Tambudzai is a black Zimbabwean woman in her forties living in a women's hostel in Harare. It’s a temporary arrangement as she is older than the permitted age and has to find a place of her own soon. But having quit her job at an advertising agency after white male co-workers got credit for her work, she is struggling to find accommodation and employment. The traumatic experiences and hardships that she goes through affect her mental health and she is even institutionalized for a while. All in all, Tambudzai or Tambu has a difficult life.
Tsitsi Dangarembga’s novel ‘This Mournable Body’ that got shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize is somewhat bleak. But despite the general theme of despair running through the book, This Mournable Body is actually a story of triumph and the strength of the human spirit to persevere. Tambu is aware of the brutal reality of her situation but she never loses her sense of self. She is a strong character. She is every woman who has ever found herself in a difficult situation.
This isn’t a book without problems—it’s slow, for instance—but it shifts your perspective on things and that’s an important kind of storytelling. But what I loved about the book is that it is narrated in second person from Tambudzai’s perspective. You feel like you are Tambudzai and literally in the midst of all that is happening. Tambu is sometimes quite self-centered and thus a difficult character to like. If it hadn’t been for the writing style that put me in her shoes, it would have been frustrating to understand or feel connected to her.
I did, at various points in the novel, wish I knew more about Tambu—where she came from, what her childhood and growing up years were like, and how she ended up where she was. Turns out, This Mournable Body is actually the concluding novel in a trilogy. You needn’t have read the previous parts to pick up this book—it works fine as a stand-alone novel. But reading the other two books will definitely give you a better sense of things.
The first book, ‘Nervous Conditions’, published in 1988, is about Tambudzai’s childhood. The second, ‘The Book of Not’, out in 2006, follows her time at convent school before she starts working in advertising. Set 20 years later, the final instalment of the series chronicles the later years of Tambu’s life. It’s a sad depiction of how the education system is filled with false promises for black Zimbabwean women and how they deal with that reality. It’s also an essential commentary of sorts on class, race, and misogyny that divide most societies even today.