Book Review: Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga


Nervous Conditions (1989) by Tsitsi Dangarembga represents Zimbabwe for Around the World for a Good Book.  This book is the coming of age story of a girl named Tambu living in the 1960’s & 70’s under British Colonial rule in Rhodesia.  After her brother dies, Tambu is able to go away to a mission school and live with her wealthy, cosmopolitain uncle and his family.  This means sharing a room with her cousin Nyasha.

The girls form a friendship and share an outsider status.  Nyasha spent many years living in England with her parents and thus lost touch with the African ways.  Tambu is drawn to the lifestyle of her cousin’s family and the mission and increasingly disgusted with her own family’s backward ways.The novel contains a lot of the tropes of the coming-of-age story: rebellion, burgeoning sexuality, shame in one’s family, and seeking one’s own identity.  For much of the book it appears that Tambu is more of a spectator to Nyasha’s outlandish ways.  Later in the novel the narrative shifts to Tambu’s choices and family commitments.

There is also a layer of the novel that subtly shows the effects of colonialism with the castes in society where the more African people live near poverty and the more English live life more abundantly.  The most chillng passages are when Tambu describes the white people at the mission as near-deities, a status she seems to accept without question.Another strong element of the novel is the role of women in society.  In addition to Nyasha and Tambu there is Tambu’s highly-educated yet underemployed aunt, her mother, and other family members each of whom are expected to live according to certain rules set for women.

I didn’t find this to be the best-written or most-engaging novel, but it does subtly cover many issues without resorting to didactic means.

Nervous conditions : a novel / Tsitsi Dangarembga ; foreword by Kwame Anthony Appiah.
Publisher: Emeryville, Calif. : Seal Press, c2004.
ISBN: 1580051340 (pbk.)
Description: viii, 204 p. ; 21 cm.

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