The White Shadow by Andrea Eames review

by Louise O'Brien / 21 July, 2012
<em>The White Shadow</em> begins with verve and never pauses to draw breath as its narrator tells the story of how he came to be hiding inside the cavernous ribcage of a rotting elephant, says Louise O'Brien.
The second novel by Andrea Eames, The White Shadow begins with verve and never pauses to draw breath as its narrator tells the story of how he came to be hiding inside the cavernous ribcage of a rotting elephant, all alone and “hugging rock-grazed knees”. This is great writing: evocative and vivid, suspenseful and tender, and always as compelling as that very first sentence. In rural Zimbabwe in the 1960s, Tinashe is a young Shona boy whose life revolves around the extraordinary younger sister he is charged with protecting.

Hazvinei – a name for an unwanted girl-child meaning “it does not matter” – is blessed and cursed with the attentions of the spirit world. An unnaturally knowing child right from her birth, and endowed with unusual abilities at once fearsome and captivating, she both seeks and attracts disaster, seeming to bring bad luck on her family and friends. Her smouldering character is compellingly irresistible, and Tinashe’s increasingly desperate efforts to save her – even when he realises he fails to understand her – are just heartbreaking.

The world the siblings live in is beset on all sides, and potential disaster comes from all directions. It’s a world populated by both witches and policemen, by ancestral spirits and guerrilla fighters, a society caught between a traditional rural life and a Western urbanised one. The transition between those two is political as well as social, and often violent, too, as the decolonisation and independence of Zimbabwe is born in civil war. But Eames manages to keep this very weighty context well-contained; its effects are ever-present, sometimes even determining, but the political never overwhelms the personal in The White Shadow, and so one ends up caring deeply about these wonderful characters.

THE WHITE SHADOW, by Andrea Eames (Harvill Secker, $34.99).

Louise O’Brien is a Wellington reviewer.

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