One of the first things that became apparent while reading Yvonne Vera’s The Stone Virgins was a gentle spiraling, a contracting of the scope of the novel, from the streets of Bulawayo to the small village of Kezi via the local gathering place Thandabantu; from Thenjiwe and her unnamed lover to her sister Nonceba; contracting into a pinpoint during the murder of Thenjiwe and the rape and mutilation of Nonceba. Flowing with the narrative are lyrical descriptions of the landscape and the “intoxicating scent of marula seeds falling everywhere,” all welcoming the reader into the heart of Zimbabwe.
Every aspect of the narrative, every description, serves a purpose further in the novel. Whether it is seeds or the color of the flowers or the dust that rises or “ancient mounds, perforated humps of hardened soil that water cannot melt,” which gives way to “the mud, dead, dried, red.” Vera connects the reader to the land and its people through these vivid descriptions, drawing them under the thatched roofs, into the smells and society of a land at war, yet teaming with the mundane and ordinary tasks of many.
Directly before and after the life changing events thrust upon the sisters, Vera connects the before and the after by using nature. At the end of Chapter 4, “a breeze stirs the air. The women love this shade as cool as water could be,” and at the beginning of Chapter 16, after the brutality has passed, we return to “the marula fruit…she inhales the tranquil and intoxicating smell of this tree…the shade of the mphafa tree where Nonceba sits is a refreshing island of cool air.” There are multiple examples of how the story folds back on itself, drawing the strings tighter, connecting the reader from one point to the next. Yet this time, she begins expanding the novel’s scope once more.
It is not as though time flows backwards, but it is as though the bus we took into Kezi is now returning to Bulawayo. The loving and carefree Thenjiwe is dead. Her anonymous lover has been named–Cephas Dube. The Thandabantu has been burned, its owner murdered, and we return with Nonceba and Cephas to the streets of Bulawayo, from the quiet, stony countryside to the din of the city, and the spiral widens.
Although lyrical, the writing is also abstract. It is not only about the two sisters, the two towns, the people, it also about the land, and how it remains, how the flowers still bloom, even following adversity, like the sister Nonceba. It is as though the sisters are Zimbabwe. On one hand, murdered, mutilated, the blood red of the hibiscus, like blood running in the streets. Yet, there is life, there is renewal, there is sunshine and daisies, and as the last word of the novel states–deliverance.
I believe in order to catch the full fragrance of this novel, it would have to be read again and again. It would have to be contemplated sentence by sentence. One would have to imagine the exact sweetness of the seed of the Mazhanje, the smell of the marula, the feel of the stones beneath our hands, a lover who claims, “When I am not touching you, I am nothing,” the sharp steel of the flashing razor cutting our lips from our faces, to “know every grasshopper and every blade of grass of Kezi…” To know all of these things, to integrate them into our senses without having traveled the dusty road from Bulawayo to Kezi, would be to understand that “time is as necessary for remembering as it is for forgetting. Even the smallest embrace of pain needs time larger than a pause; the greatest pause requires an eternity; an eternity can exist without human presence.” And so shall the land remain.