House of Stone by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma

 Atlantic Books, June 2018, 372 pp

Atlantic Books, June 2018, 372 pp

The premise of Novuyo Rosa Tshuma’s House of Stone shows a boy called Zamani immersing himself in the family history of Abednego and Agnes, whose son Bukhosi has gone missing. To help the family in distress, our narrator Zamani, who is a somewhat mysterious figure, stays at their house and wants to learn more about the family’s history. In a series of flashbacks, told in turns by the surrogate father and the surrogate mother to Zamani, House of Stone presents the tumultuous history of colonial Rhodesia and what came after, the modern-day Zimbabwe. 

Every page of the novel breathes history, there is no escaping it: colonialization as well as the internal conflicts in the country have obviously left marks on the characters, and often define them. Along with Tshuma’s fictional creations, real-life figures such as Cecil Rhodes (founder of Rhodesia) and Ian Smith (a long-time Rhodesian prime minister when the country was still led by a mostly white government) feature here. Unlike Négar Djavadi, who, in her recent novel Disoriental, made in a humorous way sure that the ignorant Western reader knows Iran’s history well enough by inserting footnotes, Tshuma trusts that the reader of her novel can make the journey through the book without too much bewilderment regarding Zimbabwean history.

While reading the novel, I found myself googling many of the intricacies of the country’s history, not out of irritation that hinders the reading experience but because of sheer curiosity. This, I believe, is thanks to Tshuma’s intriguing way of writing: I genuinely wanted to keep up with the story, to keep hearing her rollicking language. (Moreover, making the effort to learn something about a seemingly distant country and its people is, I think, the least we can do in our alienating and racist present.) As the narrator recalls a speech he once heard, “one can’t just exist passively in the twenty-first century. One has to be, actively, an ethical citizen of our global village, seeing in others the mirror of what he sees in himself – humanity – and in himself what he presupposes to be in others – inhumanity.” If the subject matter is often grave here, it is the exuberant language where one may find simpler pleasures while reading, and sometimes these two aspects overlap. Consider, for example, the mixture of the heavy subject and the lively prose here, in a passage dealing with one of the novel’s sort-of-antagonists:

Will I never be free of Black Jesus? Shan’t I ever be able to cleanse my blood of him? My past of him? The beast! Destined in life to be the henchman of a President, plagiarizing, during that terrible time right after our independence from white rule, the most creative ways of torture: severe-beatings hut-burnings asphyxiation falanga abnormal-body-positions rape dry-submarine electric-shocks lack-of-sleep immobilization constant-noises screams stripping excrement-abuse sham-executions and special-contraptions-copied-from-Pol-Pot-Dacko-Amin-and-perhaps-some-unnameable-elements-of-the-CIA-with-speculated-but-unconfirmed-blessings-from-jolly-Uncle-Sam.

Actual moments of violence are also depicted on the page, meaning that House of Stone definitely deserves a trigger warning or two. It is rare to encounter a character who is as terrifying as the above-quoted Black Jesus, Tshuma’s masterful creation of inhumane terror. But the novel is not a mere gorefest, and often the reader is kept on toes by action-packed scenes that could potentially result in brutality but they don’t, like here when the surrogate father’s first love Thandi is giving birth in quite an unusual situation:

But she couldn’t run, poor Thandi, she couldn’t run and instead her trembling legs gave way. It was then, as my surrogate father stared into Death’s ochre eyes, that my inamorata’s water broke and trickled down her thighs, that a Khoi San woman leapt out of the scraggly bush, out of nowhere she leapt thrusting herself between the lovers and the lion, my surrogate father tried to scream but couldn’t find his voice, my inamorata found her voice and screamed, the woman bared her teeth and barked, the beast bared its gums and snarled, the baby was coming, the Khoi San woman was hissing, Thandi was groaning, the lion was growling, she spread her legs, it licked its nose, she fisted her hands, it shook its mane, she began to cry, and off it sauntered.

Talk about suspense. House of Stone is a fascinating blend of history, storytelling, violence, love, patriarchy, and unreliable narration. Perhaps it could have done with some more editing in the sense that I find it at points too long or repetitive (I wonder whether a, say, 70-page cut would have made it a more concise novel) but it is, nonetheless, an intriguing novel by a new voice, a novel deserving of more attention that is has gotten so far. I must also commend the physical hardback edition by Atlantic Books, not only for its sweet design but for being one of those sturdy books that stay open on whatever page you want without touching it with your hands. I am happy that Tshuma’s novel has been treated so well by Atlantic, because it is well deserved.