A first novel set in modern Zimbabwe begins: “Two days after I turned fourteen the son of our neighbor set his stepmother alight.”
Some novels seem to exist at the end of history, in unchanging, ossified worlds, worlds present like the static props of a cheap stage-play. This is not the case for The Boy Next Door, Irene Sabatini’s rushed but affecting first novel about the life of a young woman in Mugabe-era Zimbabwe. The story is told by Lindiwe, a middle-class teenager from Bulawayo, and runs from the beginning of the reign of “Bob” (as white Rhodesians liked to call Mugabe) in the 1980s to the inexorable tragedies of the 1990s. “Fuck Francis Fukuyama,” Sabatini seems to say, as every attempt by Lindiwe to slip into the dull dramas of the confessional relationship novel—she gives us teen crushes, domestic battles, inter-generational melodrama—is violently defeated by history. Mugabe, in short, is ever present in this first-person narrative.
This isn’t really what you’d expect: the novel’s ordinary title seems to be on loan from sub-Judy Blume Y.A. fiction. The first sentence, though, gives the game away: “Two days after I turned fourteen the son of our neighbor set his stepmother alight.” What follows is a fragmented quasi-diary of Lindiwe-filtered gossip, which relates how her neighbor Ian, the boy of the title and a white Zimbabwean (known as “Rhodies” for their nostalgia for white-governed Rhodesia), is briefly jailed for murdering his stepmother. When Ian is released, the then not-quite-sixteen Lindiwe falls in love. They have a brief relationship, which ends when he leaves for South Africa. For a moment it seems like she’s going to follow him—but this is the 1980s, and Lindiwe, classified as colored, is made to stay at home. A lot happens after this. The Boy Next Door is plump with potential spoilers, revelations and reunions, major and minor shocks, surprise turns of events. The first sentence, again, says it all: Sabatini clearly (and somewhat unfortunately) plots for the market. Everything is arranged for the impending jolt.
Without giving too much away, the central arc of The Boy Next Door is of Lindiwe building a life, and a voice, from the fragments of her parent’s world. She does this alone: she finds little parental guidance, no community support, no one to give her models of how to live. Lindiwe’s parents are both ruined by the civil war; and her childhood community of Bulawayo is, by the end of the novel, a wasteland of starving civilians and ZANU-PF thugs. Despite this ruined homeland, Lindiwe does find her voice—and what a voice it is. Sabatini, with her trick-free, cliché-and-all writing style, charms you.
But here’s the problem: The Boy Next Door is not your average airport novel. It’s trying to be more, heaps more. It takes up the task of nothing less than narrating the postcolonial nation. For such a stupendous challenge, an author needs more than an engaging voice and a surprising plot: she needs to slow down. The Boy Next Door worries too much about the reader’s good time. For example, some time after Ian is released from prison, he finds himself helping Lindiwe and her father start their car. As Lindiwe tells it, “In the car, Daddy looked at his windscreen mirror and sighed. I was thinking of his hands. I was thinking of the lighter in them. The lighter that said Rhodesian army on it. Hot and burning.” Here and elsewhere, The Boy Next Door can read like a series of emotional highlights. Small, chronologically arranged fragments of narrative often jump from event to event, suggesting impatience, or uncertainty about how much should be revealed. Sometimes, we get too much, as in the rushed section-bridging device of Ian’s letters to Lindiwe from South Africa, spanning the last years of apartheid and into the 1990s. It amounts to three pages of pure plot, full of character signposts and historical fact-dropping: “So you’re at Varsity now… Lots of heavy shit happening in Soweto… So now you’re hanging around Frenchies and Italians… What, now you’re touring?… So now you’re a feminist… Don’t laugh I’m sitting my O-levels… now I’m taking pictures… THEY’VE FRICKEN RELEASED MANDALA… Sorry about the old man… I’ll be in Zimbo next Friday.” Later in the novel, Ian and Lindiwe talk about returning to Bulawayo, and again, over the course of a single page, we see Sabatini’s incessant signposting: “I wish I could drive you, Lindiwe…” “It’s fine, Ian…” “Lindiwe, they’re our parents…” “How is she, Ian?” “I don’t think I’ve ever told him I love him, Ian.”
Having said that, this is a serious novel, by a serious and ambitious writer. With great spirit, Sabatini has attempted an epic. She teaches us that Rhodesia’s new name and new mythologies—the Zimbabwe of Robert Mugabe—can’t erase the memories of the “dirty war. Notorious for it. Civilian planes shot down. Survivors hacked to death. Whole villages mortared. Babies shot. ‘Ancient history,’ Ian said.” Sabatini, moreover, seems aware of the impossibility of writing these horrors; while The Boy Next Door is full of violence, it’s mostly given through second-hand accounts: photographs, confessions, memories.
It is also a bluntly political novel—and like many such novels, it tends to announce itself as such. We have all the big political themes, often crowbarred in: racism, feminism, poverty, AIDS, human rights, the World Bank, the UN, globalization, the post-nuclear family. The jobs of the two central characters in the 1990s sections of the novel—Lindiwe is a student who works in rural areas with NGOs, Ian is a rugged photojournalist with an international reputation—appear rather obviously contrived to meet these themes.
It might sound strange, but you finish The Boy Next Door wishing Sabatini cared less about the reader. Then, she might be tempted to relax the impositions of plot-advancement and give us, slowly and carefully, the real story of The Boy Next Door: the everyday tragedies of the ruins of Zimbabwe. Sometimes, she does this perfectly. Towards the novel’s end, Lindiwe returns to Bulawayo with her son and sees in the cityscape the horrific scale of Zimbabwe’s decline. She visits the aviary, where she used to come with Ian, when they were teenagers. She is struck by the silence: “There are no birds anymore. I would like to think that they have finally been set free, but its more likely that those tame birds have all been eaten.”
In such moments, Sabatini reminds us that history returns, that it interrupts our clumsy ideas of the ossified, ahistorical present. We need more of these reminders.