BOOK REVIEW: An Elegy for Easterly by Petina Gappah

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Quite often there are times when I feel lucky that I got to read a certain story. Maybe once or twice a month, I read something that makes pause, perhaps not in awe, but in true appreciation of another’s work. ‘An Elegy for Easterly’ by Petina Gappah is that story. I confess I’ve yet to read much, if any, of Gappah’s writng – a mistake on my part, which is soon to be rectified. Sitting with ‘An Elegy for Easterly’ on a cold Friday morning in March, I was reminded why I love writing.

First published in 2009 in a collection under the same title, ‘An Elegy for Easterly’ is a powerful piece. Set in Zimbabwe, on the Easterly Farm, Gappah explores the political and the personal in equal tender measure. You see, Easterly is full of people because the Queen was coming – “all the women who walk alone at night are prostitutes, the government said – lock them up […] there are illegal structures in the townships they said – clean them up […] the townships are too full people […] gather them up and put them in places the Queen will not see.” As such, the government hid the poverty in Easterly. But long after the Queen left, Easterly grew. Wave after wave, and that’s the Easterly we meet in Gappah’s tale.

Throughout the piece we meet various folk – ­BaToby and MaiToby, MaiJames too. Yet the two standout characters here are Martha and Josephat’s wife [we later find out she’s called Ellen, but for the most part she’s referred to as Josephat’s wife – “she had tasted the sound on her tongue and like it so much she called herself nothing else”]. Martha is pregnant and a sex worker, Josephat’s wife is a woman longing for a child after three miscarriages. There are children everywhere, but Josephat’s wife yearns for one of her own. Her husband, Josephat, works away from home in the Hartley Mine.

Gappah tells the story with care – not only to the country of her birth, but with vivid detail of a place that, to me, I can only imagine. And even then, my imagination of it would surely be wrong.

The language is rich – Gappah paints with lush brushstrokes here. The sights and smells, the palpable emotion, specifically felt from Josephat’s wife, is utterly gorgeous. The consistent juxtaposition between personal conflict and political life – “the children understood that Martha’s memory was frozen in time before they could remember, the time of once upon a time […] of days where it was normal to have more than leftovers for breakfast.” This is Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.

Yet we mustn’t forget the child yet to be born, and the child yearned for. In the end, Martha gives birth, alone, until Josephat’s wife comes to help her. I will not spoil the ending, but perhaps that baby of Martha’s is closer to Josephat’s wife than first thought. Josephat has visited his wife in Easterly before. He’s cheated on her there too.

The ending is poignant and once again blends the political and the personal, though, in reality the two are difficult to separate for any human. Life is governed by it. The final sentence is as affecting as it is sombre.

An Elegy for Easterly’ is a precious piece. You should read it. Really, you should.

An Elegy for Easterly is published by Faber & Faber for more information about their Faber Stories and 90th Anniversary click here.

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Petina Gappah

Petina Gappah is a Zimbabwean writer with law degrees from Cambridge, Graz University and the University of Zimbabwe. Her debut story collection, An Elegy for Easterly, won the Guardian First Book Prize in 2009.

Reviewed by Emily Harrison

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