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An Angel’s Demise by Sue Nyathi

“This time there was no press coverage of what transpired, the events unfolding almost in obscurity but forever etched in the minds of those who were involved.” (Page 161)

Whenever you read a book by Sue Nyathi, you know that two things are guaranteed: drama and heartbreak. From Jonasi’s escapades that yield to tragic consequences in The Polygamist, the life-threatening search for greener pastures across the border in The Gold Diggers, to the scandalous and devastating life of the Mafus in A Family Affair, her pen knows no bounds. Sue Nyathi does it again in her latest book, An Angel’s Demise. Through various generations and a historical lens, Nyathi explores the war, independence, the land question, greed, family, spirituality, and the quest for freedom. There is much to say about this book, yet what gripped me the most was Nyathi’s take on Zimbabwe's political history and women's participation in the war. I will limit my review to those two aspects.

In a story about a contested legacy, Nyathi weaves into the plot, historical events that many may view as merely political. She shows that not only do those political events have an impact on the destiny of a nation, but they also have a real effect on its people, ‘Living in the camps, Douglas had been separated from society for a long time and seeing so many people in one place made him nervous. Suddenly, there was a loud crackling sound in the bus, and instinctively, Douglas dived to the floor.’ (page 120). Nyathi leaves no stone unturned as she introduces the reader to characters that go through the waves of life from colonial to independent Zimbabwe. She offers the reader both an individual and collective insight. From the colonization of Southern Rhodesia, the liberation struggle, independence, Gukurahundi, the Unity Accord, land reform programme, and operation Murambatsvina to the government of national unity, Nyathi is in conversation with Zimbabwe’s complex history. What is important is that Nyathi is also in a critical and valuable conversation with some Zimbabwean writers who have explored the same history.

In the prologue, one can see that the protagonist is in a situation where the winds have changed for the worse for her. This took me back to the points made by Tsitsi Dangarembga in Black and Female (violence against women by the state is an everyday experience for some, and no matter how privileged they may be, proximity to power in a predatory patriarchal society does not mean safety from those experiences). Once isolated from his community, Douglas, a returned war veteran, grapples with assimilating into civilian life and continuing where he left off. One cannot help but think of Shimmer Chinodya’s Benjamin in Harvest of Thorns (the effect of the war on its participants, their struggle to reconcile what they fought for and what the independent state offers them in reality). Nyathi details the events of the battles of Emtumbane and the deployment of the 5th Brigade in Matabeleland. In this harrowing narration of Gukurahundi and its devastating legacy in Matabeleland, Novuyo Rosa Tshuma’s House of Stone and Noviolet Bulawayo’s Glory also echo (one is taken back to the concerns against erasure and importance of the collective memory, speaking of the 'unspeakable'). Paul Williams, Melanie Williams, and the community at Belle Acres living discrepant lives, the master and his workers on the same land, took me back to Yvonne Vera’s short story, ‘Crossing Boundaries’ in Why Don't You Carve Other Animals (the reader is given an immediate and intimate perspective on identity and belonging in the context of land across Zimbabwe’s history). These themes are relevant, and Nyathi convincingly writes this story.

Nyathi spotlights African women’s histories. Angel is not just Angel Williams. She is also Velile, the great-granddaughter of Mabusi, the granddaughter of Khiwa, and the daughter of Simphiwe and Douglas, whose exhilarating love relationship is cut off by an act of sacrifice to free their nation from colonial rule. Angel Williams is also the daughter of Melanie and Adrienne’s sister. Simphiwe’s story opens the door into the lives of Zimbabwe’s women guerilla fighters, whose contribution is sometimes minimized or erased (depending on who controls the narrative). Still, Nyathi gives them space and takes their stories seriously. Women played a crucial role in the liberation struggle, and in this text, one can see that their contribution is not limited to cooking and serving their counterparts. Nyathi gives the reader a vivid picture of women training in camps through rain and sunshine, “The commander laughed. ‘You think the enemy will spare you in the bush because of your periods? The Rhodesians aren't moved by menstrual blood.’” (page 84) There is a glimpse of the contribution of women combats in the South African liberation struggle in the story of Nonku, an uMkhonto weSizwe recruit stationed in Russia for military training.

Nyathi acknowledges the universal contribution of women in liberation struggles, something that I am deeply interested in and have had the opportunity to learn about in other texts, such as first-hand testimonials in Siphokazi Magadla’s Guerillas and Combative Mothers: Women and the Armed Struggle in South Africa. Lives were lost, and many still bear the scars from the war. Simphiwe joins the struggle, which tremendously affects Angel Velile’s life, leaving her with her grandmother. This leads to a portrayal of the women who stayed behind. Though some may not consider that act as participation in the war, I think it is a valuable contribution as they stayed to cater to those in the bush, to take care of their children, grandchildren, and the nation's future. Irene Staunton’s Mothers of the Revolution, a compilation of testimonials by Zimbabwean women who contributed to the war, further spotlights this. The portrayal of women's contributions is critical if one looks at the nature of women's current political participation and the bars to it. Nyathi's space for the contribution of women is a work of restoration and resistance to erasure.

I enjoy Sue Nyathi’s writing; An Angel’s Demise does not disappoint. It is a long text divided into five parts ( The Genesis, The Road to Liberation, The Democratic Dream, The Occupation, and The Afterlife). It will ask much from you but give you a great reading experience. The epigraphs at the beginning of each part were a lovely addition and aligned with the plot. I prefer my reads to be around 250 pages, but this was worth it. Angel is not a saint; hers is a complicated life, but aren’t we all finding ourselves in this unpredictable life? An Angel’s Demise is a beautifully written and powerful book I highly recommend.


Book Details

Title: An Angel’s Demise

Genre: Fiction

Authors: Sue Nyathi

Publisher: Pan MacMillan South Africa (2022)

Pages: 346

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