at us from newspapers, expressing her poignant belief that ‘no man can do me harm without God’s permission.’ Yet her oppressors invoke God, too, and, upon hearing the sentence, shouted, ‘God is great.’ God may have many mansions, as we are told in Scripture, but He also needs many personae if He is to fulfill the needs of His more rabid adherents. The President of Nigeria has said that he will weep if Lawal is killed, but so far his government has done nothing concrete to overturn the verdict. St. Paul’s dictum ‘Flee fornication’ has taken on a political and global dimension.

Yvonne Vera is a Zimbabwean writer in her late thirties, whose previous work has confronted the bitter hardships of her countrywomen, embroiled by the political and judicial turmoil of the past sixty years. Her new novel is called The Stone Virgins, prompting us to speculate whether experience has transmogrified her virgins into stone or whether they must be stone to endure their fates – validating Yeats’s sentiment that ‘Too long a sacrifice / Can make a stone of the heart.’

Zimbabwe has passed through several upheavals since its independence from Britain, in 1980. Its leader, Robert Mugabe – who was once hailed as Africa’s Clement Attlee, and at whose independence celebrations Bob Marley performed – is now a lonely, isolated, and irrational despot. Soon after independence, guerrilla war erupted in the province of Matebaland, as Mugabe attempted to wipe out the ZAPU party of his rival Joshua Nkomo and establish one-party rule. This war was so hidden and so violent that estimates of the death toll vary widely.

Yvonne Vera comes from this ravaged region and, not surprisingly, The Stone Virgins is a story of war, ceasefire, and more war. It depicts the rape of the country – first by its colonial oppressors and then by its own people – counterpointed with the rape of two sisters, Thenjiwe and Nonceba. The novel opens with drowsy, opiate languor in the city of Bulawayo, with its flamboyant trees, blistering red blooms, and dizzying scent of jacaranda, where side streets named after English poets – Kipling, Tennyson, Byron, Keats, and Coleridge – testify to the colonial heritage. Yet, as Vera warns us, despite this lushness, ‘in this universe knives emerge as suddenly as lightning.’ There is a pervasive sense of waiting – waiting for a telephone to be repaired, waiting for tins of condensed milk to appear on the shelves of the one store, waiting for work on a road to be resumed, and, far more ominously, waiting for a war to start or to end.

We leave that city for the edge of the bush, the lands of Gulati – of the ancient Matopo Hills and the rural enclave of Kezi – and the locale of future massacres. The bustle of Kezi centers on a store where people wait for the Shoeshine bus to come from the city, bringing passengers, newspapers, mattresses, tables, chairs, blankets, sacks of maize; women wait for letters from husbands or lovers, for parcels with nylons and deodorant and Ponds cold cream. Outside the store, people sit on empty crates, idling as though they had a lifetime to consider what their new independence is all about.

It is here that Thenjiwe attracts the attention of Cephas Dube, a man who has taken the bus from Bulawayo merely to see the hills of Gulati, intending to return that same evening. Thenjiwe, lips ‘ripe and forgiving,’ a swing in her walk, basks in the stranger’s amused gaze. Yet the couple’s radiant sensuality cannot altogether bury the fear in their psyches. They become intimates, and yet they are strangers. He sleeps with his eyes open and thrashes about in nightmare. Before he leaves, he brings milk in a horn and anoints her body with it as a farewell. The brief idyll of love is over.

The smell of war begins to emanate from people’s skin, although outside the store soldiers from the previous conflict – men and women, still in their camouflage and heavy boots – drink Fanta and listen to soccer on the portable radio. Wounded beings with an acute desire for simple diversions that they fear will be brief, they have all succumbed to a kind of amnesia. It is 1981. The state of emergency begins; a curfew is declared. ‘Every road out of Bulawayo is covered with soldiers and police, teeming like ants,’ Vera writes.

As the region becomes the setting for countless massacres, the reader is drawn into a terrifying inferno. The effect is like looking at a dark canvas and trying to identify the shadowy figures. Nonceba, Thenjiwe’s younger sister, is trapped in a hut by Sibaso, a dissident dehumanized by the bush war – a stalker, killer, rapist – ‘a hunter who kills not because he is hungry but because his stomach is full.’ His mind is jagged, darting, contradictory; violating her, he asks if she is afraid to look at him. He tells her stories. He relishes the tale of the she-spider, which can be seen only in moonlight, hanging from a tree, a spider that, when mating, devours the male, then moves on to the next bacchanalia. Sibaso has eaten such creatures, he has lived in caves, in bomb craters, in wombs of horror among the charred dead. He may seem like a normal man, in his blue shirt, frayed khaki trousers, and shoes, but these are a disguise, because ‘a war makes people into lifeless beings.’ Outside, Thenjiwe lies dead, decapitated by Sibaso. The murderer enacts a freak dance with the corpse and then vanishes.

