REVIEW by Dom Gilbert

NWR Issue 97

This September Sun

by Bryony Rheam

Recently, I found myself wondering what my life would have been like if I had stayed in England. I’d probably own a house, receive a pension, go on holiday to Majorca twice a year, complain about the weather, the government, tax. Live in a sheltered little world. Grey, but sheltered. In England you are someone. Not an important someone, but a life that is valued. What you think and experience matters. You can shout, complain, ask for more…. Africa gives you the knowledge that you are no one, that nothing lasts, that you are a very small creature on a very large continent and that you will live and die like anything else.

Zimbabwe in the twentieth century underwent unprecedented turbulence, as a civil war and independence from their British rulers marginalised the white minority who had governed and prospered under imperial rule. Their history, however, can be summarised at the press of a button. In her debut novel This September Sun, Rheam personalises the struggle from the perspective of three generations of Rhodesians.

Following protagonist Ellie through her formative years, we are struck by the sense that there is a wider, often sinister narrative that is rarely, if ever, touched upon. Vague, shadowy references to rebel fighters are masked beneath upper-middle class indefatigability and glances toward the supposed promised land of the British Isles. The obvious cultural and political tension is circumvented by the mundane day-to-day of family life. As a child, Ellie’s acuity is as obscured as that of John Boyne’s Bruno attempting to untangle the mystery of concentration camps in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.

Ellie’s journey is that of hardening and maturing to certain realities. After the brutal murder of her grandmother whom she idolised, she unearths a set of diaries which detail a number of affairs and dark family secrets; shattering her preconceptions. While a compelling idea, the narrative often becomes bogged down in petty, juvenile dialogues and obsessive self-indulgence. Too often, important events are passed over, as Ellie’s first relationship is summarised in the space of a single page, while the humdrum routine is agonisingly dwelt upon.

The diaries themselves are implausible as they continue in precisely the same prose style as the narrator, a mistake which often makes reading tedious and perplexing. Male characters are, almost without exception, either idealised in a fantasy or harshly dismissed. Even those who should hold a prominent role are marginalised as simple irritations and distractions from the plot. As a result, it becomes difficult to warm to either Ellie or her grandmother, as the diaries depict the older woman as a promiscuous traditionalist, and Ellie’s antipathy toward the man who usurped her grandfather leads her to become resentful and guarded toward all men. Of course, this technique is effective if only to convey the sense of introversion and fear prominent within the white, suburban communities who felt their circle of influence shrinking by the day.

Overall, there is an interesting dichotomy which fluctuates throughout. In this unique insight into a post-colonial country, Britain is often lauded as a homeland; a place to which white Zimbabweans may return and cultivate a better life. Practically every family member has lived within the old epicentre of imperialism at one time or another. However, there is a counter culture, conveyed by Welshman Cadwallader, who gradually becomes an integral character. For some, Zimbabwe, with all its instability and uncertainty, is a refuge from a world of subjugation and class hierarchy:

At Cambridge they used to call me Taffy Jones. All right, boyo? they’d say in a mock Welsh accent. Either that or they’d beat me up. I had a friend, an English chap, Charles Trent Smythe. We played rugby together and one day I scored the winning try. I was a hero suddenly. Forget Taffy and boyo. Suddenly I was one of them. English, no longer from the Rhonnda Valley or Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, as they liked to tease. We were in the pub, drinking of course, and this friend of mine, Charles, he says suddenly, ‘I would like to make a toast, to Llywelyn ap Gruffudd’ and this whole pub goes quiet. ‘Who the…’ I hear someone say, but Charles says it again: ‘To Llywelyn ap Gruffudd’ and suddenly everyone follows suit, just like that. Afterwards I said to Charles, ‘Charles, who on earth were you thinking of,’ and Charles says ‘He was a prince. More than that, he was the only Welsh ruler to be recognised by the English.’… Point is, I know what it’s like. And that’s why Rhodesia is the ideal place for me. Here I am a some one. Here I am Llywelyn ap Gruffudd without anyone telling me I am. Over there, I’m Taffy until told otherwise.

Essentially, Rheam rails against time wasted, whether in the fog of innocence or by obsessing over supposed greener grass. Perhaps failing to explore the terrors of poverty in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe was a glaring omission, but that is a story we all know. Rather than the sensational, she explores the fractious nature of life in decline; the often untold tale.

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