It’s a long way from Zimbabwe to Swansea, but good stories travel well. Which is why Welsh publisher Parthian published the winner of the Zimbabwean Best First Novel Award. Author, Bryony Rheam, basks in the background to This September Sun
I’ve always believed I was born in the wrong age. I should have been born in the ’20s or ’30s and lived in a large house in the British countryside.
There would have been a cook, at least two maids, a gardener and perhaps even a nanny thrown in for good measure.
I’d go to boarding school and, in the holidays, I’d explore the nearby woods and find fairies and pixies and elves and we’d all have such splendid fun.
Considering the reading matter I was exposed to as a child, this idea of myself is not surprising.
Yes, Enid Blyton has a lot to answer for – and more so in the colonies where this idea of between-the-wars-Britain lived a far longer life than it did in Britain itself – but she wasn’t alone.
My maternal grandmother was a vociferous reader. She’d sit with a pile of books next to her and eat her way through them in a matter of days. She had a passion for crime novels and would send me off to the library every Friday afternoon to get in her week’s supply. Her choice of reading matter set a precedent that is hard to break and has sometimes been more of a curse than a blessing.
My gran loved Agatha Christie. I don’t know if she ever managed to read all of Christie’s novels, but some of them she read more than twice and would sit there saying, ‘Oh yes, I remember now, it’s the vicar who did it. He murdered his first wife and is being blackmailed by Miss Dimbleby who knew him many years before in Ceylon’.
I think, it was the feeling of something shared between my grandmother, my mother, my sister and myself.
Perhaps, if I got her the right books, I could make her happy, keep her talking and so forget the pain of her broken heart. She had lost her son when he was 21 and reading was one of her less harmful forms of escape.
I had never been to Britain, yet I loved everything I thought I knew about it: the tiny villages, cricket on the green, beautiful summer days, white Christmases, the trains that always ran on time.
It was a world that spun a magical web around me, that drew me in and which finally seemed more real than the world I really did live in.
Like Ellie in my novel, This September Sun, I never felt that I fitted into white Zimbabwean life. I despaired of the lack of culture and the small-mindedness; the propensity of the men to wear veldskoens and short shorts and for the women to grow hard and weather-beaten by the age of 30.
Those who did espouse any sort of knowledge of books and music were usually the elderly schoolteacher type who were stuck in their ways and ran the eisteddfodau and music festivals they organised with military precision, but no imagination.
Many people seem to think that This September Sun is a true story, which I suppose is a compliment.
There are reverberations of my grandmother and her love of Agatha Christie and the loss in her life in the character of Evelyn, the grandmother in the book, and of myself in the granddaughter, Ellie.
I do draw on personal experience, but I can honestly say that no event is absolutely true in the novel and no character is a true copy of someone I have met in real life.
White African writing often falls into the category of autobiography, written with the distance of time and place. With This September Sun, I wanted to write a mystery romance and deliberately shied away from making any political statement.
It chronicles the lives of two women of different generations and the challenges they face in their lives, beginning on the day Zimbabwe gets its independence from Britain, and it charts the changes, both good and bad in Zimbabwe over the next 25 or so years.
Set against this backdrop of political and social change, the book is testimony to the fact that, just as you cannot ignore the personal and familial circumstances that have created you, nor can you escape the impact your country’s history has on you.
This is something with which the main character, Ellie, struggles to come to terms.
Believing that her real roots are in the UK, she longs to leave small-town Bulawayo and a life of which she is almost scornful.
However, her expectations are never met and she finds life in England as empty and lonely.
Stories abound in Africa and they don’t all have to be about starvation, tyrannical leaders and disease.
Nor, for that matter, do they have to be of the swash-buckling Wilbur Smith type.
If my love of Agatha Christie taught me anything, it’s that everyone has a secret and everyone has a story, and often it’s the stories that people don’t mean to tell you that are the most interesting.
Countries change, wars end and dictators do eventually pass into insignificance.
A good story stays forever.
This September Sun is published in the UK by Parthian, £8.99