Before I begin this review, I want to tell a small anecdotal story: while skyping with my father one evening, I mentioned to him that I was reading a Zambian novel called “Patchwork”. I claimed it was a novel that dealt with such issues as “alcoholism, the stigma of being a child conceived through infidelity, class, the subtle stress of having a bully father, child molestation and domestic abuse”. My father responded in a bewildered voice: “Oh wow, that´s a lot of heavy subjects for one book to deal with. How long is it?”. “216 pages long” I said before adding: “Also, one of the protagonist´s friends dies due to an unsafe, illegal abortion”. My father was stunned by this bleak description.
For it is true, “Patchwork” is perhaps one of the most pessimistic books I´ve read in quite a while. It is also a book that truly stays in a reader´s mind and is very difficult to put down. It deals with stigma, class, family dynamics, mental health and the negative consequences of insecurity.
The opening lines in itself already say so much and are so intriguing: “I´m two different people according to the register of births. My birth was registered twice”. The main protagonist explains that her mother named her Natasha, but her father named her Pezo. However, everyone calls her Pumpkin. Pumpkin has always known that she is what´s considered “bad seed”. This leads her to being spiteful towards her neighbor’s children, who are partially her friends and partially victims to her bullying. Pumpkin insists to her friends that her rich self-made father brings her gifts and expensive dolls, but in her inner monologue she admits to herself the sad truth of not even beginning to be in any consideration to her father’s – Tata’s – priority. This situation is worsened by her mother’s alcoholism, which has tainted the previously loving relationship between daughter and mother: “I lay a towel lengthways on the floor. It used to be fluffy and pink. Ma used to wrap it round me and lift me out of the bath. She would jokingly ask me to hold it tight around myself so that no one could see my ´secret´. Now the towel is flat more cream than pink but it still keeps a secret”.
Despite Pumpkins and her mother’s best efforts, Tata finds out about the mothers alcoholism and at once takes Pumpkin to live with him, without asking his wife beforehand and despite Pumpkins mothers pleading to keep her child. There Pumpkin meets Mama T, her father’s self-centered wife and Sissi, a Zimbabwean housekeeper who takes a liking to Pumpkin.
At the new home for Pumpkin the nature of Tata’s a bully and pompous nature comes to blatantly reveal itself, and Mama T wallows and spews in open resentment towards the newly displaced Pumpkin. Pumpkin herself responds to this by committing to the fact of family hate and dysfunction directed towards her, and becomes the awful child image imposed on her. In one truly horrifying scene Pumpkin gets a man fired after betraying a promise to the same worker´s daughter – despite that it will probably lead to this family to starve. In an ordinary case this narrative device of the horrific protagonist – and sensitively dead, morally diseased secondary characters – would make a book falter due to its lack of a sympathetic ground and an ethical vertigo fundamentally embedded in the story arc; however Ms. Banda-Aaku´s beautiful prose and psychological insights guide the reader through the messy lives of these frightful and unappealing people.
The novel carefully shows Pumpkins internal torment and fright. She is in need to have her father talk to her, but he is oblivious to her. Mama T is clearly hurt by her husband’s betrayals and lives in a sphere of utter disrespect created for her by the distains of the patriarch (in one scene he maliciously mocks her activities at the church when she isn´t present). The characters are so superbly written, it´s psychological authentic feeling reminds me off Jelinek or even Dostoyevsky.
Banda-Aaku even deconstructs a number of common tropes in the narrative trajectory. For instance Pumpkins Grandmother, Grandma Ponga, is first introduced as a powerful, strong woman who takes no nonsense from anyone. But it is revealed in the unfolding of the novel that the grandmother secretly resents Pumpkin for causing a scandal in the family. Pumpkin states that while Grandma Ponga is kind to her, the grandmother’s overt and condemning body language places her continually in the depressing depths of self doubt and on the cusp of a constant nagging apology for her personhood. That Grandma Ponga owns a tavern is shown to both make her a cool old lady and a figure of fear: her fights with unpleasant customers are shown as both as awe inspiring in their steadfast resolve, but also as petrifying memories of uncontrolled, impulsive violence for Pumpkin.
