Bryony Rheam

Whatever happened to Rick Astley? by Bryony Rheam

Eluned Gramich reviews a vibrant new collection of short stories from one of Zimbabwe’s leading writers in the form, Bryony Rheam.

‘The afternoon hangs suspended in the drowsy heat of late October. The house is quiet with the softness of sleepers.’ So begins ‘Music from a Farther Room’, one of sixteen stunning stories in Zimbabwean writer Bryony Rheam’s collection, Whatever happened to Rick Astley? The themes of the story are echoed throughout the book: isolation, loss, and a profound dislocation; of not knowing whether it’s the place or the people that truly create a sense of belonging. This particular story focuses on Julia, an elderly woman sharing a house with her son and English daughter-in-law, newly arrived in Zimbabwe from the UK. It moves deftly between the two women’s perspective, full of curiosity and understanding for both points of view. It’s not simply a generational divide that complicates their relationship, but cultural and social differences too, leading to a profound loneliness for both of them. Rheam’s smooth, resonating prose captures the increasing solitude thus: Julia’s ‘children are scattered throughout the world, not one on African soil. They’ve all asked her to live with them … but she always shook her head and gave a little laugh. Gradually, they stopped asking.’

Rheam writes beautifully and skilfully about people whose lives have been affected by waves of migration and immigration; of the generational ebb and flow of people coming to, and leaving, Zimbabwe. One story in particular, ‘The Last Drink at the Bar’, sees a man visiting his homeland over the years from his job teaching in Wales, and each time he feels as though he is being pushed away, alienated, from the culture and community in which he was raised. His old drinking mates are suspicious of his desire to return; after all, shouldn’t he have everything he wants in the UK? Rheam explores the idea of belonging and un-belonging further by revealing the tensions in travel and tourism: ‘His was the oblivion of the tourist who sees only himself, the pivotal figure around which everything else revolves’, she writes of one character during his visit to Bristol, heavy with its history of the slave trade, its ‘Whiteladies Road’ and ‘Black Boy Hill’. In ‘The Fountain of Lethe’, a woman insists on bringing her family to a beloved holiday spot in Bulawayo, but the visit does not turn out to be what she had hoped: ‘What was it, that particular feel of hotel rooms? That mixture of holiday excitement and disappointment one wavered between.’ There are countless moments like these in the collection: sentences, wonderfully wrought, that illuminate everyday life.

This is Rheam’s third publication in Wales – following two successful novels This September Sun and All Come to Dust, both of which received major prizes. I enjoyed her novels, which are expansive and wide-ranging, but entering into the compact, complex, emotionally layered world of her stories, I was amazed by Rheam’s ability to move, and to create a deep sense of place, and character, in only a few pages. For me, one of the strongest stories is ‘Dignum et Justum est’, which follows two immigrant English teachers in Bulawayo as they travel towards very different fates: the story spans decades, yet it succeeds in giving a detailed portrait of the lives of these teachers, and the society to which they adapt – or fail to adapt. Rheam does this by employing a ‘light touch’; by never saying too much, or too little, which shows what a consummate writer she is. As for what happened to Rick Astley, you will have to read the collection, right to the last story, to find out.

Whatever Happened to Rick Astley? is available to buy here.