Review: Nervous Conditions

(Four stars)

THE PLOT: ‘Nervous Conditions’ by Tsitsi Dangarembga is a semi-autobiographical novel set in 60’s Zimbabwe. While the post-colonial country is still under white rule, Tambudzai lives in contented poverty; washing clothes in the river and cooking over a hearth. However, her uncle has been educated by missionaries and has come back to Zimbabwe with a degree from England and seemingly un-imaginable riches. Inspired by her uncle, Tambudzai realises that education is her best chance at life. Although the odds are against her, she is determined to go to school but her burgeoning knowledge puts her in danger of losing her roots.

RATING: The first book published by a black woman from Zimbabwe in English, ‘Nervous Conditions’ won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 1989, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and is all round a highly esteemed novel. However, my feelings about this book have been a rollercoaster. I read the first 150 pages in one day because I was so absorbed, then struggled through the middle because I found it boring, but then the ending was so impactful I can’t stop thinking about it. So, after much deliberation, I’m giving this book four stars. It’s incredibly intelligent and thought-provoking, with an important message and themes about colonialism and racism that still resonate.

GOOD BITS: Although the core plot was patchy in places, the main character is totally loveable and her character arc blew me away. To see a character slowly but surely evolve, in the same way that many young Africans have when reflecting on the legacy of colonialisation, was mind-blowing. It felt like the author was able to articulate thoughts that have been hounding me since my late teens. In addition to this, the supporting characters were rich and complex. The author has a masterful command of language, and I could pretty much hear the accents while reading the dialogue.

NOT SO GOOD BITS: I’ve been trying to pinpoint why I struggled with the middle of this book and I think it’s because the plot stopped being about the main character. There is a point when Tambudzai finally goes to school but she immediately finds it easy and fits in well. This meant there was no external conflict and the pacing was too slow. The author tried to combat this with the parents’ wedding, but it didn’t quite work as the Tambudzai was still too passive (even her eventual rebellion is *not* doing something). Put simply, she was such a dynamic character in the opening so I wanted her to keep overcoming obstacles throughout the book.

OVERALL: I’d recommend this book to lovers of ‘The Girl with the Louding Voice’ by Abí Dare, ‘The Pursuit of Love’ by Nancy Mitford and ‘A Man of the People’ by Chinua Achebe. It’s an intelligent, ground-breaking book that is worth anyone reading. Though I think a modern editor would’ve changed some bits in the middle, the overall themes and message are so powerful. And, it’s one of the most inspiring endings of a book I’ve ever read. I’ll never forget the impact this book has had on me.

This is a book on my Southern Africa reading list. Click the link to find more books from this region.