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.