Another character that toys with the readers expectations is Sissi, the housekeeper at Tata´s. While at first Sissi seems happy with her job and to love the family she works for, to be a stable person of few problems, it is soon shown not to encompass the entire truth. Sissi lives in the shadow of an alcoholic and abusive boyfriend who, despite that he drinks away all her money, she can´t find the strength to leave, since she loves him, as she explains to Pumpkin: “Love and hate are same-same”. Sissi also embraces a missing former husband who traveled to Zaire to find a fortune for his family and promised to return to endow Sissi with a slew of “emeralds”. The narration makes it clear that this husband is most likely dead, yet Sissi, turning face from the discouraging truth and reality, stumbles on in the dead dreams of denial: “He promised her he would be back and she´s still waiting. She often says, ´the day he comes back for me my days of washing clothes, polishing floors and referring fights in Tata´s house is over”. Despite her brave face, Sissi feels as much pain as the rest, and is no stereotypical domestic worker who only lives for her boss´ family.
There are brief descriptions of the Rhodesian war of independence which Zambia was partially involved in. It consisted of giving refuge to Zimbabwean rebels, which meant that the white colonizers eventually start bombing in Zambia as well. When bombings take place at Tata´s farm, Mama T enacts her most horrifying behavior in the entire book sending the family careening from the horror of war to the horror of the brutal family and back again.
In the later section of the novel we follow Pumpkin as a grown up having negotiated this deadly terrain of her childhood. She has become a woman locked into her past and we travel her adult life through an uncontrollable jealousy dissolving her marriage and a forlorn path of destructive decisions dovetailing in wounds to herself and those about her. Though passing off pains and deceits to the circle of friends and lovers about her, Pumpkin’s mind steps back from the horror of her own action’s and she ineffectually fumes at herself for these shows of torment visited on others.
It is also revealed that one of her playmates, Bee (who it was hinted at was being molested by the houseboy in the neighborhood at the early age of 12), was impregnated by a houseboy and had her first child at age 14. Pumpkin’s mother and grandmothers reactions to this abuse show both disquieting discomfort and horrific rationalizations of how Bee was probably fine with it coming finally to a mild concern that Pumpkin may have also been one of the houseboy’s victims. It is hinted that the adults’ can´t deal with failing the girl, and fear that they neglected the other children as well.
The book, not to reveal too much, has also a moment where the writing takes a certain skeptical turn. Pumpkin, due to several complications, comes to believe, near the end of the book, that she together with Bee´s mother has cast a curse. In her panic she explains this belief to Bee. However Bee rejects this idea as a paradoxical mixture of unaware superstition and mindful manipulation: “My mother is a herbalist and, yes, she has a strong sense of intuition, but she also sees a lot of things the rest of us don´t. if I took note of all the so-called evil spirits my mother sees around me I would spend my days carrying out endless rituals to get rid off them”. Bee says there are a lot of mind games in her mother’s work, which involve cold reading. It is very similar to the way so-called mediums, psychics and fortune tellers in the West operate. This struck my interest in that it is one of the first books written by an African writer to discuss skeptic viewpoints in a sympathetic way; Bee´s words ease Pumpkin´s guilt. This scene made me wonder if there will be featured more skeptic viewpoints in the future of African literature. Naturally, it would be good to also add here that atheist and skeptic themes are rare in all forms of literary fiction (and I haven´t read any of Wole Soyinka’s works yet, who supposedly talks about his agnosticism/atheism in his memoir).
This book is full of little moments and reflections on many more issues than I can mention in this blog post. It is intense, complex, sad and thought provoking. It is cynical in that mistakes are continually made, communication is neglected and past secrets remain secrets. A bitter take on humans, “Patchwork” claims that some relationships are broken beyond repair.