Nervous Conditions, Paperback
3.5 out of 5 (5 ratings)




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A wonderful novel set in former Rhodesia during the ‘60s told from the perspective of the aspirant young Tambudzai, who gets the rare opportunity to acquire an education when her only brother dies. As the telling unfolds, we gain insight into a patriarchal system and the rigorous demands placed on women, particularly Tambu, her mother, her uncle’s educated wife (she has a Master’s Degree obtained in England) and her cousin, Nyasha, who has a difficult time adapting to life in Rhodesia after being exposed, for a few years, to a totally different mindset in London. A worthwhile read.

Review by

I chose to read this for a topic-based book club I run (1001 Books You Should Read Before You Die). I'm glad I did. It was a rare glimpse at a life few of us in the United States see or read about. The story, at its core, is one of Tambu, a young girl who scores one spot in a missionary school with her Uncle (a missionary headmaster) and his family, after her brother dies. By Tambu's family's standards (they are quite poor), her Uncle's family is very wealthy and she quickly befriends her cousin Nyasha, recently returned from England, where she lived for 5 years. Tambu is a bright but very realistic young woman and we learn about both the joys and sorrows and limits of her culture, especially for women. Her sheer tenacity and intelligence get her out of poverty, but there is a cost. Her story is juxtaposed with Nyasha's life, which is "caught between two worlds", i.e., too African for the English and too English for the Africans. It is a sad, but sometimes hopeful story of two cultures clashing in 1960s Rhodesia, where race relations were strained at best (and remain so today per the Interview at the end of the novel). I enjoyed this book mostly for how much I learned about the people and Zimbabwe during that time. However, there is no discernable plot and the novel wanders all over the place. Some characters who are interesting come and go in a few pages. So I think it could have been developed more. But overall, Tambu is a great, strong woman and I liked reading her story even if it was rather disjointed.

Review by

This is a coming of age book that features two great themes: being black in a segregated society (1960's Zimbabwe), and being a woman.It is the story of young Tambu, who works on her parents' farm and dreams about going to school, like her older brother who lives with his 'anglicized' uncle at the mission. She gets a chance at it when this brother dies and that her uncle decides that the second child of the family, although 'just a girl', could help lift her family from poverty if only she had the chance to go to school for a few years before getting married.I found the book interesting at times and frustrating at others: the main character is very passive and uncritical of what happens around her, but the author describes every situation in great details. Sometimes I just couldn't help thinking the author was jumping to third person narration, and then realize that no, Tambu was still in the room and she was the describing what she was seeing.This said, the 4 main female characters of this book are all very different and interesting, and in the author's own words, they represent different 'models' of African women and their attitude towards men, education, colonization, traditions, etc.The book becomes metaphorical at times, like the final segment about the cousin becoming anorexic as a performance of 'rejecting' the colonial situation.Overall, I found the book interesting but somehow a heavy read, in the sense that the author's style can at times become very dense, even if the book is not very long (200 pages). Worth the read but not a novel you pick up for entertainment, in my opinion.

Review by

From the beginning this story grabbed me. Young Tambu opens by telling us she is not sad when her brother dies. Whoa!!! Who would not mourn the loss of a sibling? She gives us a picture of her life as one of poverty, lack of education (or opportunities for anything other than the very basics), and utter hopelessness that things might improve. Until her brother dies.....There are no other sons, so suddenly, she is next in line to be educated, to have a chance to improve not only her life but that of other women of her village. Until then, her life is encapsulated in this quote: My father thought I should not mind (Not going to school) Is that anything to worry about? Ha-a-a, it's nothing, he reassured me....'Can you cook books and feed them to your husband? Stay at home with your mother. Learn to cook and clean. Grow vegetables. pg. 15In "Nervous Conditions" Dangarembga gives us a portrait of two cousins in Rhodesia during the late 1960's and early 1970's. Tambu, the main protagonist, is constantly compared and compares herself to her cousin Nyasha, who was raised in England where her parents were studying, until her early teens. After her brother's death, Tambu goes to live at the mission complex when her Uncle (Nyasha's father) is made headmaster of the school. Nyasha is uncomfortable living in Africa, having never been given the chance to experience the language or mores of village life. Tambu, on the other hand, is fascinated with Nyasha's Englishness on the one hand, but repelled by the fact that the English influence is gradually destroying her family and its traditions.There are other women's stories woven into this one: Tambu's mother, who is unable to see herself as other than the possession of her husband. Tambu's aunt (Nyasha's mother) struggles to reconcile her African identity with the life she lived in England, and the creature comforts she enjoys by virtue of her husband's position and their relative wealth. Lucia, a woman who lives in the village and who has a child by father unknown, wants to better herself, get an education, and doesn't care a fig about social status, or cultural taboos.Watching all these women react to the men in their lives could paint a picture of bleak despair, but Dangarembga manages to give us hope, offers us a picture of women overcoming the ravages of colonialism, educating themselves and their families to recognize the dignity of human beings, taking control of their own lives, salvaging the traditions of their culture and molding it into a life to be valued and celebrated. Through Tambu's eyes we experience the open-eyed wonder of a young girl who suddenly has clean clothes, a real bed, modern bathing and toileting facilities, not to mention a more varied diet than she'd been used to and her ambivalence about these "privileges" when she returns on school holidays to the family's hut.Her uncle is viewed as almost omnipotent by both the men and women of the village, the family and the school, and she struggles to come to terms with the power he can exert, his seeming generous support of her family, and the often confusing contradictions of his actions and his English education.It's a fascinating book, beautifully written, and full of puzzling juxtapositions, examples of cruelty and of kindness. The picture it paints of the life of women in Rhodesia during that time period does not give us as many answers as it provokes questions. I certainly hope the author will write a follow-on book about young Tambu. It would be intriguing to see how she turns out as an adult.

Review by

This is part autobiographical novel of Tsitsi Dangarembga, who wrote this novel in her mid twenties. She is Shona and lives in Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) and tells of her efforts to obtain education and escape poverty. The epilogue states; "The condition of native is a nervous condition." taken from an introduction to Fanon's <i>The Wretched of the Eath</i>. Its a great work of fiction with well developed characters. Ms Dangarembga does not use the book to speak about racisim or social commentary but shows it to us through the characters. Whites appear very little in this book. This is a book about male/female relationships in a patriarchal tribal family. Tambu's mother tells her "what will help you,my child, is to learn to carry your burdens with strength." The novel looks at what foreign influence and sexism has on this one tribal family. Their success is in how they learn to battle the burdens and disadvantages with strength. I enjoyed the writing. This year has been my year for African women writings. I've read <i>Half a Yellow Sun</i> by Adichie, 5 stars and <i>We Need New Names</i> by NoViolet Bulawayo (4 stars). I can recommend any of these as good reads.

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