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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Nervous Conditions

Tsitsi Dangarembga

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To purchase Nervous Conditions

Title: Nervous Conditions
Author: Tsitsi Dangarembga
Genre: Novel
Written: 1988
Length: 212 pages
Availability: Nervous Conditions - US
Nervous Conditions - UK
Nervous Conditions - Canada
Nervous Conditions - India
A fleur de peau - France
Der Preis der Freiheit - Deutschland
La nuova me - Italia
Condiciones nerviosas - España
  • With an Introduction by Kwame Anthony Appiah
  • Wit a Q & A with the author

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Our Assessment:

B+ : strong writing; insightful about the time and culture(s)

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 20/10/2004 Elena Seymenliyska
Publishers Weekly . 27/2/1989 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "A coming-of-age story, it ticks all the right boxes for student essayists -- colonialism, gender, race -- and provides a mine of information about Shona customs. Its appeal to lay readers lies with the guileless Tambu" - Elena Seymenliyska, The Guardian

  • "In many ways, this novel becomes Tambu's keening -- a resonant, eloquent tribute to the women in her life, and to their losses." - Publishers Weekly

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:

       Nervous Conditions is narrated by Tambudzai (also called Tambu), and centers on her teen years, in the late 1960s and early 1970s (in what is then still colonial Rhodesia). It begins strikingly, the opening sentence the admission: "I was not sorry when my brother died". She notes that she is writing retrospectively, from a different time and place in her life, with a different understanding, but she is very much aware that her brother's death was central to: "the events that put me in a position to write this account".
       Tambu's parents take care of their family, but live humbly and don't have the money to spend on anything beyond primary schooling for their children. Her father seems happy enough just getting by, and shows no great ambition. The great success in the family has been his brother, Tambu's uncle, Babamukuru, who, with the help of missionaries, was able to continue his schooling to university levels, getting degrees first in South Africa and then in England, from where he returned in 1965, after a stay of five years. Babamukuru helps further Nhamo's schooling -- though that means taking him away from home and allowing him to study at the mission school where Babamukuru is headmaster.
       When Tambu's parents don't have the funds to continue her schooling she even tries to raise them herself, growing maize on a small plot. (Successful in obtaining the funds, she is also helped by the headmaster, who holds onto the money and then regularly deducts the school fees from them, rather than allowing it to get into Tambu's father's hands, who would be far less responsible with it.)
       Already early on Tambu sees that much is determined by her sex, and though she struggles against the limitations imposed on her by society because of it this is a constant source of frustration. As she notes:

