The Trilogy of Womanhood: A full review of Nervous Conditions, Book of Not and This Mournable Body

Tsitsi Dangarembga is a Zimbabwean writer, novelist and filmmaker. Tsitsi Dangarembga attended the prestigious Cambridge University before returning to Zimbabwe. In 1988, Tsitsi Dangarembga published her debut novel, Nervous Conditions.

In the 27 years after its release, Nervous Conditions has been canonized in Zimbabwean literature. Nervous Conditions was followed by Book of Not, and This Mournable Body respectively. The opening line of Nervous Conditions, “I was not sorry when my brother died,” is one of the most captivating opening lines I have ever come across. Dangarembga has never been one to shy away from talking about the ills of patriarchy in Zimbabwean society. The opening line of the Book of Not is not as unsettling and enticing as the famous opening line of Nervous Conditions, and yet, Tambu’s familiar voice remains captivating. The Book of Not is set in both Rhodesia and Independent Zimbabwe, making Tambu a part of the cross-over generation. At the end of Nervous Conditions, Tambu is accepted into a prestigious all-girls school in Rhodesia. The Book of Not is her introduction and expulsion from this new and privileged world. During this time, Tambu’s life blurs the lines of a deeply segregated society. In spite of all the “opportunities” Tambu is afforded, she is unable to overcome the barriers of womanhood and racism. Education is frequently paraded as an equalizer in the face of sexism and/or racism, however, Tsitsi Dangarembga challenges this idea, insisting on building her storyline around micro-aggressions as long-term macro-aggressions.

Tsitsi Dangarembga and I attended the same high school, decades apart. Based on my experience, it is my belief that much of the inspiration for this book and “Sacred Heart College” is taken from Tsitsi’s years at this prestigious all-girls school. It is for this reason, this book was deeply painful for me to read. Much like Tambu, my feelings of inferiority where heightened in this competitive, yet extremely unequal environment, that is a microcosm of Zimbabwe’s flawed society. As I read this book, I could only think of what I would tell my younger self. There was so much time that was lost poring over how to assimilate, and how to be a lady (in the western sense). This self-deprecating approach to “learning” took a great deal of joy from the experience of growing. And so I grieve partly for my younger self for this lost time that will never be regained. I also feel a deep sense of responsibility, that as I succeeded in my own assimilation, I imposed the same limitations on girls like me, from the other side of the tracks. The Book of Not was equally remarkable. While I found The Book of Not to be a painful read because to my high school experience, This Mournable Body is absolutely terrifying and not in the enlightening way, it’s just plain terrifying. After accompanying Tambu on her journey through all three books, I wanted a fairytale ending for her. I connected with Tambu’s character so much and I hoped Tambu’s dreams becoming a reality would reassure me that if I work hard the rewards will be abundant and positive. It took me quite a bit longer to read This Mournable Body because it was frustratingly realistic and tragic, the experience of reading it was not particularly enjoyable. If I were to rank the books, I would rank them in the order they were published. Nervous Conditions was necessary and The Book of Not satisfied my curiosity for an ending but This Mournable Body exists in limbo, although I think it has valuable lessons. I am inclined to think that was intentional, because Tambu’s life spirals out of control in this novel. I wanted to write a deep and provocative review of this book, but I am close to tears, I wanted a fairytale ending for Tambu because I want to believe a fairytale ending is possible for me. Zimbabwe is a “Christian” country, we are taught that good deeds will be rewarded, even though our country has never worked this way. Similar to Tambu, I went through the private school system, but I have been unable to use this performative economic mobility to make anything of myself, I don’t say this to be self-deprecating. But I have accepted that there are conditions are circumstances that I cannot control, some to do with womanhood, some to do with blackness and some to do life and death. In This Mournable Body, Tambu transitions from her late twenties to her early thirties, this posed the greatest difficulty, how do you review a story written for you, about girls like you without exposing yourself?