Zimbabwe’s Unravelling


Irene Sabatini’s deceptive narration in this haunting novel lures the reader in slowly, slowly—coiling like a snake about to spring. By the time you realize that she’s mesmerized you, it’s too late. You’re hooked on Sabatini’s superb narrative skills and there’s nothing to do but read faster and faster. The Boy Next Door is unlike any other novel that I have read about Southern Africa, let alone Zimbabwe the story’s setting.

Part of the compelling narrative is Sabatini’s decision to make no concessions to her readers. Her language is vibrant and colorful. Her characters speak a pastiche of Shona, British English, Zimbabwean street slang, Afrikaans—all gnarled together into sentences that initially seem troubling only because the so-called “foreign” words are not parenthetically explained. No problem, as the story moves on, her characters’ lingo reveals itself by context. To a certain extent, Sabatini employs the same magical process in her plotting. Important details are withheld only to jolt the reader many chapters later when the real “truth” of her story can finally be pieced together. The Boy Next Door is an intellectual puzzle disguised as a detective story. When everything is finally revealed, it’s impossible not to be impressed by Sabatini’s flawless first novel. May she write many more.

The cryptic beginning starts with a jolt: the murder of a white woman, set on fire in the house next to the story’s main character, Lindiwe Bishop. Nothing is clear, but seventeen-year-old Ian McKenzie is accused of killing his step-mother. Soon he’s in prison, and Lindiwe attempts to figure everything out. Lindiwe has a white father and an African mother. Such marriages were previously forbidden in the former Rhodesia (the setting is mostly in Bulawayo), but these are the heady years immediately after the country’s 1980 independence, and many people are hopeful that the racist environment similar to apartheid will quickly fade away.

When Ian is suddenly released from prison a year or more later, Lindiwe who is slightly younger discovers that she is drawn to him, largely because of the mystery surrounding the details of the death next door. Her parents tell her never to have anything to do with Ian, almost a guarantee that the forbidden will become her obsession.

Running parallel to Lindiwe’s story are the implications that Zimbabwe is truly Africa’s success story: “a stable, economically sound democracy ruled by an intelligent Western-educated, soft-spoken liberator,” Robert Mugabe. But then things begin to crumble—not only in the country but also in Lindiwe’s own family. Her father gets Rosanna pregnant. She’s of mixed race and hardly older than Lindiwe. Suddenly, then, Lindiwe has a much younger half sister, and her mother begins to withdraw into herself.

Color is buried throughout much of the novel. When Lindiwe eventually gets involved with Ian, much of the attraction is that he doesn’t act like a Rhodie, a while Rhodesia, but more like a black person. He’s not very refined, directionless, not much concerned with what in the past (because of his white parents) would have been a given: education. Then Ian suddenly decides to go to South Africa, where he has relatives—largely because of increasing skirmishes between Zimbabwe’s two major ethnic groups (Shona and Ndebele) continuing their rivalry after independence. The decade was a bloody time for the country, though the West largely looked away because of the country’s economic prospects.

After the lengthy opening section set in the 1980s, it’s the decade that follows when Lindiwe’s country and family face steady deterioration. It’s almost a hundred and fifty pages before Mugabe is first mentioned and then with a fairly innocuous remark made by a minor character: “Mugabe is made as hell at Mandela for stealing the limelight, for getting himself released.”

Then, a hundred pages later, there’s a comment about Mugabe’s new wife: “Our new First Lady, First Shopper, the indomitable Grace Mugabe, swathed in designer chiffons and silk, the white queen, the Air Zimbabwe fleet ever happy to whisk and carry her off for fittings and excursions….” The economy will shortly collapse; as Mugabe’s government grabs the lands of the white farmers, the great unraveling begins.

There are so many surprising but believable twists of the story that would be unfair to reveal except that Ian returns to Bulawayo, much more self-controlled and motivated than earlier, and Lindiwe is attracted to him just as she was earlier when it was Ian who put the damper on their relationship.

Then, Zimbabwe’s decline and the two main characters impinge upon one another directly as past and present, country and nation, race and family bring this almost perfect novel to a startling and memorable conclusion. Three cheers for Irene Sabatini.

The Boy Next Door
By Irene Sabatini
Little, Brown, 403 pp., $23.99

CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.



Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

November 30, 2015
Henry Giroux
Trump’s Embrace of Totalitarianism is America’s Dirty Little Secret
Omur Sahin Keyif
An Assassination in Turkey: the Killing of Tahir Elci
Uri Avnery
There is No Such Thing as International Terrorism
Robert Fisk
70,000 Kalashnikovs: Cameron’s “Moderate” Rebels
Jamie Davidson
Distortion, Revisionism & the Liberal Media
Patrick Cockburn
Nasty Surprises: the Problem With Bombing ISIS
Robert Hunziker
The Looming Transnational Battlefield
Ahmed Gaya
Breaking the Climate Mold: Fighting for the Planet and Justice
Matt Peppe
Alan Gross’s Improbable Tales on 60 Minutes
Norman Pollack
Israel and ISIS: Needed, a Thorough Accounting
Colin Todhunter
India – Procession of the Dead: Shopping Malls and Shit
Roger Annis
Canada’s New Climate-Denying National Government
Binoy Kampmark
Straining the Republic: France’s State of Emergency
Bill Blunden
Glenn Greenwald Stands by the Official Narrative
Jack Rasmus
Japan’s 5th Recession in 7 Years
Karen Lee Wald
Inside the Colombia Peace Deal
Geoff Dutton
War in Our Time
Charles R. Larson
Twofers for Carly Fiorina
John Dear
An Eye for an Eye Makes the Whole World Blind
Weekend Edition
November 27-29, 2015
Andrew Levine
The Real Trouble With Bernie
Gary Leupp
Ben Carson, Joseph in Egypt, and the Attack on Rational Thought
John Whitbeck
Who’s Afraid of ISIS?
Michael Brenner
Europe’s Crisis: Terror, Refugees and Impotence
Pepe Escobar
Will Chess, Not Battleship, Be the Game of the Future in Eurasia?
Ramzy Baroud
Forget ISIS: Humanity is at Stake
Vijay Prashad
Showdown on the Syrian Border
Dave Lindorff
Gen. John Campbell, Commander in Afghanistan and Serial Liar
Colin Todhunter
Class, War and David Cameron
Jean Bricmont
The Ideology of Humanitarian Imperialism
Mark Hand
Escape From New York: the Emancipation of Activist Cecily McMillan
Dan Glazebrook
Deadliest Terror in the World: the West’s Latest Gift to Africa
Karl Grossman
Our Solar Bonanza!
Mats Svensson
Madness in Hebron: Hashem Had No Enemies, Yet Hashem Was Hated
Walter Brasch
Terrorism on American Soil
Louisa Willcox
Grizzly Bears, Dreaming and the Frontier of Wonder
Michael Welton
Yahweh is Not Exactly Politically Correct
Joseph Natoli
A Politics of Stupid and How to Leave It Behind
John Cox
You Should Fear Racism and Xenophobia, Not Syrian Refugees or Muslims
Barrie Gilbert
Sacrificing the Grizzlies of Katmai Park: the Plan to Turn Brooks Camp Into a Theme
Rev. William Alberts
The Church of “Something Else” in “an Ecclesiastical Desert”
Andrew Gavin Marshall
Bank Crimes Pay
Elliot Murphy
Cameron’s Syrian Strategy
Gareth Porter
How Terror in Paris Calls for Revising US Syria Policy
Thomas S. Harrington
Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe and the Death of Ezra Schwartz
Michael Perino
The Arc of Instability