Harvest of Thorns by Shimmer Chinodya

Harvest of Thorns covers three generations of one family as Rhodesia becomes Zimbabwe. The novel opens with Benjamin returning from the bush war, a hero who can no longer be called a rebel. A few days later a pregnant woman, who he intends to make his wife, follows him.

A lot has changed since the war, not just in the country but in Benjamin’s family and as the novel moves through parts two, three and four we learn about his mother and how she met and married his father, we learn about what it was like to run away to war, and are given glimpses of the future.

The story is full of hope, but it is also alive to the painful discrepancies of war, especially a war fought mostly by the very young. Benjamin himself isn’t even eighteen when he goes to join the gorillas. Learning how to become a man, sexually and politically, how to decide whose authority to trust, how to accept responsibility even for the acts he regrets, is something Benjamin has to do as he fights. There are a lot of births – Zimbabwe, adulthood, children – and they all have their thematic as well as their narrative parts to play. This is clever and pleasing but the narrative is also sometimes a little disjointed and disorientating.

My favourite part of the book is when Benjamin’s commander tells a story around a camp fire after a terrible battle in which one of their large camps was bombed and many were killed. The story is a parable telling of how the white man came to Zimbabwe with a smiling face and steadily, stealthily at first, took both land and labour. How they left local people with nothing but ‘a harvest of thorns’ so their only means of survival was to depend upon them.

This is of course the story that gives the novel its title.

What is the country left with when the white men have gone? Thorns. Men who have missed out on schooling, men whose government jobs involved making tea. And Benjamin’s family don’t escape Chinodya’s searing eye: extreme religion, a desire for the comfortable life, to put their heads in the sand, all these faults and more are displayed in this honest look at family life and human beings. The difference is that the harvest is theirs.

Unsentimental, complex and honest, Harvest of Thorns is an intriguing novel whose rough edges thrum with emotion. You will know if this is your sort of book and if it is you won’t be disappointed.

This week I’m reading Melissa Bailey’s second novel, Beyond the Sea.

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