Harare North by Brian Chikwava

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Harare North by Brian Chikwava

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: A black comedy turns into a tragedy in a tale of a young Mugabe supporter who comes to London in order to raise $5,000 for a bribe. Original voice, creative use of the language, narrator as unreliable as possible and a striking mixture of wit, earthy colloquialism and poetic imagery make this one to highly recommend.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 240 Date: April 2009
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
ISBN: 978-0224086110

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Harare North is a tale of a young Zimbabwean, a Mugabe supporter and an ex member of the youth militia who comes to London (nicknamed Harare North) to raise $5,000 needed for a bribe.

After a few tense weeks in his cousin's house he moves to a squat in Brixton where his old friend Shingi lives with a few other Zimbabweans, including Alec who's supposed to have a great job in a Croydon shop (which turns out to be a BBC graft - a 'British buttock cleaning' job in a care home), and Tsitsi, a seventeen years old single mother who rents out her baby to other women intended on defrauding social services.

Harare North deals with a wealth of issues, from the practical realities of life as an illegal or semi-legal immigrant, to the immigrant communities in London, to the complexities of political allegations of individuals and families in Zimbabwe. The claustrophobic atmosphere is palapable, the power games between the characters petty and tense at the same time, the seedy squalor of the squat and the realities of the £2.45 an hour jobs ring true. We laugh at the language, laugh at the jokes and laugh at the silliness, but the undercurrent of menace and despair is increasingly detectable.

The novel is told in the first-person by the never-named narrator, himself just about as unreliable as narrators get. In turns confident, cocky and manipulative; confused, disturbed and lost; menacing and frightening on the edge of insanity; the nameless anti-hero remains convincing throughout in his efforts to deal not only with the culture shock of London and the harsh demands of the immigrant life but also with the baggage of his past. When the past always tower over you like a mother of children of darkness, all you can do is hide under she skirt. Then you see them years hanging in great big folds of skin and when you pop your head out of under the skirt you don't tell no one what you have see because that's where you are from. You tell them and people will treat you funny.

As the events progress, the tone of the tale darkens and the mind of the narrator comes out of gear further, the reader loses any initial confidence not only in the interpretations professed by the narrator but even in the facts of what took place. If you like to be clear what actually happened, this probably isn't a book for you.

I loved the voice of Harare North.

The language is stylised as a form of pidgin-English, but apparently doesn't correspond to any of the English dialects, reflecting instead the native Shona (I have even seen it called Shonglish). It takes a while to get used to: I spent the first 30 pages trying to work out the grammar, but it remains clear throughout and soon becomes an essential vehicle for Chikwava's art.

The comedy ranges from wry to very earthy, while the strikingly poetic use of African-derived imagery gives the novel much more than just a 'generic immigrant' feel.

As much a look into the complexities of Zimbabwean crumbling society as a mirror in which Londoners can see themselves, Harare North was a joy to read and comes highly recommenced for all in search of original voices in modern fiction.

The review copy was sent to the Bookbag by the publisher - thank you!

The Road Home by Rose Tremain offers a lighter if still very incisive insight into the immigrant expereince in London, as do The Dirty South by Alex Wheatle and Forest Gate by Peter Akinti.

When a Crocodile Eats the Sun by Peter Godwin chronicles the collapse of Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe from a progressive white man's perspective.

Refugee Boy by Benjamin Zephaniah deals with refugee themes for teenage readers.

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Buy Harare North by Brian Chikwava at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Harare North by Brian Chikwava at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Harare North by Brian Chikwava at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Harare North by Brian Chikwava at Amazon.com.


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