Jul 25, 2011

Nervous Conditions – A Review

October 2004, Fiction (2nd Edition)
Lynne Reiner Publisher, 224 pages
 ISBN-13: 978-0954702335, Available on Amazon

“I was not sorry when my brother died. Nor am I apologizing for my callousness, as you may define it, my lack of feeling.”
Never have I read such a bold opening to a novel. I paused briefly to check what roller coaster ride I had just committed myself before allowing myself to be launched into the story which turned out to be quite intense and thought provoking.

Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga is a semi-autobiographical coming of age story about a young woman in pre-independence Zimbabwe. The story takes place in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and centres around two female cousins, Tambudzai (Tambu) and Nyasha. The adult Tambu reflects back on her adolescence and in particular the major events that shaped her life.
Tambu is raised on the family homestead and spends much of her time gardening, fetching water, cooking & cleaning – typical activities for a young girl living in a rural village. Nyasha, on the other hand, moves to England for a number of years while her parents attend university. These divergent paths shape their worldview & have a profound effect on the type women they both eventually become.

Tambu yearns to attend school but her parents seeing no value in that endeavour aren’t eager to spend the money, and instead send her brother, Nhamo. Despite this she convinces them to let her plant maize on a small portion of her mother's garden in order to raise money for school fees. Her mother insists this exercise in futility will be a meaningful blow to Tambu’s pride and stubborn mind, and the reluctant father agrees.

When Nyasha and her family return from England, her father, Babamukuru takes Nhamo into their home and sends him to the mission school where he is the headmaster. Nhamo is quite gifted, and aspires to attain as many degrees as his uncle. He’s cocksure and is often unkind to Tambu; he antagonizes Tambu by rubbing in her face the opportunities denied her because of her gender.

When Nhamo dies mysteriously, Tambu takes his place in Babamukuru’s household and she undergoes what she describes as a “reincarnation.” She and Nyasha have up until now been awkward around each other – Nyasha is quite anglicised and has forgotten to speak Shona. There is a language barrier as well as a cultural one too. Nyasha is not the timid daughter of a mission school headmaster as is expected; she questions and argues constantly. She has seen a different life than the one she is forced to conform to in Rhodesia, and she refuses to do so! This horrifies and intrigues Tambu. Tambu cannot understand why Nyasha is unappreciative of her parents and the lifestyle she is afforded; surely she must realise how lucky she is when compared to other young girls her age such as Tambu herself.

As Tambu begins to understand what drives Nyasha’s rebellion, she is more sympathetic and shares some of the same frustrations. Much of their frustrations is driven by the narrow view of what it means to be a woman in a rigid patriarchal society. Nyasha’s mother,
Maiguru, though well educated and somewhat worldly, is pigeon holed into the role of doting wife and mother. She is subservient to her husband and his family, and keeps much of her own thoughts and desires locked away – she seems almost stuck in her condition and does little to fight back. This infuriates Nyasha to no end!

As Tambu becomes learned and free thinking, she finds herself increasingly out of place when visiting her parents and other family members. She’s growing into a woman very unlike her own mother or what her mother desires her to become. Her mother finds this traitorous and believes Maiguru and Babamukuru are attempting to steal another of her children.

This is not simply a story about family drama. It is about girls maturing into teens. Women moving up in the world by virtue of their hard work and/or education and not because of advantageous unions. The struggles of a newly educated class as they straddle the “white man’s world” and that of their forefathers. Familial pressures to help less advantaged (and sometimes lazy) siblings. The gradual emancipation of the black man. Social acceptance of outsiders.

This is not an easy book to read. It’s quite intense in parts but Tsitsi Dangarembga does a remarkable job in making it enjoyable; she is truly a gifted writer. There are laugh out loud moments and others that make the reader just cringe. The middle part dragged a little more than I would have liked, and I found myself urging the book to pick up momentum again; which it did! This is definitely not a book to be read in one or two sittings, it is best drawn out over a number of days.

This is an important book and pays an emotional homage to the people who most influenced Dangarembga. It’s a beautiful piece of modern literature! Give it a try, and if it’s been a while since your last read it’s worth the re-read. 


Thanks for this great review, it reminds me that I should really read this book already.

Nervous Conditions is the September title for the Lusaka Book Club. I have bookmarked this page and will come back to read it once I have finished the book for myself.

Once again, a great review. Tsitsi Dangarembga was slightly ahead of her time; what she wrote about is now the norm for most urban African families, torn as they are between tradition and modernity.

@Amy, you really should read it. I'd love to hear what you think about that.

@Masuka, this is truly a small world. I'm happy to hear this is on your Book Club list. You'll definitely have a lot to talk about with your club members. Come back & share!

@James, thanks for the compliment. Writing a good review for a book of this calibre is not a hardship! And you're right, this writing was ahead of it's time and it's hard to even imagine that this was written 22 years ago!

Oh, now I want to re-read this classic. Wonderful review. She later released The Book of Not, meant as a follow-up to Nervous Condition. But that one is not as good as this. Nervous Condition is a hard act to follow. All the best.

Kinna, this is definitely one of those books I will keep in my collection for all time. It was one of my best reads so far this year. I considered looking for the follow up, The Book of Not, but decided not to because I figured it could never live up to the original.

mmmh what a book!!. i really love this book hey and i just read it once and i feel like i want to read it again because i just cant get enough of it. TSITSI DANGAREMBA is the best. it tells a real story that happens in our everyday lives i feel good when reading it. it is fascinating together with some emotional events.

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