In the run up to the announcement of the winner of this year’s International Dylan Thomas Prize, Wales Arts Review will be publishing reviews of the six shortlisted titles, written by the students of the IDTPrize module at Swansea University. Second up is Bronte Leeks‘ review of Novuyo Rosa Tshuma’s novel House of Stone (Atlantic Books).
The module is the first English academic study in the world dedicated to a major literally prize and includes access for the students to authors and members of the publishing industry who run tutorials on subjects ranging from book marketing and publicity, to book prize logistics and sales in publishing to help students to explore how literary prizes help to produce, promote and celebrate contemporary writing.
House of Stone by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma explores the birth of Zimbabwe and the dangerous consequences of British Colonialism on Africa. The novel’s character arcs are set against the backdrop of war-torn Zimbabwe highlighting the consequence of war on the individual. Tshuma creates a vivacious and brutal account using sentences that drive the plot forward. The deep and comprehensive representation of African history is well developed with seasoned, vivid characters that dominate the text. The novel is unapologetically difficult to read as a level of knowledge surrounding African history, specifically Zimbabwean, is needed to fully understand House of Stone’s genius. However, through reading the novel Tshuma manages to detail her own personal experiences of Zimbabwe through her characters, which is arguably the novels greatest achievement.
Tshuma’s only other published work, Shadows (2013), is a short story collection that is also focused on the history of Zimbabwe. Though many of the themes can be adequately explored through her shorter stories and poetry, Tshuma uses the form of a novel in House of Stone to its fullest potential. The creation of the a well-rounded story is not only an entertaining read, but also successfully develops characters who are in control of their own lives, rather than allowing the history and context to lead them. The character arc of the novel’s narrator, Zamani clearly demonstrates Tshuma’s ability to write complex and interesting characters. Zamani’s personal quest to discover the secrets of his family, ultimately, results in his downfall. At the beginning of the novel he is introduced as a quiet and passive man, but as the plot powers forward he progresses into a villainous figure whose actions haunt other characters. It quickly becomes apparent that he is the central figure. Because of this, House Of Stone experiences a change in tone, as the reader is carried through the pages of the book with ease. This clear and clever writing is another example of Tshuma’s praiseworthy ability to control a reader’s focus.
Additionally, the central conflicts of the novel surround both Zamani’s desire to find his true family and the search for the missing son of Abednego and Agnes. A lack of familial roots is a common theme throughout African-American literature due to the slave trade and it is interesting to see this theme explored in African literature, where the loss of family is commonly now caused by civil conflicts.
The background of a revolutionary Zimbabwe haunts the novel and the characters are forced with the challenge of surviving in a world that is without heroes. Whilst the violence and brutality can at times be a difficult read, specifically the scene where Abednego finds piles of burnt bodies, Tshuma does an incredible job of detailing colonial crimes, not only in Zimbabwe but also throughout the continent of Africa. The subject of this novel is not one that can be sugar-coated, a responsibility which Tshuma has taken seriously. The aggressive and descriptive writing style seen during these moments differs significantly from the more gentle, character driven scenes, such as the blossoming romances. A fluid change in tone and voice is not easily achieved, but Tshuma manages to carry the reader through these variations with ease.
Tshuma’s depiction of an underrepresented history in Western literature in House of Stone is impactful and beautifully written. Though the modern history detailing the crimes of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe is heavily featured (a history that still causes great amounts of pain for residents of Zimbabwe) names of pre-colonial kingdoms such as the Mthwakazi are also referenced. The ability for a novel to do something new and exciting is rare, but it does take the reader to new fictional spaces, another success for Tshuma’s ability in writing place and setting. I would recommend keeping an electronic device with you whilst reading in order to google unfamiliar terms and events in order to be fully immersed. House of Stone is a brilliantly paced, exciting read that, though difficult, is thoroughly rewarding.