Review published on May 16, 2018.
Shamisa barely remembers her life in Zimbabwe before her parents moved to Slough, a move made to enable her father to continue his work as a journalist, one who is prepared to be critical of the regime in his country of birth. Therefore, when the family is forced to return to Africa she desperately misses the only friends she has ever known. When they don’t keep in touch she can’t understand their lack of contact, especially as she thinks that they must realise what she is suffering following her father’s sudden death in a car crash. After his death she would like to return to the only home she has ever known but, without the necessary immigration papers, she and her mother are unable to travel back to Britain. Instead she is sent to boarding school and, feeling hurt about her friends’ apparent rejection, is convinced that friendships can’t be trusted so she is determined to remain aloof from her fellow pupils. However, Tanyaradzwa, a girl in her class whose life has also been turned upside down by a diagnosis of cancer, but who continues to hold onto the hope of a better future, persists in holding out the hand of friendship. Her persistence eventually starts to break through the defences Shamisa has erected, particularly once Tanyaradzwa reminds her that it was through his journalism that her father had offered people hope, reminding them that “hope is our only wing out of a stormy gale….”
This is a lesson which, for a long time, Shamisa finds hard to accept, believing that hope is a dangerous thing, something which leads only to further hurt and disappointment. However, without it, is it ever possible to come to terms with the past and to find ways of moving forward? For very different reasons, both girls must confront their fears, come to terms with the fact that in relationships people often make mistakes and accept the risks inherent in getting close to, and trusting, others. They must also recognise that it is only through the combination of understanding and a capacity for forgiveness that people are able to trust and to move on with their lives.
This story is set in Zimbabwe in 2008, a time of systemic corruption and of increasing political and social unrest. Rampant inflation has led to even middle-class Zimbabweans facing a daily struggle to afford food, to gain access to housing and healthcare and to cope with an erratic electricity supply. In times of such despair, holding onto hope isn’t easy, it requires determination and courage and in this debut novel the author manages to convey a very moving if, at times distressing, picture of daily life in the country which was once known as the “bread basket of Africa”. Central to this life is an acute awareness that anyone who opposes the dictatorial regime is in mortal danger. However, the author’s reflections on the political and social unrest never overwhelm the heart of this story which is, essentially, about the developing friendship between two young girls who are struggling to come to terms with loss, to trust in hope and to believe in a future which holds the promise of a better quality of life. Both Shamiso and Tanyaradzwa must confront their deepest fears if they are to cope with the challenges which confront them and I thought that the author captured their individual struggles in a convincing and very sensitive way. The developing friendship between them felt credible and at times very moving as each of them grappled with losses, both real and feared.
Although this book is aimed at a Young Adult readership and is written in a rather simple style, the story deals with some weighty themes, including grief, loss, life-threatening illness, corruption, poverty, food shortages, political assassinations, in a thought-provoking way and so is certainly one which can be appreciated by older readers. The author evoked a powerful sense of the countless deprivations people were facing in their daily lives as well as the searing heat they also had to contend with. This may be a rather short novel but it is a powerful one, one which is full of humanity and gentle wisdom – a paean to friendship and the need to retain a sense of hope, even during the darkest experiences of life. It is an impressive debut.
Linda Hepworth 4/4
Hope Is Our Only Wing by Rutendo Tavengerwei
Hot Key Books 9781471406867 pbk May 2018
Author meets Reviewer: Alice Pung meets Gill Chedgey