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The Quality of Mercy by Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu

‘There is a particular way a person with something to hide opens a door. They crack the door just enough so you can see their face, especially their eyes - the guilty ones look directly into your eyes, trying to gauge what it is that you already know. This person with something to hide usually places as much of their body as they can behind the door, and never removes their hand from the door handle.’ (page 214)

Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu gave me one of my favourite books ever ‘The Theory of Flight,’ and even after reading ‘The History of Man,’ I was still in awe. In The Quality of Mercy, Ndlovu does it again, I get that same feeling of satisfaction that I had in 2020. But here’s the thing, this story impacts me more than the first two books do. I know the year has just begun, but I am calling it, The Quality of Mercy is one of my favourite books of the year, I know an exceptionally written book when I see one. Ndlovu has a seamless way of writing a story to create a beautiful body of work filled with immeasurable goodness and thought provoking nuggets. Ndlovu’s descriptive writing holds a reader’s attention because the senses, emotions and dates used serve the story and are not misplaced. When Spokes tastes that spoonful of dumpling and chicken broth, I could vividly see him taste it while closing his eyes and I even savoured it with him! The corner of Lobengula Street and Selbourne Avenue is a place of dreams and promises for Spokes and the emotions described there help the reader see the vision. The Quality of Mercy is divided into two parts Cleave and Cleave, yes! The epilogue and the prologue do great justice to the story. Don’t we just treasure grandmother’s who tell/told us stories? Ndlovu reinforces that storytelling is important be it from our oral traditions or the archiving that we are doing right now as we write and publish.

In seemingly unrelated circumstances, different characters are linked to give the dead a voice, righting the wrongs of the past and uncovering the truth. Spokes and Saskia become unlikely allies in the search for truth and the desire to reveal it. Although their reasons for the search are different one thing remains the same, what concerns them is the truth. “The dead need not be silent forever; past wrongs need not go unpunished; the truth need not remain hidden. Justice had to prevail” (pp. 367-68). In the story of a changing nation are the mirrors of characters who must face this change and to a greater extent face themselves. What is the quality of mercy and just how much can it do? Spokes Moloi gets from his grandfather and father the inheritance of being hung by the neck but chooses to live his life disowning it by pursuing justice. This had me wondering what Saskia Hargrave inherits from her mother and father, what Everleigh inherits from his parents Emil and Kuki Coetzee, what Dikeledi inherits from her mother Daisy. The underlying desire in all these characters is some form of freedom. The text begins with exploring what happens to the women and men of this story after the war. For some the war is paradoxically the one thing that unites the country, for others “independence” bears the promise of a dream and others an unimaginable future that sees them packing away their belongings to take them across oceans.

The systems of power from the colonial, independence and post independence periods are something that Ndlovu continues to question throughout her books. The ‘Man Himself’ changes but the nature and vice of absolute power does not change, the abuse and the greediness remains in tact. It doesn’t matter if it’s Emil, Mthimkulu or someone else else. “A place changes its character many times within its lifetime, and with each metamorphosis it asks those within it to change along with it. This is a choice, although those who hold power never present it as such. A person can choose to let go and follow the tide of change, and a person can choose to hold on to herself or himself” (page 371) We’ve seen it play in real life in moments when the promise of change is soon taken away by the realization that the persons holding the reins of power may change but if the way power is used does not change then the plight of the citizens remains the same. If the power is not used to serve but to abuse then freedom remains an elusive dream.

I love the multilayered women in this text, there are more than characters that meet you in a book with a story to say. It’s in the hidden truths that they seek to reveal, the pasts that they have led that they learn from and the desire for justice to do right by themselves. Yet even when a reader deems them unworthy, sees their actions as unwarranted these women come bearing reasons for their actions. As one watches them go through life with the impending ‘Independence,’ their transformative effect cannot be denied. Loveness, Saskia, Dikeledi and Marion left me with a lot to say. The lovely Loveness, who is headstrong in creating a life of her own in the face of overwhelming societal expectations. The cunning Saskia with the uncertainty of her father in her eyes and a heart full of vengeance. The terrified Dikeledi who decides that leaning, the softness and gentleness of womanhood are none of her business. The swept Marion Hartley whose belief in eternal love keeps her hoping to see her lover again. What redeems these characters who are at times very easy to dislike is their honesty in their humanity.

From the stunning cover to the unpredictable storyline and the careful yet vivid painting of the City of Kings in words, Ndlovu gives me back the joy and thrill of reading: Siphiwe, thank you. Easily one of my favourite writers and an important storyteller. There are no minor characters in ‘The Quality of Mercy,’ no matter how brief or long an appearance is, each character stays with you and is major in its own right. It takes intentional storytelling to do that. I paced myself through this text and I enjoyed the historical aspects of the story. The hurt of the characters is haunting, there is a chilling transition from colonial rule to independent rule, to the post independence period filled with so many uncertainties and a terrifying genocide which tells a story of a nation still needing healing. I am grateful for all the research that went into this work. Meeting some of the characters from ‘The Theory of Flight’ and ‘The History of Man,’ once again was such a sweet sweet bonus. Remember, that special place on my bookshelf, this book has found a home there and I’ll definitely be reading it again! All I can say is you need to read ‘The Quality of Mercy.’ Flawless. Fulfilling.


Book Details

Title: The Quality of Mercy

Genre: Fiction

Authors: Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu

Publisher: Penguin Random House (2022)

Pages: 383

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