In one scene, a maid accompanied by a ferocious guard dog tries to dissuade Tambu from applying for a job with the maid’s white employer. “If only you would just walk on,” the maid implores her. “Because this dog is mad. Every dog Madam Mbuya has had has been like that, ever since the war. And Mbuya Riley up there is just like the dog here, if not even madder. So now, be walking!”
It’s not a plot-spoiler to say that Tambu does not resign herself to what comes to seem her inevitable fate, but she comes close. At every turn, the humiliations pile on: the exhausting efforts to find employment, the terrible loneliness of a person who has defied her family’s African traditions only to find Western ones no less limiting. Worn down, she worries about suicide: “You are concerned you will start thinking of ending it all, having nothing to carry on for: no home, no job, no sustaining family bonds. Thinking this induces a morass of guilt.”
Tambu doesn’t kill herself — her soul is too generous. She can’t quench her hope, can’t stop herself from trying to push back against the injustices that have her in their grip. In a final twist with shocking consequences, she manages to land an ecotourism job that returns her to her village. Her boss is a white Zimbabwean woman named Tracey who is chillingly removed from Tambu’s reality. When Tambu tries to suggest names for an ecotourism project she’s involved with, she’s reprimanded.
“Green and eco are tautological,” Tracey scolds her. “Anyway, we’ve got that already, everywhere. Everything’s Green Jacaranda eco! And you can’t say village. … That kind of promise doesn’t work these days either. It’s got to sound like fun, not under development, soil erosion and microfinance.”
Both novels are about women trying to imagine and work their way out of a narrative that has already been decided for them. Both novels are inspiring, not in spite of Tambu’s hopeless situation but because through it all she never loses sight of herself while, at the same time, never underestimating the brutal reality of her predicament. In this regard, “This Mournable Body” is a story of triumph, not despair.
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