Review: “You only need the mbira” – T.L. Huchu’s ‘The Library of the Dead’

AiW Guest: Ranka Primorac.

LibraryOfTheDead_HuchuPanMcMCOVERBy the time I twigged that T. L. Huchu’s The Library of the Dead was not aimed at my age group, it was no longer an option to stop reading. The author of the deft appropriation of the chick-lit genre with The Hairdresser of Harare (2010), and a wry decolonial take on the novel of ideas, The Maestro, The Magistrate and The Mathematician (2014), Zimbabwe-born Tendai Huchu is the genre experimenter of contemporary African literature par excellence

The Library is a speculative thriller for young adults, the first in a projected series of five novels in Huchu’s “Edinburgh Nights” series. It  is centred on a teenage girl called Ropa (“blood” in Shona) who talks to the dead for a living. Ropa has green hair, a sharp tongue, a tamed fox for a companion and excellent catapult-shooting skills. She lives with her grandmother and younger sister Izwi (“the word” in Ndebele) in a slum on the edge of a bleak futuristic Edinburgh (Scotland), eking out a living by mediating between the living and the dead. Ropa makes the speech of ghosts intelligible and binds them to the living by playing her mbira – the hand-made musical instrument she inherited from her late Zimbabwean grandfather. In Ropa’s hands, the mbira speaks to the ordinary Edinburgh dead as clearly as it once did to Zimbabwean ancestral spirits:

“On a night like this, I’ll hit [the skint and uncooperative spirit called Kenny, from the west Edinburgh estate of Clermiston] with ‘Nhemamusasa’, the 1972 Mhuri yekwaRwizi rendition. Requires an accompanying leg rattle instrument to get the full effect. But for talking, you only need the mbira.” (p. 322)

(Readers unfamiliar with the version of the mbira classic Ropa is referring to can check it out here.)

Because she is her family’s breadwinner, and because times are hard, Ropa “ghostalks” [sic] for financial reward only. But when a distraught mother talks her into accepting a pro bono assignment, she soon finds herself out of place, floating in a parallel dimension – a swirling purgatorial limbo that would make Dante smile. In everyThere, a reality plane officially closed to the living, discontented spirits “trundle aimlessly.

“There’s nothing to do here, there never has been, nor’ll there ever be. I move among them, so many of them. They are allowed no rest in this place of no peace“ (p. 52).

Later, back in the world of the living, the ageing homunculus that Ropa discovers in a child’s bedroom after breaking into a middle-class house via the bathroom window, is at least as disturbing as the blue-lipped patriarch ensconced in a hothouse in the early pages of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. The parallel with Chandler’s protagonist, private eye Philip Marlowe, is not entirely gratuitous: Ropa has become both a freelance detective and an apprentice wizard – world-saver by default, on both generic counts. While searching for a child-snatcher with the help of her friends Jomo and Priya, she also becomes a member of the secret magical Library of the Dead, situated right under the David Hume memorial in a local cemetery. Scotland’s Enlightenment legacy gets short shrift in The Library’s re-enchanted world.

This recent addition to the emergent wizard canon of African lit — see also the 2020 Nommo Award winner David Mogo, Godhunter, by Suyi Davies Okungbowa — comes to its readers by way of Ben Aaronovich’s Rivers of London series. The Library’s deadpan humor and keen awareness of social hierarchies, as well as Huchu’s sheer fascination with his home city certainly resonate with Aaronovich’s London-centred series. But if the male, mixed-race investigator of The Rivers of London has, first of all, to accept that both ghosts and magic are real, then The Library’s Ropa has a head start in staying unfazed while moving across multiple ontological planes. She takes the Edinburgh magical establishment’s patriarchal snobbery head on: when faced with the intransigence of its adult male gatekeepers, she “reach[es] for the katty in [her] back pocket” (p. 92) before she does anything else.

Ultimately, the traditional (chivanhu) magical craft taught by Ropa’s grandmother remains her ethical anchoring point, despite being devalued by formally educated male wizards in The Library. Yet Ropa’s expansive and tenacious attitude towards all kinds of difference also resonates with Hayao Miyazuki’s 2001 Oscar-winning animated film Spirited Away – whose heroine, Chihiro, is similarly forced to negotiate a world ‘ruled by spells, spirits and sorceresses’ (as Arwa Haider puts it)

The Library is situated in an unspecified future, following a period of war and disaster which the adults do not like to talk about. The big banks have collapsed; the world’s reserves of oil and gas have run out. When in public, people scramble to remember the official greeting and response that evokes the current king of Scotland’s long reign, which may or may not have followed the violent dissolution of the United Kingdom. Ropa likes to play old video games and watch TV reruns of Murder, She Wrote, just “to see what it was once like, before the catastrophe. Pure glam.” (p. 97) But class hierarchies remain just as deeply entrenched in post-catastrophe Edinburgh as they are in present-day Britain. On the council estate of Calders, people look down on those who, like Ropa, live in the Hermiston slum: “They’re, like, a council estate, the rough and of town, junkieville central, yet they still think they’re better than us.” (p. 27)

Like Chandler’s Marlowe and other detectives, Ropa is able to move right across the spectrum of social affluence and power, and she apprehends it with an unflinching, ironic eye. In this novel, child-snatching monsters, magic potions and aerial battles between wizards are never far away from the characters’ ever-present worry about school fees and rent, but there is nothing patronising about the narrative of social justice it offers its young readers. On my bookshelf, The Library of the Dead fits snugly alongside Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti trilogy,  Catherine Johnson’s Freedom, and Akwaeke Emezi’s Pet – all stories of possible worlds that combine diversity with violent inequality, which affects the protagonists even as they strive to address it. Bring on the next installment.  



T. L. Huchu is a writer whose short-fiction has appeared in publications such as Lightspeed, Interzone, AfroSF and elsewhere. He is the winner of a Nommo Award for African SF/F, and has been shortlisted for the Caine Prize and the Grand Prix de L’Imaginaire. Between projects, he translates fiction from Shona into English and the reverse. The Library of the Dead is the first in his Edinburgh Nights series.

20210428_115224 (1)Ranka Primorac lectures at the Department of English, University of Southampton. She has degrees from the universities of Zagreb, Zimbabwe and Nottingham Trent. She has written extensively about Zimbabwean literatures & cultures, and she’s currently working on  a book about the novel, modern subjectivities and social crises in Southern Africa.


Edinburgh Nights, Vol. 1: The Library of the Dead published in February this year (UK), and will be released in the US with Tor, on June 1, 2021.

Read an excerpt of The Library of the Dead at Tor’s blog:

Excerpt: The Library of the Dead by T. L. Huchu

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