Out of Africa: phys­i­cal and men­tal bor­der cross­ings

The Jewish Chronicle - - JUDAISM - RE­VIEWED BY CHAR­LOTTE OLIVER

ZE­BRA CROSS­ING

Oneworld, £10.99

AFTER BE­FORE

Leg­end Press, £7.99

HAUNT­ING AND multi-lay­ered, Ze­bra Cross­ing and After Be­fore are both nov­els that will linger long in the mem­ory after read­ing. Fit­ting per­haps, then, that their pro­tag­o­nists are stalked by shad­ows of un­happy pasts and un­cer­tain fu­tures.

Meg Van­der­merwe plunges the reader into the con­fined mind and liv­ing space of Chipo Nya­mubaya, a 17-yearold Zim­bab­wean girl who, be­cause she is an al­bino, has al­ways been “other” — even in her own com­mu­nity — and is called “mon­key” or “sope”.

She and her brother Ge­orge have smug­gled them­selves across the bor­der into South Africa dur­ing the 2010 World Cup and now grimly await de­por­ta­tion, which they fear will hap­pen the mo­ment the whis­tle blows on the fi­nal foot­ball match.

Just as Chipo’s pale com­plex­ion be­lies her iden­tity and tribe, so too does the back­drop of Cape Town cast a fake im­pres­sion of a co­he­sive city. Here, be­hind the façade, im­mi­grants face vi­o­lence, prej­u­dice and point­lessly long waits at the Home Af­fairs Of­fice. As nar­rated by Chipo, things are not al­ways what they seem, a sit­u­a­tion em­pha­sised in her love of word play. “School sounds like fool. Sin sounds like spin,” she re­cites.

Ob­vi­ously vul­ner­a­ble, Chipo comes un­der the toxic in­flu­ence of Dr On­gani, a pseudo witch-doc­tor who ex­ploits t he su­per­sti­tion and mys­ti­cism sur­round­ing Chipo’s al­bino s t a t e i n t he eyes of lo­cals. Here on i n, her prob­lems mul­ti­ply as she loses any last­ing grasp of free­dom or choice.

Van­der­merwe’s nar­ra­tive is stark and rapid, skil­fully redo­lent of Africa. She chan­nels the voice of Chipo to strong ef­fect, cap­tur­ing the very real sit­u­a­tion around her while at the same time il­lus­trat­ing her naïve view of events and en­vi­ron­ment. The au­thor’s re­fusal to fake a happy end­ing is a timely re­minder, in the wake of an­other foot­ball World Cup, that be­hind the in­ter­na­tional bal­ly­hoo and “friendly com­pe­ti­tion” there is in­evitably an­other story.

Jemma Wayne’s de­but novel, After Be­fore i ntrod u c e s u s to Emily, Vera and Lynne as each is at a point of cri­sis. All three women are frozen by an in­abil­ity to break away from their for­mer selves.

Emily is a sur­vivor of the Rwan­dan geno­cide, liv­ing in Lon­don not as a fully func­tion­ing per­son, but a frag­ile and help­less shell con­sumed by un­bid­den and un­bear­able flash­backs. Vera is a woman pay­ing the price for her own poor choices. Striv­ing to be a de­vout Chris­tian and chaste fi­ancée, she is held back by un­told se­crets and painful re­gret. And then there is Lynne, the el­dest of the three, who, with the count­down clock of a ter­mi­nal dis­ease tick­ing against her, strug­gles to come to terms with the life she lived — and the life she missed.

These are three very dif­fer­ent women but, as the past in­sists its way into the present, the sto­ries of Emily, Vera and Lynne en­twine and pro­duce echoes of one an­other’s sit­u­a­tions, lead­ing read­ers to ques­tion the very na­ture of iden­tity.

The mas­tery is in the im­pres­sive de­tail that Wayne has as­sem­bled and it is a con­sid­er­able achieve­ment for a north-Lon­don-based, Jewish writer (and for­mer JC re­porter) to so vividly and con­vinc­ingly evoke the fever and suf­fo­ca­tion of a civil war-torn African coun­try — both its nail-bit­ing mo­ments in situ and its af­ter­math — and the soul search­ing within a trou­bled Chris­tian con­science.

The un­sus­pect­ing reader is cat­a­pulted from the frag­ile safety of Emily’s Lon­don flat to the aban­doned homes of Tutsi tribes­peo­ple as they fran­ti­cally flee on­com­ing Hutu mili­tia. Fam­i­lies — and limbs — are torn apart by be­trayal and ma­chetes. Wayne demon­strates how the men­tal scars of car­nage pen­e­trate far deeper than the per­ma­nent gash etched across Emily’s face.

All three women face per­sonal strug­gles that Wayne man­ages to ex­plore in a way that calls to mind wider ques­tions about the na­ture of wom­an­hood. How free are our choices? How far are our de­ci­sion­spro­pelled­by­out­side­in­flu­ence, so­ci­etal pres­sure or cir­cum­stance?

The char­ac­ters shift to and fro from ac­tive sub­jects to pas­sive ob­jects and back again, paused in their tracks by vi­o­lence, ill­ness, or the ob­jec­ti­fy­ing gaze of a painter’s por­trait — yet still sin­gle-hand­edly striv­ing to steer the course of their own nar­ra­tive.

Wayne raises ques­tions of faith, guilt, grief and re­demp­tion — and begs the fun­da­men­tal ques­tion: is it pos­si­ble to live in the present if you fail to let go of your past?

Char­lotte Oliver is a JC re­porter

PHOTO: BOBBY FORD, KEYSTAGE ARTS AND HER­ITAGE

Rwan­dans Jor­dan Muti­ga­bi­rana and Da­mas Gisimba speak­ing in Cam­bridge on Holo­caust Me­mo­rial Day 2014

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