The Stone Virgins

Yvonne Vera
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux ($18)

by Christopher J. Lee

In The Stone Virgins, Yvonne Vera describes the sense of courage held by her two sister protagonists as similar to "sliding their hands in the cotton-soft coolness of ash, where, it is possible, a flame might sparkle and burn." This too is an apt description of what reading Yvonne Vera's writing is like. For readers unfamiliar with her work, Vera is a writer from Zimbabwe who has quickly established an international reputation through a series of books published in the 1990s, in particular Butterfly Burning and two novellas that have recently been re-released together as Without a Name and Under the Tongue. In a now signature style that places more emphasis on tone and symbolism than social realism, Vera's new novel guides the reader through an African landscape filled with pervasive beauty and moments of unexpected violence in equal measure. The result is a story that possesses its own sense of courage by choosing to explore emotions over historical detail when the latter would be an easier narrative option.

The Stone Virgins concerns the recent history of Zimbabwe, particularly the period after 1980 when white-minority rule ended following the prolonged Chimurenga liberation struggle. Historically this was a time of uncertainty and political violence between competing African parties. Despite the potential richness of this material for a social novel in the mode of Ousmane Sembene or Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Vera chooses instead to center the meaning of this period on the lives of two sisters, Thenjiwe and Nonceba, and through their experiences she underscores the psychological impact this period of transition had on common lives. This is a risky choice, in so far that some readers may be discouraged by the lack of contextual detail to situate the story. But this move also constitutes one of Vera's main contributions as an African writer: to explore the emotional experience accumulated by people and its personal meaning, beyond what surrounding facts of history might tell. In her words, "It is an intimate quest."

Named after English poets and lined with blossoming jacaranda, the streets of Bulawayo provide the initial setting for the novel, conveying senses of history, beauty, and order that contrast with later themes of violence, trauma, and recovery. The story quickly moves to the rural town of Kezi, where Vera invokes the primary events and imagery that define the lives of Thenjiwe and Nonceba. There are three situations in particular: a brief, if passionate, romance between Thenjiwe and a man named Cephas; the death of Thenjiwe and the near-death of Nonceba at the hands of a soldier named Sibaso; and the hospital recovery of Nonceba from this experience. The story is told from the perspectives of these characters, though in Vera's hands, the landscape that surrounds them, real and imagined, plays a crucial role in articulating the meaning of these experiences. In one passage, for example, Vera writes:

Among the rocks. Hidden. Everything is infinite; it is there, not you. The rocks continue in their immortal strength. You are separate. Transient. Human strength rises and wanes. Even at its summit, our strength is not rock: igneous. The mind is perishable. Memory lingers, somewhere, in fragments.

Here the natural world conjures a sense of stability and solace that is not found elsewhere. In a later scene of soldiers, Vera describes their behavior in the following terms:

They committed evil as though it were a legitimate pursuit, a ritual for their own convictions. Each move meant to shock, to cure the naïve mind. The mind not supposed to survive it, to retell it, but to perish. They flee, those men who witnessed Thandabantu burn. They flee from a pulsing in their own minds.

This frequent juxtaposition between the persistence of nature and man's weakening resolve in the face of violence forms one of the central dramatic tensions of this novel. It fills the emotional space that preoccupies Vera's characters as they attempt to reconcile a traumatic past that is still too recent to comprehend fully.

Vera is known for her lush lyricism, as these passages briefly illustrate, and this approach—though it can lend a certain sluggishness at moments—fits with her concern for charting emotions over factual detail. Her greatest strength is pointing out the connections between eros and violence, the intimacy and consequently the destabilizing effects of both. Such intimacy creates personal connections that can be both fatal and redemptive, as Thenjiwe and Nonceba experience by the end of the novel. This is a realm that is not often articulated in a body of literature that can too frequently lean on—and is too frequently interpreted for—political, cultural, and historical detail. Vera's attempt to move beyond this surface, as expressed through the struggles of her characters, constitutes the main achievement of this intense and challenging novel.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003