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The Stone Virgins:
Yvonne Vera
(FSG, 2002)

The 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."

Other Book Reviews:

A Whistling Woman
- A. S. Byatt

The Stone Virgins
- Yvonne Vera

The Murdering
of My Years

- Mickey Z

Vanishing Splendor
- Alain Vircondelet

Skirt and Fiddle
- Tristan Egolf

- Arthur Bradford

Nowhere Man
- Aleksandar Hemon

The Book of Illusions
- Paul Auster

Lightning Field
- Dana Spiotta

It's a Free Country
- Danny Goldberg

Some of the Parts
- T Cooper

- Jonathon Dee

The White
- Deborah Larsen
Into the Buzzsaw
- Kristina Borjesson

- Ian McEwan

The Black Veil
- Rick Moody

Tempting Faith DiNapoli
- Lisa Gabriele

- Lynn Breedlove

Africa Speaks
- Mark Goldblatt

The Shape of a Pocket
- John Berger

Media Unlimited
- Todd Gitlin

Carter Beats the Devil
- Glen David Gold

Somebody's Gotta Tell It!
Jack Newfield
Violence, Nudity, Adult Content
- Vince Passaro

Perpetual War For Perpetual Peace
- Gore Vidal
The War Against Cliche
- Martin Amis
Look at Me
- Jennifer Egan

Them: Adventures With Extremists
- Jon Ronson

Tishomingo Blues
- Elmore Leonard

Letters to a Young Contrarian Christopher Hitchens
With Love and Squalor
Kip Kotzen and Thomas Beller
Shanghai Baby
Wei Hui
Shop Talk
Philip Roth

Halls of Fame
John D'Agata
This is Not a Novel
David Markson
My Name is Red
Orhan Pamuk
Nickel and Dimed On (Not) Getting By in America
Barbara Ehrenreich
Spreading Misandry
P. Nathanson and K. Young

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

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[email protected] | March 2003 | Issue 36
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