Writing an entire novel in the second person is quite an undertaking and often results in a claustrophobic read. But the construct works well in This Mournable Body with the reintroduction of Tambudzai Sigauke, a character who first appeared in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s debut novel, Nervous Conditions (1988).
It’s clear that Tambudzai’s life has unraveled in the intervening years. She’s now middle-aged, single, living in a hostel without much money and desperately scheming ways to move up the social ladder. At one point she considers trying to date one of her landlady’s sons. She views every other woman around her disparagingly and as competition.
But it’s not just Tambudzai who gives women a hard time in this novel—it’s Zimbabwe itself. An attractive woman is sexually harassed by the passengers on a bus. A man who lives in Tambudzai’s hostel is a serial philanderer. And many of the female characters desire validation from men.
In the midst of this, Tambudzai emerges as an unreliable narrator struggling with deeply entrenched issues. She goes to a club, where she mistakes a white woman for an ex-boss and verbally abuses her. She gets drunk and ends up unconscious in the street. After securing a job as a biology teacher (a position for which she is not qualified), she is fired after she beats a student.
But Tambudzai rallies two-thirds of the way through her story, as she is taken in by her family and given a job at a glamorous ecotourism business by her former boss. But when she is outshone by the receptionist, Tambudzai teeters once again on the brink of self-destruction.
At times This Mournable Body is a difficult read. Tambudzai is a complex character, bitter and not particularly likable, with inner demons that threaten to derail her. But this is what makes the novel compelling—it’s unpredictable, and you can’t help but feel that Tambudzai is always about to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Couple this with the complexity of Zimbabwe—political uncertainty, economic instability and a society that seems ready to attack itself—and Dangarembga has written an unflinching account of one woman’s struggles in a country that is rife with them.