“My mother died seven times before she gave birth to me.” This is the opening sentence of Mashigo’s debut novel and it will only make sense once you begin to grasp the unfolding story. It is difficult ignore a debut novel which has Zakes Mda’s endorsement on its cover as a selling point. Mda describes Mashigo’s debut novel as a “bewitching addition to the current South African literary boom,” and indeed, it becomes quite obvious right from the beginning why the legendary Mda would put his proverbial life on the line for this haunting book.
Marubini is Mashigo’s protagonist who works at a wine estate in Cape Town while living a comfortably middle class life with her French restaurant-owner boyfriend, Pierre. When she was a little girl, she lost the closest person to her heart and had since walked around with a void inside that she could not quite figure out. “Grief is so elusive; just when you think the worst is over, it comes back to remind you how empty your life is without the person whom you lost,” she notes sadly.
While at face value it looks like Marubini’s breakdowns and seizures are caused by the said loss, the reader learns that all is not so plain and simple upon deeper interrogation. Is she haunted? Is it a Calling? She is yearning for the truth, but she is just as confused. Through his art works, her younger brother, Simphiwe, comes in handy, helping her resolve the past which seems to be disrupting her present with such force and momentum. It is a painful chain of trauma and mystery, traced to different generations of the protagonist’s family.
One of the refreshing things about this story is reading a South African book where young girls do not grow up with grandparents and parents teaching them to aspire to marriage. Instead, the older generation takes the young girls through traditional rituals and cheerfully announces to the other women upon their return: “Here are the Women who return back home as their own wives.”
Previous studies have shown that women who do not feel affirmed by their fathers develop a tendency to respond to the men in their lives as they once responded to their elusive father because they desperately seek intimacy but are unable to believe that men can be trusted and so they remain always on guard. We see how valid this is with Marubini from following her relationship with her father, grandfather and brother and how it translates in her romantic relationship with her boyfriend.
The past is always part of the present. This is evident in our political, social and economic landscapes. In sensitively guiding her protagonist to a better place of discovery and healing, Mashigo has managed to mold together traditional and modern ways. This seems fitting as the novel considers how the past influences the present equally in all sorts of ways. The reader is also left with a better understanding of how, when it comes to traditional practices of being and healing, it’s not always black and white. Even though the book ends prematurely, Mashigo explores all these contradictions with such sensitivity, leaving the reader with a sense of satisfaction from discovering that these contradictions do not necessarily bring doom and gloom with them.
The Yearning is published by Picador Africa.
Date Published: 08 September 2016