Fiction – paperback; Harvill Secker; 336 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Andrea Eames is a young writer, who grew up in Africa, moved to New Zealand and now lives in the USA. The White Shadow is her second novel.
An African coming-of-age tale
The story is set in Rhodesia during the guerrilla war of the late 1960s. But this is not a book about the war, although the political situation is ever present and the soldiers — “white people who passed through our town, thin and bitter as woodsmoke” — are often mentioned in passing.
Instead, this is essentially a coming-of-age tale about a young boy growing up in a rural village, who wants to better himself by getting an education and going to university. Tanishe is partly inspired by his rich uncle, who drives a big silver car and lives in the city, and his cousin, Abel, who visits the village during school holidays and has everything a young boy could wish for.
But events and circumstances conspire against Tinashe, not least his troublesome younger sister, Hazvinei, whom he must protect from the forces of the Shona spirit world and the unwanted attention of men, and the sudden arrival of cholera in the village.
A tragic story
This is not a happy story, although the descriptions of Tinashe’s simple childhood pleasures — swimming in the river, walking to the bottle shop for a coke and exploring the kopje on foot — are delightful. It is the ever-present threat of danger — whether it be from the war, the witch doctors, domestic violence or disease outbreaks — that gives the narrative a bit of bite and makes it a page turner.
Eames paints a fascinating portrait of an African childhood and of the friendship between the three main characters — Tinashe, Hazvinei and Abel — and how this changes and is tested over time.
And her prose, which is simple and fable-like, is hugely evocative of Africa, of the heat, the dust and a way of life in which Catholicism often takes a back seat to voodoo and witch doctors. She also does a wonderful job of contrasting city life with rural life and of showing the difference in attitude between blacks and whites, men and women, the educated and the non-educated. Less impressive is her slight obsession with bodily functions — there’s a lot of menstruation and going to the toilet — and male genitalia in this novel.
I also thought there were some inconsistencies in characterisation and voice — for instance, I didn’t find the male voice convincing and thought Tinashe, as a toddler, was far too wise and knowing for his years — but I quite liked the way the story shows how people’s life paths are often determined by their family background, the order of their birth and their gender.
The White Shadow is far from sappy and sentimental, but there’s a genuinely heart-rending aspect to the tale. For instance, when Tinashe throws away a golden opportunity to secure his future in order to do the right thing by his selfish, bratty sister I felt distressed — and annoyed — by his misplaced loyalty.
All in all, this is an effortless read that combines shocking true-to-life events with folklore and great sensitivity.