Evening Primrose by Kopano Matlwa (Quercus, 2018)
Review by Greg Bem
How viscous the blood must be. It carries so much in it. Stories swirling round and round our veins, up into our hearts, at least a zillion times a day. Stories of men going into cities, men in men, men in women, women in men, children in women, men in children. Strangers living in each other’s arteries, sharing intimacies, sharing pain, sharing anger, sharing hatred, sharing resentment, sharing loss.
The systems and patterns of love, harmony, resentment, and chaos of contemporary South Africa are emotionally and rigorously explored through a challenging Bildungsroman in Kopano Matlwa’s latest work. The story is large, brutal, and beautiful, contextual to its place and also universal in the brightness of its process of awakening.
This novella in four parts corresponds with major moments of protagonist Masechaba’s childhood and adolescence. The book follows Masechaba in a journal form, held in her voice, exploring early reflections on menstruation, movement towards independent living with best friend and academic peer Nyasha, a traumatic and expansively grotesque moment of sexual violence, and movement towards resolution through spiritual bonding to lead toward peace through motherhood.
As a brief and blunt description of a turbulent present-day South Africa, the book is both spiritual and political in contents and in tones. As a portrayal of the journey through early womanhood, the book is both empathetic and stunning. Matlwa’s enmeshing of both these extreme functions of the book is equally heartful and intellectual. The work breathes through the intersection of the struggles between society and the individual, between knowing and unknowing, between balance and destabilization passively and aggressively.
Ma says I must leave them there, the patients. I must walk in their shoes, but try not to bring their shoes home. So I leave them there, stuck between the soiled sheets and the sandwich hidden for the day an appetite returns, between toilets caked in shit and the soap dispenser that only worked once, the day the minister came to visit. But I fail at walking in their shoes. They have no shoes, Ma. How can I walk in their shoes when they have no shoes?
From the beginning of Evening Primrose, Masechaba’s endearing and honest voice encourages the reader to stay focused and trusting of the encountered stories and experiences. The protagonist explores the life she leads on her own and by way of family and colleagues. Her brother Tshiamo’s early suicide reinforces a general sorrow and resentment found throughout the book and its many conflicts. Bonds between Masechaba and her mother are inspiringly feminine, and yet not without their own tensions. Nyasha lingers as a voice of political concern but also irrationality and extremism.
The narrative reads with allegorical distinction, each character symbolic of their own revolving world, each activity and action carrying the weights and pressures of subtext and emerging meaning. From the beginning these additional layers of characterization form the many conversations the characters have, both verbally and existentially. Masechaba encounters difficulty between understanding and accepting tradition and encountering the antagonistic realities of her country and its own daily evolutions. Xenophobia, racism, religion, and post-apartheid South Africa is dauntingly experienced through our protagonist’s daily life, and yet it is balanced by way of her own commitment toward a profession and a future.
Masechaba’s plunge into a career as a doctor results in challenging dialogues on ethics, care, and acceptance. Faced with the grueling realities of the pain and torment of those she must help within the hospital she works, Masechaba fully endures and painfully comes to understand her many strengths and her many imperfections. When, mid-way through the story, she becomes the victim of a violent sexual act, she must face everything she has grown to know and re-examine everything she has grown up through to that point. The agony is severe and relentless. The naturalism of Matlwa’s writing is difficult, and yet reflects well the short form of the book.
Why do You want to see us grovel? Why must we break first into millions of pieces before You shovel us off the floor? Why must we shatter first before You react? Why must we pray for things that are obvious? Wasn’t it obvious that I needed You to save me?
While readers of Evening Primrose may find it difficult coming to terms with the South African context and the crippling realities of the book’s heroine, the story does, through its resolve, succeed in embedding many ideas, mostly unanswerable questions, as a form of resolution and growth. The symbolic moments of motherhood that resonate as cycles by the book’s end take on a fullness beautifully and painfully resonate of the life of the everyday, of every person. Matlwa writes with a commitment to portraying the relationship of beauty and pain from the most mundane to the most critical.
An ultimate gesture toward the living complication of forgiveness and the under-valued, subtle explorations of grief, this book falls in line with the likes of other short-novel writers like Hesse, Danticat, Mann, and Morrison. The book manages to sit on its own and bear the weight of severe emotional brevity, just as the scenes and situations described within its covers do the same for its characters. Evening Primrose is a marvelous gift for its readers, one that flows like blood, confesses like ink, and awakens like a new day.
All reviews by Greg Bem unless marked otherwise.
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