Nonceba ends up strapped down on a hospital bed, her mouth bandaged, because, as a farewell memento, her paramour has sliced off her lips. In her delirium, she recalls Thenjiwe as she once was˜young, joyous, bringing the big white flowers with double blooms from the riverbank, after the rainfall. A man visits her bedside, but neither of them speaks. It is Cephas Dube, Thenjiwe‚s lover, who has read of the atrocity and has come to offer some form of deliverance. Eventually, she moves to the city with this stranger, finds a job, and staggers on, bringing to mind the numbed stoicism of Beckett’s character in The Unnameable, who can’t go on but who must go on.

This is a strong, haunting story. The zest and innocence of the two girls, random casualties of war, provide its unifying pulse, while Sibaso remains a phantom˜more a personification of evil than a full-fledged character. Vera loves language and sometimes immerses herself and us in it to the point where emotional impact, the raw moment of terror, is blurred or lessened. She gives the reader a feast of sensations when what is required is the pivotal confrontation of drama. The rape proceeds with a trancelike ambiguity, an overwhelming phantasmagoria in which both our sympathy and our revulsion are withheld:

He tears the sleeve off her dress and it falls to her elbow, hanging uselessly; white threads dangle from her shoulder.
‘He waits, patient as an entire season, as disobedience, as a thief. He can see the shape of her disbelief. He owns her like a memory. He is the type to own the intangible – hallucinations, fragrances, death. So, though she breathes deeply, it is with a stillness that he owns, with a hope he has banished. He commands. She dares not contradict him.’

Not every scene is so labyrinthine. Nonceba’s journey to the hospital with her aunt Sihle – roadblocks everywhere, the older woman willing her to live – is clear and deft. The economy of the description makes the danger all the more palpable.

The Stone Virgins, like many novels from the killing fields, poses a dilemma for contemporary novelists and dramatists, confronted as they are with reportage remarkable for its probity and eloquence. Beside it, many novels can seem saturate with narcissism and private angst. So why do we turn to literature? We read it, I suppose, for the longer haul, for the imaginative reaches and ability to render the intricate and confounding passions of men and women – graphic, unimpeded, and incandescent. In Kezi, when the storekeeper is about to be burned alive for crimes and betrayals that he has not committed, he experiences a sudden epiphany about the random brutality of war. He knows that there is no recourse, and his mind races beyond the ceasefire, the celebrations, the expectations, the disenchantments, and even past his own death as the soldiers string him up, ‘until his mind was no longer whirling and turning, but empty.’ His is the moral voice, through which comes the grim realization that ordinary human beings become pawns to fulfill the destiny of power-mad, pseudo-messianic leaders.

Review of The Stone Virgins - Mail and Guardian


THE STONE VIRGINS
by Yvonne Vera (Weaver Press)

Reviewed by Jane Rosenthal in the Mail and Guardian


Yvonne Vera, in her latest novel, The Stone Virgins, which won the Macmillan Writer’s Prize for Africa, 2002, uses the intensely powerful interior life of four main characters to show us the devastating effects of war and so-called freedom.

Thenjiwe and Nonceba are two sisters from the village of Kezi where life centres around the Thandabantu Store, the turnaround place of the bus from Bulawayo. There are also two men in the story, one a soldier, deranged and brutalised by war, the other a gentle man from Bulawayo.

Vera situates the story in the colonial-indigenous divide and celebrates both city and the rural enclave of Kezi, where atrocities and human rights violations occur after independence. As in her previous novel, Under the Tongue, she uses the mutilation of the organs of speech to symbolise the silencing of victims, the voicelessness of the terrified. She achieves an extraordinary penetration of the existence of her characters at the same time as she celebrates life, asserting this joie de vivre in spite of evil and suffering.

Easier to read than Under the Tongue because the narrative is stronger, this is a wonderful novel. Vera is to Ben Okri what Jeanette Winterson is to Salman Rushdie: as magical and rich but shorter, stronger and more elegant. Vera’s writing is constantly fresh and mind-altering. She begins this novel with a celebration, a tad ironic perhaps, of Selbourne Avenue in Bulawayo (“long, straight, jacaranda-lined”), she ends it musing on the virtues of a grass hut: “... the manner in which the tenderest branches bend, meet and dry, the way grass folds smoothly over this frame and weaves a nest, the way it protects the cool livable spaces within — deliverance”.