The White Shadow by Andrea Eames

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The White Shadow by Andrea Eames

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Growing up in the clash of old world superstion and modern day politics isn't easy, when you've a strange sister and a divided family. This story from the death throes of Rhodesia is both beautiful and softly powerful.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 330 Date: February 2013
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099565420

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As a general principle I am a little tired of books that start at the end. I want to argue for a return to good old fashioned narrative where stories start at the beginning, go on until the end, and then stop.

A good story-teller doesn't need gimmicks.

However, I am prepared to allow a little leeway in Eames' case, not least because her beginning at the end is no more than a cryptic short prologue, which is soon forgotten once the story gets under way.

That story began when a second child was born to our family and my father fell in love. The second child was a girl, no looked-for thing in this African culture where boys are everything and girls... well... are to be apologised for.

But there will be no apologising for Hazvinei (the name means it doesn't matter) as she grows up.

Tinashe, the brother, older by a mere three years is charged with looking after his sister. He solemnly undertakes this duty, but she will grow to be stronger than a he: a better runner, faster swimmer, wilder, more entrancing. She will also be more strange and bring attention on the family that they can well do without.

This is Rhodesia in the late sixties / early seventies. There are talks of independence, but the fight is still in the bush, one of guerrilla warfare where not even all of the indigenous population support the cause. Whites still rule, and although some make an effort to learn snippets of local language, it seems that most hold their positions of authority with disdain.

I'd be a little older than Tinashe and do recall the news items of the time and (what clearly wasn't evident to my young mind back then) how utterly one-sided they were. Until now, although I now have (I hope) a fairly enlightened view of world politics, I had never really stopped to think about what it was like to live through. Especially for a child.

Tinashe gives us one view of the time. But don't expect this to be a story of the independence movement. It isn't. It's a rites-of-passage tale of a young man who just happened to grow up while it was happening.

It is a story of family, of love and loss and jealousy and greed and different conceptions of wealth.

Tinashe lives in a village on the Kopje. They're a step above subsistence farmers. Although he and Hazvinei have to look after the livestock, their father does some kind of unidentified manual labour with fairly regular hours. In the mines perhaps? Or maybe on someone else's farm. They live in the brick built house, best in the village, courtesy of Uncle's help.

Uncle lives in the city, and displays all of the trappings of affluence... corpulent of body, shiny suits and shiny car. He is fawned over by the people of the village. Tinashe is in awe, and even when his cousin starts to spend regular holidays with them on the Kopje, never questions why his aunt never visits.

As the children grow up Hazvinei is strange. She will not speak. There are dark tales of curses and spirits. But she is beautiful and all will follow where she leads...

...until genuine disaster threatens to finally catch up with them.

Sometimes it is hard to avoid the cliches... The White Shadow is a genuinely compelling story. The characters are real. What starts almost as a continent-and-time-shifted Tom and Huck tale morphs imperceptibly into something both darker and more political. At the same time the void remains indisputably that of Tinashe remembering how it was.

There are enough words of Shona to give flavour, some explained, most not, without it becoming pretentious or impeding the flow. I'd have loved a glossary but that's just my love of language. In situ, it works just fine without.

Eames was brought up in Zimbabwe in the late 80s and had a cosmopolitan upbringing that included Jewish, Hindu and Catholic schools before ending up in the International School in Harare. I guess that would give you a fairly broad view of the world. Importantly for this book, it gives her insight into the mythology of her setting and an ability to look from different, sometimes unacceptable but nonetheless true viewpoints.

It's beautifully written, tells an engrossing tale, makes you care about the characters and educates you along the way. What more could you want?

Read it!

We also have a review of Eames' The Cry of the Go-Away Bird.

For an entirely different more light-hearted African childhood, you might enjoy Twenty Chickens for a Saddle by Robyn Scott - or for the powerful and emotional take on the continent's troubled history there's Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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Buy The White Shadow by Andrea Eames at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The White Shadow by Andrea Eames at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy The White Shadow by Andrea Eames at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The White Shadow by Andrea Eames at Amazon.com.

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