Irene Sabatini’s highly anticipated novel An Act of Defiance tells the tumultuous story of Gabrielle and Ben against the backdrop of the political unrest in Harare, Zimbabwe in 2000.
How do you imagine the future when your story traps you in the past?
Harare, 2000. Gabrielle is a newly-qualified lawyer, fighting for justice for a young girl. Ben is an urbane and charismatic junior diplomat, attached to Harare with the American embassy. With high-level pressure on Gabrielle to drop her case, and Robert Mugabe’s youth wing terrorising his political opponents as he tightens his grip on power, they begin a tentative love affair. But when both fall victim to a shocking attack, their lives splinter across continents and their stories diverge, forcing Gabrielle on a painful journey towards self-realisation.
Irene Sabatini, Winner of the 2010 Orange Award for New Writers, has written an unforgettable novel about love, agency, motherhood and bravery, showing how the dehumanising effects of political violence can shape and remake a life.
One of the things I liked about Act of Defiance, was how Sabatini manages to seamlessly weave the political backdrop and context into the story itself. Upheaval and unrest are present in the story, things are not going well, violence breaks loose, chaos ensues, but the people in the story still live their lives. They are interrupted by the unrest, yes. The violence and upheaval interrupt the story itself and the lives within it, but the violence does not become the story. When we hear of violence in African countries, especially in Western news, we are made to believe that there is nothing else but violence and suffering happening in the countries in question. Sabatini does, however, redirect and reclaim that narrative through her phenomenal prose and exquisite storytelling.
While I initially appreciated the almost film-like jump between scenes, from the courtroom, to the prickly and electrifying moments between Gabrielle and Ben, to the terrifying moments which open the novel, about halfway through the novel, I sometimes felt thrown out of the story by the sudden changes in setting and the staccato-feel of the scene-cutting. I do, however, realise that this cutting up of scenes, and the abrupt changes in setting and time do contribute to the aspect I applauded in the beginning of this review: the avoidance of violence and suffering taking over yet another narrative set in an African context.
An Act of Defiance also has at its core the exploration of race relations and tensions in Zimbabwe- not in order to point fingers or to criticise one party or the other, but to examine, with tact and historical awareness, the intricacies and multiple layers of meaning and context, which have been shaped by decades of colonisation, outside influences and continued meddling of parties that shouldn’t have been involved in the first place.
In addition, Sabatini unflinchingly examines and lays out the serious consequences of the proverbial ‘Big Man Politics’ and the deeply incrusted corruption and abuses of power within governments such as Zimbabwe’s. While the book is firmly set in Zimbabwe, Sabatini’s story and critique of the context could be applied to various countries in different eras – especially African ones. The preludes of eventually unfolding catastrophes are usually similar: a country with rich resources is taken advantage of in various ways by less natural-resources-rich countries. Mismanagement and domination eventually result in a downward spiral for the resources-rich country, its citizens are left disadvantaged (to say the least), the ruling elites are enriching themselves, and the rest of the world is left puzzled at the ‘underdevelopment’ of said countries.
So, what happens when people, who have been commandeered and controlled for a long time, and have continuously found themselves at the short end of the stick, finally revolt? What happens when they turn on the powers that be, and, by extension, on themselves? What happens when ‘Big Man Politics’ rule and subject an entire country, regardless of the consequences?
An attempt at an answer can be found in this book.
*This book was sent to us by the publisher Indigo Press ahead of the official publication.