AiW Guest: Helen Cousins.
What a bittersweet eulogy this is to the suffering of Black women at the hands (and often the fists) of Black men; not always surviving, as indicated by the past tense of the title. The novel follows the lives of four women living in Johannesburg focusing on the struggles within their marriages and ‘love lives’ and exploring the ways in which the women do and do not support each other.
In the opening chapter, the four friends are sewing a quilt together; as they sew they talk about love. Ama – the bride – is nervous about her imminent marriage to Thabo, wondering if she really loves him. Matlakala romantically proclaims that ‘every woman deserves a man that will love her’ (p. 3) despite living with Joe who, as Beauty is keen to point out ‘doesn’t speak to you […] sleeps with every woman that walks, drinks like a fish …’ (p. 3). Beauty’s cynicism about love hides a secret; an apparently random act of past violence enacted on her by her father. This prevents her committing to the developing relationship she has with Ama’s brother Jeffrey. Finally, there is Pamela, married to Mandla, who shows nothing but contempt for her, and who regularly beats her so violently she is hospitalised.
From this starting point the novel unfolds, exploring each women’s relationships in ways that seem to suggest that being with a man is ‘like being trapped’ (p. 3) and not at all, or ever, the ideal of Matlakala’s proclamation that love is ‘the most beautiful thing’ (p. 3). The opening sets up an expectation that the novel will showcase the value of female friendship and its necessity when male partners seem to have little or nothing to offer in the way of emotional support, or when they are actively abusive.
However, this is not a saccharine tale of women in mutual agreement throughout adversity, but one that highlights the strains placed on female friendship through those other, failing, relationships with men. In fact, what drives much of the disagreement is each woman’s frustration that her three friends will not deal with the impossible situations they are in. Simultaneously, each seems almost wilfully to ignore her own state of affairs.
Most extreme is Pamela’s situation (p.4):
her friends had been there for every broken bone and swollen muscle
over the sixteen years of her marriage. Maenetsha’s depiction of this relationship understands the awful dynamics of abusive relationships that make it almost impossible for women to leave despite the physical danger they are in. Pamela’s insistence that she loves Mandla, her acquiescence to his rules (despite the fact that he abuses her whether or not she complies), and an apparently suicidal decision to return to Mandla, are typical behaviour as suggested by the literature on domestic violence.
What is perhaps somewhat disappointing is the novel’s failure to challenge the social attitudes that create that female dependency on violent men favouring instead the drama of escalating violence. These are just ‘bad men’. What is required, then, the novel suggests is ‘good men’ who can rescue the women. Like Jeffrey: unlike other ‘black men [who] don’t stick around when a woman isn’t putting out’ (p. 120), he maintains his commitment to Beauty, insisting that they ‘need to talk’ (p.47), and showing patience.
My frustration from a feminist standpoint is that the novel doesn’t grasp Ama’s complaint (p.4) that
loving a man is more about sacrifice than two people coming together because they love each other
The novel closes with Beauty and Jeffrey, and Ama with Lazaro (the other ‘good man’) together. Nothing more needs to be said – ‘good men’ will provide a good relationship. It is a fallacy of romance, though, that all is needed is mutual love. Typically of the genre, the novel is not interested in playing out those relationships long term. The problem with ‘romance’ from the female point of view is that romance is just a different type of sacrifice.
This makes the actions taken by the women – plotting to facilitate Pamela’s escape and Matlakala’s attempt to challenge Joe’s behaviour – curiously passive in the end; they fail as what is really needed is saving by good men.
Overall, though, the book is a compelling read, maintained by suspense in the narrative through the mystery of Beauty’s secret and the unopened letter Thabo leaves for Ama. The characters, too, stayed with me. At times the emotional impact appears to be being minimized; this is not unwelcome in a novel that deals with many traumatic events, not all of which can be easily resolved. However, there is a cathartic value to the novel which left me with a warm admiration and sympathy for women’s resilience in the face of a continuing misogyny in which, as Pamela reminds us, she is only ‘one of the millions of abused women around the world’ (p. 3).
Helen Cousins is a Reader in Postcolonial Literature at Newman University, Birmingham, UK. Her current research project is in Black British writing, canonicity and belonging. However, her PhD looked at gender violence in African women writers and notions of African feminism. She continues with some research in African literature as another research interest. Publications forthcoming in 2016 will include: a guest edited volume of African Literature Today on the theme of ‘African Returns’; a chapter entitled ‘Black British Writing and an English Literary Belonging’ in K. Andrews and L. Palmer (eds.) Blackness in Britain (Routledge).