'House of Stone' - Review
by Sindisiwe Ncube
House of Stone is not a novel that I was initially drawn to, which is surprising considering my family background. I read the reviews but was still quite unmotivated to read it. It sat on my shelf for about 3 months before I opened it.
After reading a chapter, I was annoyed at my earlier indifference to it.
House of Stone is more than what all the reviews describe. I was unprepared for this ambitious and impressive debut novel. Novuyo Rosa Tshuma portrays the complex lives of Zimbabweans through political and economic hardships whilst they work through their personal traumas. Growing up in Zimbabwe, and having also lived in South Africa and the USA, Tshuma has built a creative and complex perspective of Zimbabwe’s history.
Although Tshuma heavily focuses on major political events and their impacts on Zimbabweans, she draws on wider political issues like the masking of women’s role in Zimbabwe’s independence, the psychological damage on adults and children, and how trauma filters through the following generations. This is an ambitious framework for a novel that Tshuma makes work in an interesting way. By focusing particularly on the marginalised Ndebele perspective of Zimbabwe’s recent history, Tshuma thus positions the book as inherently political. Tshuma forces you to face the past no matter how ugly it is. Running, hiding or ignoring the past neither changes nor reduces its impact. Not accepting the past and interrogating is detrimental and destructive to the self and those around you.
Tshuma retells Zimbabwe’s history through the personal narratives of Zamani, Abednego and Mama Agnes. The main character, Zamani, born symbolically on the night of the Gukurahundi massacres, returns to Zimbabwe from the UK in an attempt to find out about his family history. Through the history and personal narratives of Abednego and Mama Agnes (Zamani’s surrogate family), we uncover Zimbabwe’s troubled history and its impact on individual lives.
House of Stone was my first encounter with Ndebele. Tshuma kept the incorporation of Ndebele fairly simple and easy to grasp, making it a great way to ignite my interest in relearning Ndebele. Seeing Ndebele words in this book was like seeing myself in a way I had not realised I had needed. I had underestimated the power of seeing one’s culture and history in a novel.
This book shows the true reality of how a nation is built: through pain, hardships and unspeakable acts of violence. There is a poignant scene in the book where she describes the celebrations of independence and how it was formed through both joy and pain. Tshuma shows how happiness is tied to pain, and that the two are inseparable. It is easy to say that this book is very pessimistic and hyperfocused on pain. There are many visceral scenes not for the faint-hearted. Some scenes are etched into my brain as if I too were there, experiencing their suffering.
Tshuma emphasises how there are no heroes or villains, and that people act in accordance with the circumstances they find themselves in. Abednego is not the man we initially thought he would be and Mama Agnes is far from the pious mother. Zamani’s complex nature tests our own judgments of ourselves and others.
Tshuma challenges how we understand history, at both the personal level and the national level. The images and stories we hear are not always a reflection of the truth. Tshuma emphasises this through Zamani’s desire to find a complete history of his surrogate family. His focus on all the tiny details of this family ironically shine a brighter light on the fact that our histories are only partial. Knowing the father and the mother is not to know the entire history of a family. Sometimes uncovering painful histories can feel like it will break us but Tshuma shows that uncovering is as equally transformational as it is destructive.