Stone Virgins chronicles Zimbabwe's transformation from colonial
Rhodesia in the 1950's to an independent nation in 1980, and
the ensuing post-liberation wars, as seen by two sisters and
the two men who change their lives.
We don't meet the sisters, Thenjiwe and Nonceba, until
thirty pages into the novel, and in many ways the nation,
not the sisters, is the story's main character. In those
first thirty pages, Vera takes us on a meandering tour of
the city of Bulawayo, painstakingly mapping out street names
and stores, most of which are English-sounding. From there
we travel to the nearby township of Kezi, a sleepy village
where life centers around the Thandabantu general store
and visits from the Bulawayo bus, and westernization is
an arm's length away. "Whenever the Kwakhe River is
full, the bus fails to cross the bridge; it lags, and people
have to spend a day and maybe half a night waiting on the
other side, nestling their treasured wares gathered from
the city, while listening to the river sulk. The bridge
becomes covered entirely, as if it had never been there."
Vera's poetic descriptions establish a distinct sense of
place, while the sense of time and the presence of people
are initially very dreamy and impressionistic, a wash. The
unhurried pace at which she approaches the part of the novel
that can be described as having a conventional plot recalls
the work of Virginia Woolf, but might be frustrating to
impatient western readers, accustomed to training their
interest on individuals and "strong" storylines.
Eventually, we meet the first of the sisters, Thenjiwe,
when she takes a lover from out of town and he ends up living
with her in Kezi for several months. Vera portrays the relationship
with close attention to the subtle ebb and flow of their
emotions and memories during conversations, silences and
sleep, again recalling Virginia Woolf.
Soon after the affair, a post-independence war erupts and
Thejiwe meets a violent death, while her beloved sister
Nonceba is brutally raped and injured. This portion of the
novel is extremely difficult to read, because the author
has so convincingly brought the horrors or war to life.
But while Nonceba endures the worst of what a man is capable
of inflicting upon a woman, she is later the recipient of
an extraordinary act of kindness. In the physical and psychological
aftermath of her trials, the slowly recovering Nonceba is
sought out by Thenjiwe's former lover, and she must decide
whether or not to trust him.
"In a war," says Vera, "you discard names
like old resemblances, like handkerchiefs torn, leave them
behind like tributaries dried." As the novel progresses,
it too changes, leaving behind the flowing, abundant style
of its opening pages and becoming more western: more direct,
more linear, more focused on the individual and on a distinct
storyline, and less poetic.
-- Christine Leahy