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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Stone Virgins

Yvonne Vera

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To purchase The Stone Virgins

Title: The Stone Virgins
Author: Yvonne Vera
Genre: Novel
Written: 2002
Length: 184 pages
Availability: The Stone Virgins - US
The Stone Virgins - UK
The Stone Virgins - Canada
  • Won the Macmillan Writers' prize for Africa

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Our Assessment:

C- : a few decent pieces, but largely lost in a muddle of language

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The LA Times . 16/2/2003 S.S. Reynolds
The NY Times Book Rev. . 23/2/2003 Alix Wilber
The New Yorker . 24/3/2003 Edna O'Brien
San Francisco Chronicle . 23/3/2003 Eric Grunwald
The Washington Post . 4/3/2003 Jabari Asim

  From the Reviews:
  • "Reading about how a young girl survived the guerrilla war in Rhodesia in the early 1980s is an exercise in unflinching commitment that Yvonne Vera makes easier with pure fictional art. (...) The combinations of beauty and horror, as terrible and bizarre as they sometimes are, etch themselves into a reader's skin and memory." - Susan Salter Reynolds, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Unfortunately, the strength of Vera's style is also this novel's weakness. Her prose is so densely poetic, her opening chapters so preoccupied with ambience, that at times it is almost impossible to discern what she is talking about." - Alix Wilber, The New York Times Book Review

  • "This is a strong, haunting story. The zest and innocence of the two girls, random casualties of war, provide its unifying pulse (.....) Vera loves language and sometimes immerses herself and us in it to the point where emotional impact, the raw moment of terror, is blurred or lessened." - Edna O'Brien, The New Yorker

  • "It's a vivid introduction to that clearly beautiful but violence-torn (and now hunger-torn) nation. Writing no more and no less than necessary, Vera demonstrates what fiction does best: showing us how it felt to be there." - Eric Grunwald, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "If you'd like to meet some fully realized characters while learning some specifics of Zimbabwe's postcolonial struggles, as I did, you're likely to come away with a vague feeling of dissatisfaction. If you're willing to settle for first-rate writing and provocative meditations on memory, corruption and loss, they are all here in abundance." - Jabari Asim, The Washington Post

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:

       The Stone Virgins is set in Zimbabwe, the first section focussing on the pre-independent Rhodesia (1950-1980), the second on the often violent post-independence transition (1981-1986). The book tells the story of two sisters, Thenjiwe and Nonceba. They are among the victims of some of the horrific violence perpetrated in those times.
       Vera's novel is rich in imagery and scents. It begins fairly impressively in Bulawayo, as she follows Selborne Avenue, a defining street and a place she uses to anchor her text. But the actual story lies elsewhere, far off the Selborne-Johannesburg axis. No, to get where her story really takes place you have to turn off Selborne "into Grey Street" and head west. Two hundred kilometres later you're in distant, provincial Kezi.
       "Kezi is a rural enclave", but it's also more. For example: "To be in Kezi, to be in the bush, is to be at the mercy of misfortune". And things go from bad to worse, and in conclusion one can define it as "a naked cemetery where no one is buried and everyone betrayed".
       Also: "Kezi starts and ends at Thandabantu Store", the focal point of the small, changing community.
       Vera's book follows the change of the country, mirroring it in the horrors visited upon Kezi and people like Thenjiwe and Nonceba. There are moments of hope and love, but these are almost entirely extinguished by irrational brutality. One of the girls is killed, the other suffers greatly. Natural beauty -- flowers, fragrances -- contrast starkly with acts of pure, mindless evil. Only at the end is there some sort of tentative hope for the surviving sister, with acts of compassion and the possibility of a future -- tellingly only in Bulawayo, far away from the hell that Kezi became.

       There's a story in this book, somewhere. We've outlined it above, though more does happen. But Vera isn't that interested in telling the story -- or rather she has a specific idea of how to convey it. And it's something many readers might have trouble with.
       Vera's writing could be described as vivid and graphic. It also strains for poetry and could possibly be described as lyrical. It certainly is full of fancy prose. Unfortunately, only a few bits are effective -- and the bulk of the book is more annoying than anything else.
       Much of what she writes might, to some readers, sound somehow impressive, but doesn't make any sense. Much sounds like a bad literal translation from a language that uses metaphor quite differently than English. Among the examples:

The river had been so burned by the sun, you can measure it grain by glittering grain, and by the number of children swarming on it like bees.

Their voices more temporary than darkness

The soil is chaos and ash. I enter into its burning. The soil is warm like a liquid.

Day is deep, sonorous, reverberating.
       Some of this sounds like it might mean something, or make sense, but read closely it doesn't. Why on earth: "warm as a liquid" ? What is the point of that ? Or: "more temporary than darkness". Surely, darkness can last any variety of periods -- ended with the flip of a light switch or continuing almost endlessly for the duration of an entire night -- or a whole Arctic winter. (Or is it that, once there is light, all evidence and memory of darkness is gone ? But darkness always returns -- and there are always hints and pieces of it around, in shadows and dark corners .....)
       A few such sentences can be endured or overlooked, but the problem here is that practically the whole book consists of them. Some readers might be able to appreciate this sort of writing. We can't.
       There are a few occasions when Vera doesn't try too hard and gets it right. A page on 1981, when hope receded, is probably the most impressive effort, the succinct descriptions not overreaching, the simplicity appropriate:
    The war begins. A curfew is declared. A state of emergency. No movement is allowed. The cease-fire ceases. It begins in the streets, the burying of memory.
       But most of the book is presented in an almost dream-like fog, as though the reality were too ugly to be described with precision, better pictured as a bleary water-colour than a sharp photograph. It's a shame: towards the end there are a few scenes in which there is dialogue between some of the characters. Forced to be naturalistic, Vera displays actual talent: some of these exchanges are truly vivid and sound authentic (as almost nothing else in the book does), and one wishes she had reined in her fancy efforts throughout the book.

       Vera's writing might appeal to some; perhaps we simply don't have an ear for it. (Readers familiar with our reviews might be attuned to our sensibilities, and able to guess whether they might disagree with us on this type of writing.) Despite some powerful images -- of a country and people subjected to considerable horror -- we couldn't possibly recommend this title.

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The Stone Virgins: Reviews: Yvonne Vera: Other books by Yvonne Vera under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of books from and relating to Africa

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About the Author:

       Yvonne Vera was born in 1964 in Bulawayo, in what is now Zimbabwe, and died in 2005. She studied at York University, Toronto, and is the author of several acclaimed novels.

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© 2003-2021 the complete review

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