Family, history and murder jostle for attention

The Lies We Shared by Sarah Penny. Penguin Books, South Africa, 2011.

There have been a number of excellent and successful books written about the experience of rural whites under Mugabe – Don’t Let’s Go To The Dogs Tonight by  Alexander Fuller, The Crocodile Eats The Sun by Peter Godwin, and The Last Resort by Douglas Rogers, to name a few. So I looked forward to seeing what The Lies We Shared would add.

It took a friend to point out that this book, unlike the others, is fiction, not memoir. I increasingly identify with E.L. Doctorow’s assertion that there is no fiction or non-fiction, there is only narrative. We appreciate any story that is well-constructed with vivid characters, evocative language and that, as Kafka asserts, is an “axe for the frozen sea within”, whether the author claims it happened or not. Fiction can be partially based on what actually occurred, and fiction that endures grapples with profound truths.

The protagonist in The Lies We Shared, Rebecca Falconer, grew up in rural Zimbabwe. She is steeped in the landscape and expects to take over the family farm, but when the government expropriates the land, she and her parents are forced into exile in Britain. When her mother dies, Rebecca comes across photographs and other objects that refer to her first marriage in Kenya, to a farmer who was murdered by a servant oathed to the Mau Mau rebellion. She visits the farm in Kenya to find out more about her mother, to whom she had never felt close. What she discovers forces her to radically review her assumptions.

The book is an amalgam of family saga, historical fiction and murder mystery. In Kenya, colonial life set up under the British Empire disintegrated during the time of the Mau Mau; the fury of the resistance movement was directed not only towards whites, but also towards black servants loyal to their employers, who suffered atrocities designed to intimidate and coerce support for the rebels. Rebecca’s mother leaves Kenya for Zimbabwe, where again she is faced with farm murders; again she must leave the land, this time for Britain.

The novel seems well-researched, is keenly observed and presents some stomach-turning, terrifying scenes of the experiences of white and black people at the hands of those employing violence to effect change. There is also insight into the kind of white abuse that might engender such hatred, for example, the “bomb boys” – farm workers’ children forced onto white vehicles so as to encourage the locals to betray the location of landmines. Although Rebecca is more awake to the problems of white rule over a dispossessed, disempowered majority than her racist parents, the novel does not present the Mau Mau or war vets in Zimbabwe as anything other than monsters. Which is, of course, the way the Falconer family and their ilk would have been seen by their attackers.

Seeing people as monsters allows for misinterpretation and scapegoating, as the novel reveals, and here the plotline becomes absorbing. However, I struggled with the first half of the novel, although it is competently written. My script editor used to say that every story starts with a person who has a problem. The title of the book The Lies We Shared is the first hook. Then we have a young woman in London who mourns Africa and feels a foreigner in the grey, rainy, built-up city; who gets panic attacks; who is single and wants a relationship; whose mother dies, and who discovers clues to her mother’s veiled past. That should be sufficient, but I found myself not particularly interested in a rather bland person whose only uncontrolled moment is to get drunk and sexually harass her employer. Her racist father provides more character, as well as humour, in an otherwise earnest book.

The murder mystery captured my attention, although I was not entirely convinced by Rebecca’s conclusion as to what happened that night years before she was born, nor the third party’s motivation for the cover-up. This aspect of the novel relies heavily on her extrapolation and explanation, which Rebecca claims as the truth. Which is perhaps what we do to try to make sense of the actions of those close to us, and of our own actions.

Her need to atone for her family’s sins leads her to seek out one of the people most affected. His response presents an interesting moment in that it is unexpected. It left me wondering what motivates revenge, forgiveness, or that other way something is put to rest: when life and circumstances have moved on, and the awful hurt inflicted has - for a myriad of reasons, some inexplicable - ceased to matter. Also, to what extent we are able, both as people and as writers, to put ourselves into another person’s shoes, and to deeply connect with what they might feel and do.

The Lies We Shared has strengths and weaknesses. At the outset of a book, I look to the originality of the prose and the way the narrative progresses, as much as to the characters and the content. Although much that the author observes serves to evoke place and ambience, the language and preoccupation with unnecessary or forced detail occasionally feel pedestrian, and some long monologues fail to capture character. Here I feel the editing fell short.

The book points towards the problems of guilt, responsibility and culpability — both political and personal — in postcolonial settings, and what people on both sides of the conflict managed to get away with. These are important issues, and The Lies We Shared makes a worthwhile contribution.