Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 17, 2019

Little Stones, by Elizabeth Kuiper

Little Stones is fiction written so convincingly that it reads like a memoir.

It is the story of Hannah Reynolds, who is growing up in a single-parent family in Zimbabwe just as the country is falling apart.  Her coming-of-age coincides with the collapse of the economy; hyperinflation*; erratic power and water supply; shortages of basics like petrol and wheat; and the ‘confiscation’ of white-owned farms by the ‘Warvets’.  Hannah is only ten, so she doesn’t always understand what’s going on, although she’s skilled at bypassing the adults’ attempts to shelter her from the situation:

During dinner, Nana, Grandpa and Mum started talking about the Warvets again.  The Warvets were a big family who wanted to steal farms from everyone in Zimbabwe, and these days almost every conversation would end up being about them.

It’s when she finally expresses her anxiety that her grandparents might give their farm away to another family, that her mother explains, that the War Vets were not an extended family.  They were a large group of people called the ‘War Veterans’ who mobilised to take back what they saw as their land.

Her mother’s reassurances turn out to be hollow, however, and the day comes when Nana and Grandpa are given 24 hours notice to get out, and they come to live with Hannah and her mother**.  Both of them are at a loose end in an urban environment but have difficulty finding work, Grandpa filling his idle hours getting underfoot with unwanted household repairs, and Nana dismayed that she doesn’t have the IT skills to get any kind of office work.

But Hannah’s family is wealthy by anyone’s standards.  She has a pool, and a trampoline, and she goes to an expensive school where her best friend is Diana Chigumba.  Her father is wealthier still, because he drives a BMW while her mother gets by with an ageing Mazda.  Mum, in this book, is a bit idealised, while Father turns out to be a nasty piece of work, but Hannah still loves him, despite his insistence on access visits being more about maintaining control of his ex-wife. (And that, I think, is authentic.  It’s a dreadful thing for children to have to choose between parents, because children—in my experience as a teacher comforting many of them in separated families— usually do love both parents, no matter how awful one of them might be).

The tension ramps up as thuggery and violence come to Hannah’s home, and though at her age she doesn’t understand what has happened, the reader does:

…I heard a crash: the sound of glass shattering; then a scream that chilled the blood in my veins. Then silence.

After a while I could hear men’s voices speaking in rushed Shona.  I couldn’t figure out what they were saying.  The only words I understood were coming from my mother.

‘Don’t touch her. Don’t touch her.  Do whatever you want to me, just don’t touch her.  Don’t hurt her, please.’ (p.171)

Hannah has been drilled at school about what to do.  In a home invasion, she has to pretend to be asleep and she cowers under her doona.  Later, she notices that her mother’s eyes were glazed over like a zombie’s, with blood pooled at the end of a cut on her lip.  After the men are gone, Hannah is full of questions, and her mother looks up from the spot on the floor that she’d been staring at.  Her eyes were unfocused, and her voice came out heavy and robotic.  Hannah isn’t told what has happened, but she has never forgotten that night.

The understated allusion to this and other violence, muted by the narration of a child, is all the more powerful in its impact.

In the wake of this event, on top of everything else, the conflict between her parents escalates, compounding the trauma.

Issues of race and privilege are handled with aplomb: Hannah’s mother is a small l-liberal who counts gays and people of colour among her friends and colleagues at the Stock Exchange, but her father is still old-school and Hannah recognises that while Grandpa thinks he’s progressive, he’s still racist in the way that he talks about Africans.  There’s also an insufferable woman called Karen Parker who represents the stereotypical racist attitudes of her class.  Hannah herself has an epiphany about the teacher who’s been so strict about teaching them Shona.

She was tough, but she wasn’t horrible.  And, in retrospect, I understood her frustration.  All she wanted was for us to learn the language of the Shona people.  The people whose land we lived on. And I understood why she was usually angrier with the black students than the white ones.  They were meant to be the best at Shona.  The fact that some of the kids couldn’t speak their own language, the language of their people, demonstrated that the British imperialists were winning.  It did not matter that white people were being removed from their farms, and fleeing in droves to the United States and the United Kingdom and, in our case, Australia: the crushing effects of colonisation were still being felt, over and over. (p.255)

Little Stones is a compelling novel that humanises the contentious headlines that we’ve seen here in Australia. It will be very interesting to see what Kuiper writes next…

According to Wikipedia: Inflation rose from an annual rate of 32% in 1998, to an official estimated high of 11,200,000% in August 2008 according to the country’s Central Statistical Office. This represented a state of hyperinflation, and the central bank introduced a new 100 trillion dollar note.  So when Hannah, her mother and Ruth talk in billions and trillions when shopping, it’s not hyperbole.

**The exodus of white farmers led to severe grain shortages in Zimbabwe, and since the resignation of Robert Mugabe (whose tacit support of the so-called War Veterans enabled the farm invasions) the government is encouraging them to return. (ABC News 2018)

You can find out more about the author at her website.

Author: Elizabeth Kuiper
Title: Little Stones
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press), 2019, 264 pages
ISBN: 9780702262548
Review copy courtesy of UQP

Available from UQP or Fishpond: Little Stones

 


Responses

  1. I am ambivalent about the Warvet movement. No, that’s not right, I was in favour of large white-owned farms being broken up and handed over to war veterans. Of course it was badly managed, as was the whole country, but I still think the principle was right. Australia itself has an almost identical history. Without googling dates, the large land holdings of the squatters were first broken up for ‘selectors’ in the 1860s and again after both world wars. One property near where I went to school, on prime Western District country, was cut down from 24,000 acres to 12,000 after WWII and still had its own lake and airstrip, a 20 bedroom main house, and houses for another half dozen worker families. The 12,000 acres excised comfortably supported 100 soldier-settler families.

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    • Have you read Coetzee’s Disgrace, Bill? That’s a similar situation, where a principle gone awry results in great cruelty…

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      • I went off and read a synopsis. I haven’t read Disgrace but I’m sure it’s on my shelves.

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        • It’s a powerful book in all sorts of ways, but it shows the vulnerability of people on the edges, the borders. Especially lone women.

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  2. The book sounds so interesting. Examining social and political situations through the eyes of someone who is growing up is a fairly common technique that that lead to such good stories. Here in America there is not a lot of attention paid to Zimbabwe but I am interested in international affairs so I am familiar and interested in the events described here.

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    • Hi Brian, I’m not sure that a lot of attention gets paid to Zimbabwe here either…
      There was a rather ugly debate a while back, which focussed on preferential immigration treatment for white farmers affected by the farm invasions, with the right blustering about their desirability as migrants and the left blustering about racism. It was a debate that should never have occurred because, for good or for ill, we have a regimented system of assessing both migrant and refugee applications and those of the Zimbabwe farmers would have been assessed using those rules anyway. It was more about dog-whistle politics…

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  3. Imperialism left such a mess behind. On another note, I can’t register a ‘like’ when using my iPad. Works fine on the Mac desktop. Strange

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    • I’ve been having all kinds of strange issues with WP for a long time. Some WordPress blogs I can ‘like’, some I can log in so that I can comment, and others I have to use a different browser altogether. I logged the problem with WP months ago and they acknowledge it’s an issue but haven’t done anything to fix it.

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  4. I have this one, sent to me for review. It’s sounds very good.

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  5. […] Little Stones by Elisabeth Kuiper, see my review; […]

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