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Humanity in Its Beauty and Brokenness

Zimbabwean author and poet Chiedza Musengezi discusses Between Two Rivers:

Beattie explores our humanity in its beauty and brokenness through women’s voices. Fictional voices of the marginalised have been inserted in the recorded history of the country, not to create an alternative history but to add to its rich, multi-faceted texture.

Between Two Rivers is a novel set in Southern Rhodesia between the mid-fifties and the mid-seventies. It is a country bitterly divided along racial lines where great inequalities have led to an armed conflict between the Rhodesian army and the nationalist guerrillas. Despite being set in a particular country at a particular time, prejudice, privilege, politics, and power lead all too often to bitter conflict in our troubled world, and as such the characters and situations speak to us all.

This is not a novel with a single viewpoint. Three perspectives run concurrently, those of the three primary characters, Jenny, Beatrice, and Morag. It is as if the author is reminding us that whatever the differences of class, education, culture or ethnicity, the experience of being a woman – be it as a wife, a mother, a widow, a lover – is one which enables mutual understanding.

Jenny is a white married mother of two, living in one of Salisbury’s white middle-class suburbs, while her black nanny/housemaid, Beatrice, lives in a small kia without running water or electricity on Jenny’s property. The third woman, Morag, is a young Scottish doctor, and recent arrival. Having recently broken up with her boyfriend, and looking for something meaningful to fill the void, she jumped at the opportunity to assist in an urban medical practice and a township clinic, both owned by Jenny’s father. Despite their very different backgrounds, the paths of these three women merge and they lend support to each other.

Together these three female characters deepen the reader’s understanding of women across cultures and class, their concerns, and what matters to them, especially in times of conflict. Beattie writes with great sensitivity and perception. Jenny, an apparently meek wife, puts up with spousal abuse to keep up appearances, which offers an indirect reflection of Rhodesian cultural values – though one wonder if there is any society in the world where abused women are not encouraged to sacrifice themselves so as not to bring stigma on their families. Morag, although ignorant of Rhodesian mores, local cultures and the country’s challenging history comes from a liberal Jewish family. Therefore, as an educated outsider, she can interrogate her different milieu and ask the unspoken questions. Beatrice, ‘Mama Africa’, raises her white charges with loving generosity while her own children grow up in the care of her mother in the rural areas. Her mounting anger gives her the strength to defend herself. First, against her abusive husband, who works in South Africa but does not send any money home to support the family. Secondly, as a profoundly empathetic woman whose life is hard, she can understand her employer’s pain, as she defends Jenny against her husband’s retributions. Third – and what for me resonated most strongly – she leaves her poorly paid employment in defence of her own independence and freedom.

Beattie’s subtle, layered, portrayal of her characters offers the reader a complex portrayal of society – or societies – and a small self-enclosed, self-absorbed nation fighting for its survival against its history, its people and its future.

The author inhabits characters across the barriers of race, class, gender and religion as they interact with each other. In doing so, she challenges the idea that one cannot and should not write beyond one’s own narrow frame of reference and experience; as if writers should not think out of the box, do research, and cannot empathise or show imagination. I found her characters credible, illuminating a conflicted period of Zimbabwe’s social history. It is, in fact, the layered themes of Beattie’s writing that make her novel such an immersive read.

‘What does a woman do when her son goes to war?’ reads the first sentence of the first chapter. A rhetorical question, it is the one that captures the mood of the novel, a tension that the writer creates and maintains throughout. Anxiety, fear, uncertainty, and sometimes helplessness intimate a strong underlying sense of danger, which is as discomforting as it is compelling. The war for independence was at its height in 1976 Rhodesia. Young white men faced conscription, not to join up was to be labelled a ‘traitor’ and held beneath contempt. Young black men and women quietly crossed the border into Botswana, Mozambique or Zambia to join the liberation struggle, often without telling their mothers they were going. All the women agonised that they might never see their children again.

War affects everyone. The main protagonists do not score huge victories. Genes, family history, expectations, trauma, along with the political and social environment all play a part in the unfolding narrative. Beattie does not flinch from scenes of domestic violence or the brutalities of war: the wanton loss of life in the villages, at the Catholic Mission or on the white commercial farms. She does not privilege the suffering of one community over the other. When a war-injured young Rhodesian white soldier and a comrade are brought to the mission hospital for medical help, they are both in pain and are frightened for their lives. Both cry out for their mothers. Her sensitivity encourages the reader to empathize with all the victims; to think beyond narrow binaries. Similarly, Beattie does not shy away from the language of the period, which can also be brutal. Racial slurs such as ‘bloody munts’, ‘gooks’, ‘floppies’, ‘piccanins’ lend an authenticity to a society where control depended on diminishing the other.

Though burdened with (terror of) violence, there are many small moments of joy or happiness, reminding us of their transience while nourishing our memories of that which is restorative. Between Two Rivers is written with tenderness but also with rigour. Beattie explores our humanity in its beauty and brokenness through women’s voices. Fictional voices of the marginalised have been inserted in the recorded history of the country, not to create an alternative history but to add to its rich, multi-faceted texture.

Salisbury in the 1950s (copyright Veteran Rhodie) and modern Harare (copyright Hayward Scott)

Between Two Rivers is published in Zimbabwe by Weaver Press and distributed in Zambia by Gadsden Publishers. It is available to buy from the author's website or from Amazon and other bookshops.

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