Announcing their 2019 longlist back in February (see my post), the Stella Prize judges said that they “wished for more representations of otherness and diversity from publishers: narratives from outside Australia, from and featuring women of colour, LGBTQIA stories, Indigenous stories, more subversion, more difference”. Elizabeth Kuiper’s debut novel, Little stones, may not exactly fulfil this wish for subversion and difference, but it is set in Zimbabwe, and that’s certainly a start.
The main story concerns 11-year-old Hannah’s life as the daughter of divorced parents – and what ensues when her mother decides to leave Zimbabwe, wanting to take her daughter with her. Her father’s up till then somewhat controlled anger against her mother intensifies, and he does all he can to prevent this happening, despite the fact that he has shown little commitment to the real business of loving and rearing a child.
It’s not a particularly new story, but this one has an added layer; it’s the early 2000s and Hannah and her parents are middle-class white Zimbabweans living under Robert Mugabe’s increasingly violent regime. Life is not easy for her family, which includes her tobacco-farmer grandparents, with African nationalism ramping up against what Hannah comes to recognise as “crushing colonisation”.
The story is told first person by Hannah, and this is both its strength and weakness. Strength because Hannah, though intelligent and observant for her age, is a naive narrator. She can only see through an 11-year-old’s eyes, while we, of course, know or can guess what is really happening, whether this is the political violence and corruption happening in the background (and sometimes even closer) or the more personal conflict happening between her parents. So, for example, early in the novel she hears her mother and grandparents talking, yet again, about the Warvets, whom she understands to be “a big family who wanted to steal farms from everyone in Zimbabwe”. Finally, she insists on being heard:
‘Mum,’ I insisted. ‘I don’t want us to give our farm away to another family.’
‘Another family?’ Mum sought clarification.
Mum looked around the room, first at Nana, then Grandpa, and let out a sigh. She explained to me that the War Vets were not an extended family. They are a large group of people called the ‘War Veterans’ who mobilised to take back what they saw as their land.
The naive narrator voice achieves a few things. It conveys how unsettling it is for children to be living under stresses that they don’t fully understand, but it can also keep the tension down a little because the full horrors are not made explicit to us (albeit we can guess them.) Hannah is a lovely character, whose special and sustaining relationships with her best friend Diana Chigumba and the family’s Shona housekeeper (not “maid” says her mother) Gogo, are delightfully conveyed. She can, being 11, be naughty, but she’s at heart a sensitive, loving, well-adjusted child.
However, this voice can be a weakness too. It’s difficult to sustain the voice of a child – and unfortunately, perhaps, I’ve just read Tim Winton’s The shepherd’s hut which does it extremely well. Here, I felt that at times Kuiper’s Hannah used language and concepts that an 11-year-old would not use. We are told she’s intelligent, and good with language, but still I wasn’t always convinced. Here, for example, she talks about the guardianship court case her mother is fighting:
In the past, I would have tried to offer whatever morsel of advice I could manage, but as the court case progressed I came to realise that most of the time she was talking about herself, and so I absorbed her rhetorical questions as a necessary and cathartic part of the process for her.
This, and examples like it, seem rather sophisticated to me in both expression and idea. The question is, are we supposed to believe that this is 11-year-old Hannah telling the story as it happened or older Hannah telling the story? I’m not sure it’s always completely clear, but I felt it was intended to be the former.
All this brings me to the question of whether Kuiper’s story would have been better told as a memoir, because I understand that the novel is, like most debut novels, autobiographical. Of course, I don’t know where the facts of her life end and the fiction begins, but it’s a question that I pondered as I read. And, also of course, memoir would bring its own challenges for Kuiper that she may not have wanted to confront. I don’t blame her for that.
Anyhow, this is a minor quibble if you are prepared to go with the flow, which I decided to do. Kuiper handles well the challenge of conveying the difficulty of the situation for Hannah’s family as white Zimbabweans in an increasingly tense and dangerous atmosphere. She shows that it’s not all about race, or simply about race. There’s the issue of different races – Shona versus Matabele – and there’s class. Hannah’s best friend Diana, for example, comes from a well-to-do black family. Kuiper also handles convincingly the parallel, and perhaps most significant for Hannah, issue of separated parents wrangling over their daughter. The descriptions of Hannah’s father’s increasing manipulation of the system to get his way are infuriating if not chilling – but oh so real. Hannah, in fact, has to grow up fast if she is to survive this dual personal and political unrest she finds herself in.
Little stones is, then, essentially, a coming-of-age story, which also works as a Young Adult-Adult crossover novel. It offers something special to readers in both these areas because its perspective is a rare one for us to read here; because it is told with a lovely vitality and attention to the details of a life lived under complex political and personal circumstances; and because it manages to tread that fine line that shows rather than judges. And that, I think, is impressive.
Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also enjoyed this book.
St Lucia: UQP, 2019
(Review copy courtesy UQP)