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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Harare North

Brian Chikwava

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To purchase Harare North

Title: Harare North
Author: Brian Chikwava
Genre: Novel
Written: 2009
Length: 230 pages
Availability: Harare North - US
Harare North - UK
Harare North - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B : voice nicely captured, solid portrait

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 25/4/2009 Aminatta Forna
The Independent . 24/4/2009 Margaret Busby
Independent on Sunday . 3/5/2009 Steve Bloomfield
New Statesman . 26/3/2009 Mary Fitzgerald
Sunday Times . 19/4/2009 Trevor Lewis

  Review Consensus:

  Fairly impressed, especially by voice

  From the Reviews:
  • "In his narrator Chikwava has created an utterly compelling anti-hero, who exploits and manipulates everyone around him while retaining a superb grandiosity ("I am a principled man!") and sense of entitlement. (...) Chikwava's great skills are his humour and his ability to create a powerful and original voice. (...) If there is a weakness, it is the lack of a driving narrative. But this is a minor criticism. Chikwava's narrator is mesmerising, an amoral chancer who meets his match not in a person, but a place -- in Harare North." - Aminatta Forna, The Guardian

  • "Chikwava has the talent to find lightness and comedy in the darkest desperation, drawing humour even out of wretchedness. He is particularly good at the unexpected perspective of newly-arrived outsiders confronted by English mores. (...) From first page to last, the vernacular narrative of Harare North is arresting, haunting, exciting, funny. Come to this novel with an open mind and, as well as giving you much to ponder about the nature of right and wrong, exile and belonging, it will surely make you go kak kak kak." - Margaret Busby, The Independent

  • "There are moments of levity, but this is a dark, unhappy novel. There are no good guys and few uplifting moments. Chikwava does not sugar-coat the immigrant's life. It is, for many, a depressing struggle with little possibility of improvement. But at least they got there safely." - Steve Bloomfield, Independent on Sunday

  • "In bringing to life the plight of those often marginalised by mainstream society, both writers have opened up a bleak -- yet urgently important -- social landscape. But this dark world is much better realised through Harare North’s wit and suggestiveness than through the name-checking of writers such as James Baldwin and Langston Hughes to which the characters in Forest Gate are prone. While Akinti has tried to shoehorn his tale into a particular tradition, Chikwava’s triumph comes from scrambling and reinventing it." - Mary Fitzgerald, New Statesman

  • "Chikwava has created a compelling protagonist, whose back-to-front English and spiky argot throw up sly, acidly comic observations on Zimbabwe’s ruined economy (...) and the currency of human misery that funds Britain’s black economy. Where the novel comes up short is in the thumbnail characterisation and the flatness of the story, the urgency of which we are forced to take at face value, since little of it is transmitted by the writing." - Trevor Lewis, Sunday Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Though set in London, Harare North is as much a Zimbabwean novel as it is an English one. Here distant Zimbabwe and its capital, Harare, are mired in the catastrophe unleashed by the misrule of Robert Mugabe, while the narrator has temporarily left for 'Harare North' -- London. (South Africa's Johannesburg is 'Harare South'.)
       The narrator begins his account -- after a brief Prologue -- with his arrival at Gatwick airport where, after mouthing "the magic word -- asylum", he is immediately detained. Though eventually allowed to officially enter England, the narrator is not, in fact, a proper asylum seeker. In fact, he's planning to head back to Zimbabwe as soon as possible -- or rather: as soon as he has earned the equivalent of US$5,000 that he needs -- $4,000 to pay off the authorities so that the criminal proceedings against him can be made to disappear, and $1,000 as reimbursement for his airfare.
       The narrator is not on the run from Mugabe: he did what he had to do, and joined the thuggish 'Green Bombers', and remains an apologist for the regime, arguing that those who support the opposition have it coming and that they should just go with the flow and the power -- i.e. Mugabe. He settles in with relatives, his cousin Paul and Paul's wife, Sekai, but they're not particularly thrilled to put him up. Eventually he joins an old friend, Shingi, in a Brixton squat, and works illegally (or using Shingi's legal papers) to make the money he needs.
       A manipulator, he has no problem in blackmailing Sekai when he finds out she is having an affair or undermining a budding relationship between Shingi and a young mother who lives in the squat with them. For the most part he makes do, getting work when he needs it or able to rely on others when absolutely necessary. It's a squalid existence but not an entirely miserable one -- but he, and most of those he deals with regularly, complicate matters with their distrust of one another and pettiness. So, for example, they revel in cutting Aleck, the man who acts as landlord of the squat, down to size when they find out he merely holds a lowly position, too.
       Accumulating money is not all that difficult (nor is spending it, and like most of the others, the narrator is willing to pitch in where necessary, whether sending money back to Zimbabwe to demanding relatives or when one of them is in trouble in London), but there's little actual joy. A rare scene of happiness comes on a London bus:

The warmth of bread against my body, together with it the happiness of discover the freedom to tear down loaf of bread on London bus, send message of goodwill to my bones. I feel free.
       The narrator moves between freedom and obligation: it would hardly be difficult for him to separate himself from all that holds him back and start a new life in Harare North, but his desire to get his criminal case fixed back home, and the obligations he feels, from holding the necessary ceremony for his dead mother to, eventually, helping Shingi all hold him back.
       A lot weighs on him, of course. As one person finally confronts him:
And stop hiding behind the memory of your mother so you don't have to face up to your real crimes back home.
       Some of his actions can be seen as attempts at atonement, but his manipulations also wreak havoc, ruining those around him -- most notably Shingi -- as well as tearing him apart.
       "Zimbabwe was a state of mind, not a country," he is told, and certainly Zimbabwe is his state of mind, cleverly getting by (if not particularly well) for a while, but ultimately falling completely apart.
       Harare North's narrator has a compelling voice, a slightly twisted English entirely appropriate to his story. The story itself is a bit thin, and devolves to easily by the end into completely squalid catastrophe -- but then that is an accurate reflection of the state of Zimbabwe itself.

- M.A.Orthofer, 25 July 2009

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Harare North: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of books from and about Africa
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction

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About the Author:

       Brian Chikwava was born in Zimbabwe in 1972.

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