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An Elegy for Easterly

Petina Gappah

"As Edna heaves dry sobs against the black silk of the second First Lady's suit, my eyes travel down to Edna's shoes. She really should start investing more money in her shoes; her unshaped peasant's feet require something stronger than zhing-zhong plastic leather shoes to contain them."

Reviewed by Tania Hershman

There are those who write fiction in order to educate, to say "This is how things are done, this is what you must know, read and learn". But in my opinion, education is not the primary aim of fiction. Fiction must, above all, bring the reader a gripping story, characters that we want to follow, to see what happens to them. This is where Petina Gappah excels: first and foremost, she tells great stories, and, almost incidentally, we learn as we read. We learn about Zimbabwe, the rhythms of its language, the corruption of its politics, the AIDS epidemic, the relations between neighbours and friends, between rich and poor, between Africa and the rest of the world, between parents and their children. These stories are full of atmosphere, of cultural detail, and we drink it in, because we are so taken with the story and the characters. Gappah has hooked us.

These thirteen stories in Gappah's debut collection work wonderfully together. From the first page, the reader is introduced to the conventions of the culture and to the truth that hides behind these conventions, the layers of hypocrisy, the way things have to be said and done, the naming of people. This carries through all the stories, with each successive one adding more to the complex picture of this fascinating, troubled country. I am sure the stories also stand alone, but I have read few collections where the ensemble is so strong.

The title story, An Elegy for Easterly, demonstrates Gappah's skill at bringing together the universal (adultery, madness, a woman desperate for children) with the specific (a Zimbabwean township threatened with destruction; the economic woes of its inhabitants): 

"The winter of the birth of Martha's child was a winter of broken promises. The government promised that prices would go down and salaries up. Instead the opposite happened. The opposition promised that there would be protests. Instead they bickered over who should hold three of the top six positions of leadership. From the skies fell chimvuramambwe, hailstones of frozen heat that melted on the tongues of Easterly's children."  

One of the most powerful stories for me is also the shortest, The Cracked Pink Lips of Rosie's Bridegroom. In a little over four pages, Gappah paints the horrifying picture of a community being devastated by AIDS, eating, drinking and dancing at Rosie's wedding, all the while knowing that Rosie's husband would soon pass his sickness to her as he did already to one wife and two girlfriends: 

"They are gifted with prophecy, the wedding guests, they look at Rosie's bridegroom's lips and in them see Rosie's fate. She will die first, of course, for that is the pattern, the woman first and then the man. The woman first, leaving the man to marry again, to marry another woman who will die first."
Yet, the wedding guests keep dancing, keep eating. 

Another favourite of mine is The Mupandawana Dancing Champion, in which a retired elderly coffin maker's neighbours are astonished to discover his dancing talents: 

"As the first strains of Tambai Mese Mujairirane filled the room, we saw M'dhara Vitalis transformed. He wriggled his hips. He closed his eyes and whistled. He turned his back to us and used the vent in the back of his jacket to expose his bottom as he said, 'Pesu, pesu', moving the jacket first to one side and then the other."  

This story is one where you almost laugh out loud yet there is a poignancy, a sadness. Nothing is straightforward, just as in reality, but there are small moments of joy. 

As with every collection, there are stories which did not work as well for me, veering from the delicate balance of entertaining and informing, such as Aunt Juliana's Indian, in which the amount of information felt too great for the story to bear. Our Man in Geneva Wins A Million Euros takes a risk by hanging a story on the now rather tacky subject of email scams offering millions to unsuspecting dupes, yet Gappah just about pulls it off because while this may be the central plot, there is more depth to this story than first appears.  

On the subject of depth, one of the joys of short stories is that they can be read again and again without the enormous time commitment required by a longer work, and great short stories will give up something new with each re-reading. The stories in this book definitely do that. The first reader gets the reader accustomed to linguistic and cultural differences; subsequent reads allow the reader to concentrate on the story and the smaller details. 

Gappah is currently, as mainstream publishing dictates, working on a novel. I hope that she doesn't abandon the short story form, that certainly would be a great loss.    

Read a story from this collection in Per Contra

Tania Hershman is the editor of the Short Review. Her short story collection, The White Road and Other Stories, is published by Salt Modern Fiction.
Tania's other Short Reviews: Etgar Keret & Samir el-Youssef "Gaza Blues"

Melvin J. Bukiet "A Faker's Dozen"

Rusty Barnes "Breaking it Down"

Roy Kesey "All  Over"

John Klima (ed) "Logorrhea: Good Words Make Good Stories"

Kelley Eskridge "Dangerous Space"

18 Lies and 3 Truths: StoryQuarterly 2007 Annual

Aimee Bender "Wilful Creatures"

Paddy O'Reilly "The End of the World"

Annie Clarkson "Winter Hands"

Yannick Murphy "In a Bear's Eye"

Declan Meade (ed) "Let's Be Alone Together"

Lise Erdrich "Night Train"

Interfictions: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing

Alexandra Chasin "Kissed By"

Tamar Yellin "Kafka in Bronteland"

Mary Miller "Big World"

Ali Smith "The First Person and Other Stories"

Chris Beckett "The Turing Test"


Publisher: Faber and Faber

Publication Date: April 2009

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback

First collection?Yes

Awards: Winner, Guardian First Book Award 2009, Shortlisted, 2009 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award

Author bio: Petina Gappah  is a Zimbabwean writer with law degrees from Cambridge, Graz University, and the University of Zimbabwe. Her short fiction and essays have been published in eight countries. She lives with her son Kush in Geneva, where she works as counsel in an international organisation that provides legal aid on international trade law to developing countries. She is currently completing The Book of Memory, her first novel. 

Read an interview with Petina Gappah

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Tamar Yellin "Kafka In Bronteland"

Etgar Keret and Samir el-Youssef "Gaza Blues"

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