But what I didn't like was the way all the conflicts came back to this question of femaleness. Femaleness as opposed and inferior to maleness.
       Nhamo's tragic death is an opportunity for her. Babamukuru is eager that all the branches of his family have opportunities, and since his brother is underperforming rather badly hope lies with the next generation; with the obvious candidate Nhamo dead, Tambu is next in line. It's not a clear-cut decision, however: while education even of women is seen as positive, ultimately their roles are also seen as subservient to the men they're eventually married off to. It's a repeated struggle for Tambu to convince her elders to take the (relatively small) steps to ensure that she can further her education.
       Babamukuru and his educated wife, Maiguru, have two children, whom they took to England for those five decisive years when Babamukuru was getting his degree. The girl, Nyasha, is the cousin Tambu is closest to. There is always some tension in their relationship -- beginning with the distance created by the absence of five years, the different experiences they've had, and the fact that Nyasha has forgotten most of her Shona while away. When Tambu takes her (formerly Nhamo's) place at the mission school, and in her uncle's household, she shares a room with Nyasha. As Tambu eventually defines it:
You could say that my relationship with Nyasha was my first love-affair, the first time I grew fond of someone of whom I did not wholeheartedly approve.
       One part of what makes Nyasha "unique and necessary" for Tambu is an independent streak completely contrary to Tambu's instincts and conditioning. Tambu is keenly aware of due respect and proper protocol; there are numerous scenes in the novel describing the proper order in which relatives are to be greeted, feet washed, or sleeping arrangements. Tambu is not one who would bring up an issue or even start a conversation with a significant elder, for example. Meanwhile, Nyasha, exposed to foreign ways in England for five years, is, as she explains, a hybrid; she can't help herself, but she understands her more Western ways and attitude offends her parents.
       Tambu struggles with tradition. On the one hand, she entirely naturally does as is expected of her -- and she has no complaints about it. Yet she also understands that tradition can thwart her ambitions. She reveres her uncle and his great accomplishments, and understands that many of her own opportunities arise out of his position, but she sees that aspects of this have also proved limiting, holding her back and making her see the world (of black and white; male and female; of opportunity) in more limited ways than necessary. Flighty Nyasha represents something more -- even as she has her own failings (which come all too clearly to the fore by the end).
       Tambu's thirst for knowledge and education, her thrill at all the books she gains access to, give her a means of escape. She is a superior student, and she wins a place at a convent-school, another incredible stepping-stone (while Nyasha is eaten up by her ambitions, self-destructing). Even here, family -- even generally education-supporting Babamukuru -- wonder whether this is the right path for Tambu; she alone has no doubt.
       In her one act of rebellion, Tambu opposes the staging of her parents' marriage Babamukuru forces on them (as family issues bring some differences between Western and local traditions to the fore). This hybrid-act is something she doesn't want to be party too; not surprisingly, it is a Western tradition that the otherwise so dutiful Tambu can't embrace.
       Set in what is still Rhodesia, there is little politics, even in the background. The main foreign presence is on a local level -- the missionaries -- rather than any governmental one. There are few white presences, and only some incidental racial issues arise (as, for example, Tambu finds the room she is assigned at her boarding school, has six beds, when it is meant for four; "We have more Africans here than usual this year and so we have to put them all in here", the Sister in charge explains).
       Tambu tells her story of these decisive years from some unspecified future time. In describing coming to her uncle's house and how overwhelmed she was by its grandeur, compared to everything she had previously seen, she notes:
All the same, had I been writing these things at the time they happened, there would have been many references to 'palace' and 'mansion' and 'castle' in this section. Their absence is not to say I have forgotten what it was like. The first impression of grandeur was too exotic to ever fade, but I have learnt, in the years that have passed since then, to curb excesses and flights of fancy. The point has been made: I can now refer to my uncle's house as no more than that -- a house.
       So too throughout the book: the distance serves the narrative well, as Tambu recounts matter-of-factly the many unusual (because novel) situations she encounters. She does not harp on the novelty and her lack of understanding -- from trying to use knife and fork for the first time to encountering an actual toilet to the experience of driving and much else -- but rather simply describes events as they come. She nevertheless conveys very well this sense of first encounter, and of apprehending the various bits of modernity she comes across. In fact, Nervous Conditions offers a broad canvas of life in a changing African society of the time, from the entirely rural to modestly urban, and, all along, the traditions in and among family.
       Elements are underdeveloped -- especially Tambu's relationship with Nyasha, a figure who (in part surely on purpose) Tambu never entirely seems able to get a handle on. The writing and story-telling, however, are consistently very strong, and the narrative impresses both in its depiction of a girl coming of age while also making a great cultural transition, as well as in the day-to-day detail. Though Tambu sees all her relatives' flaws, her account is almost always sympathetic, and there is a large cast of secondary characters who are very well portrayed. Not surprisingly, the novel is particularly strong in its examination of the roles (and opportunities, and lack thereof) for women in this society.
       A beginning, open-ended -- as the conclusion acknowledges -- Nervous Conditions is a powerful work and very fine piece of writing.

- M.A.Orthofer, 3 May 2015

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Nervous Conditions: Reviews: Tsitsi Dangarembga: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of books from and relating to Africa

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About the Author:

       Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga was born in 1959.

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© 2015-2021 the complete review

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