BOOK REVIEW: Rotten Row by Petina Gappah

The purpose of a book review is to give you an opinion, dear reader, as to whether the book at hand is worth splurging your well sponged money on. The short answer for those busy readers is yes. Whether that is a ‘definitely yes’ or a ‘maybe yes’ depends on, well, you and what you like. As such, here’s the rest of the review.

Rotten Row is a short story collection from the award-winning Zimbabwean author and lawyer Petina Gappah. Her first collection of short stories, An Elegy for Easterly, won the Guardian First Book Prize in 2009, which I suppose is to say, if you like the Guardian and its world view than this book might well speak to you and the four types of hummus in your fridge.

The fact that it is a collection of short stories might put you off, but then again if you are reading Storgy I would think not. However, the collection is themed around the title of the book, where Rotten Row is a road in Harari which physically and metaphysically sits at the intersection of political, civic and judicial life of the country. The stories intersect with characters appearing more than once. And, as Petina herself points out in the Acknowledgements, the collection is a meditation on the relationship between law and justice in post-colonial Zimbabwe.

There are several themes that come through in relation to law and justice. Ethnicity, which is where we start off, with the fate of a white farm manager. Tribal identities, gender, class, the emigrant diaspora, politics and religion all feature on a spectrum from the horribly tragic, such as the fate of poor Gidza in the second story ‘Copacabana,Copacabana, Copacabana’ to the laugh-out-loud funny in ‘The Old Familiar Faces.’

The potential weakness of a short story collection is that they can lack the narrative cohesion, plot arcs and character depth that help draw in a reader for the longer haul. Largely, I felt that the thematic nature and character repetition managed to achieve enough of this to keep me wanting to read the next story. The strength of this short story collection is in variety and quality: different narrative points of view; the use of satire, outright humour, contrasted with tragedy, social observation and old fashioned literary meditation.

I felt the first two and last two stories were particularly strong, and brilliantly written tales, demonstrating impressively varied skill. For example, the first story ‘The Dropper’ for me could be considered something of a classic short story. It bares all the marks of a tight, minimalist narrative arch, with a thematic mirroring of the beginning and end, and a skilfully played reveal that packs a punch. Oh, and I will forever remember ‘angel lust’ and the importance of knots from this story. It had the kind of technical detail akin to Jack London’s ‘To Build a Fire’. This collection is populated with a treasure trove of sparkling little stories, with only the occasional slip. I felt just one story was not as strong as the others: ‘A Kind of Justice.’ For me, it started off exploring sexism and gender politics, about a woman who has become more educated with higher employment status than many of the males she encounters. However, it made a jarring turn into the war crimes of African conflicts as heard in the UN Special Court in Sierra Leone. It wasn’t the horrific details that were put across that irked me – I’ve read the reports before and seen the documentaries. It was firstly, that the information was delivered with all ‘tell’ and no ‘show’, and secondly, that thematically this created a kind of narrative dissonance, which didn’t seem to be the point of the story. This is only a minor gripe in something that was collectively a rewarding and thought-provoking read.

For those of you that love some philosophical masturbation to go along with your hummus and morning Guardian, there is plenty of that available to you. Thankfully, it is also a means to an end with genuine substance. There are explicit references to Marx, Kant and Hobbes, which considering the stated project of the author to meditate on law and justice are apposite. What is interesting here is that Petina, like the great writer she demonstrably is, leaves space for the reader to fill that void with what intellectual material they have. For me to counterposedifferent manifestations of Enlightenment thinkers with a dysfunctional, post-colonial African nation is not without a whiff of ironic-tragedy. ‘Post-colonial’ I hear you think? Yes, there is some of that here too, if you want to think back to all those French post-modernist thinkers you liked to pretend you thoroughly read at university. (Of course, maybe you read them deeply). On reading the first two chapters, I immediately thought of Foucault’s opening to Discipline and Punish. The whole book felt like a literary demonstration of Foucault’s concept of the percolating nature of power, although much more readable than the post-modernism I read in graduate school. Anyway, enough of that pomposity.

In summation, if you love short stories, Rotten Row is for you. If you are interested in reading about a post-colonial African nation, Rotten Row is for you. If you are interested in law, justice and the plight of humankind,Rotten Row is for you. A combination of immersive, evocative storytelling and insightful social comment. Enjoy your hummus.

Rotten Row was published by Faber & Faber  on 3 November 2016.

You can purchase a copy of Rorren Row from WATERSTONES Foyles:

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To discover more about Faber & Faber click here

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Review by Daniel Soule

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