I love all sorts of books—memoir, fiction, sweeping romances, science fiction—but the books I love most of all are the ones that teach me about a time and place with which I am not familiar. That means I try to read books by authors writing about experiences different from my own, and that I am always eager to try out new writers.
On a recent trip to the library (the library in my town is terrific), I came across The Death of Rex Nhongo by C.B. George, a 2016 novel that takes place in modern-day Zimbabwe.
I visited Zimbabwe once, briefly, in 1997, so I could ground myself in the place, but much of what I know about the country now has been gleaned from the news. I’ve read a bit about the history of southern Africa as well. Perhaps the book could provide more insight. Plus, it has a great title: Who is Rex Nhongo? What happened to him?
Rex Nhongo was, in fact, a real person, the nom-de-guerre of Solomon Mujuru, a Zimbabwean military officer and politician who led President Robert Mugabe’s guerilla forces during the Rhodesian Bush War in the 1960s-1970s. He was a feared person in Zimbabwe, and died in 2011, under mysterious circumstances, which are referred to during the book. But Nhongo is a peripheral character; his death, which occurs before the story begins, serves as a touchstone for the narrative, something mysterious, uncertain, and violent. Those feelings resonate throughout The Death of Rex Nhongo, setting the characters and readers on edge.
Fundamentally, The Death of Rex Nhongo is about power. The power in business relationships, marriages, love affairs, between siblings, and between child and parent. The narrative weaves through the interconnected lives of several people: a taxi driver and his wife, both struggling to survive poverty and reconnect with one another; her brother-in-law and his wife, who still remain hopeful their situation can improve; the British expat family the wife works for; an American expat, his Zimbabwean wife, and child; and a government officer.
I found myself drawn to the taxi driver and his extended family most of all. They struggle to earn money to feed their family, pay for school fees, get through each day, and they are resigned to their hand-to-mouth existence. The have lost the hope that the brother-in-law still has. That hope—the yearning for something more—makes the brother-in-law bold and frustrated, qualities, the reader learns, that can be dangerous.
The expats are portrayed as selfish, disconnected, and privileged, striving for a quick way to make money, as in the case of the American, or fighting against a dying marriage, as in the case of the Brits. The American’s story is compounded by a haunting of sorts; to tell more may reveal too much. It was my least favorite part of the story. A metaphor, perhaps, for the expats’ bad choices?
There’s a small scene with the British expat husband that illustrates how out-of-place the expats are. A nurse back home in the UK, he is volunteering at a medical clinic where he sees a patient with what appears to be a large tumor. She needs surgery, chemotherapy, and advanced cancer care. None of that is available at the clinic, nor does she have the money to get that help, if it even exists, in the city. He has no option but to send her off with some pain medicine, never revealing the extent of her illness. He realizes that he can’t do anything to help her, not really. And, the hopelessness begins to tear away at him.
The undercurrents of this book are danger and hopelessness, and they make the reader wonder about the influence of such factors on a person’s pysche. How do you find your way if your home is rooted in a place where so much is unsafe? How do you move forward if you know there’s no way for things to get better?
At the end of the book, life has not improved for the characters in The Death of Rex Nhongo, but some have been able to change their path, seizing opportunity and, with that, possibility for the future.
Recommendation: Not all of the characters in this 309-page book are likable; readers need to be open to that (I know some people aren’t). I liked the way the stories are interconnected; it felt authentic and the characters complimented one another well. Since The Death of Rex Nhongo was written by an expat, I’d pair it with a book about the country that was written by a Zimbabwean author to provide contrast (and to see how they are similar); here is a list of such books.
Rating: 3/5 stars