Out of Africa: physical and mental border crossings

By Charlotte Oliver, July 24, 2014
Rwandans Jordan Mutigabirana and Damas Gisimba speaking in Cambridge on Holocaust Memorial Day 2014

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

Zebra Crossing
By Meg Vandermerwe
Oneworld, £10.99

After Before
By Jemma Wayne
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-year-old 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 the superstition and mysticism surrounding Chipo's albino state in the eyes of locals. Here on in, 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 introduces us 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 decisions propelled by outside influence, 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

Last updated: 1:47pm, July 25 2014