I read Patchwork, Ellen Banda-Aaku’s debut adult novel and winner of the Penguin Prize for African writing, when it was released in 2011. I bought the book while waiting for a flight to some place and for the first time wished my flight would be delayed, or that we would have some kind of detour up in the air; I didn’t want to put the book down. I read it again for this review and was still enthralled by its brilliant but simple crafting of sentences that together form a very emotive tale.
In a first person narration, Patchwork is a poignant tale set in Zambia in the 1970s – 80s in which, the protagonist, 9 year old Pumpkin is an unwilling accomplice in her mother’s alcoholism, hiding her empty bottles, mopping up her vomit and heaving her unconscious weight into bed night after night.
Pumpkin’s father, the wealthy JS but fondly called Tata, adequately if not extravagantly provides for Pumpkin and her mother. In a familiar storyline, Pumpkin’s mother’s wants are much more than material; she desires to be Tata’s wife. Realizing that this desire is futile, she turns to alcohol to numb the pain of what can never be.
During one of his infrequent visits, Tata is hit by the reality that his daughter lives in when he finds Pumpkin’s mother in one of her drunken states. He makes a decision that changes the course of Pumpkin’s life; he takes her away to live with him in the country at his expansive mansion and introduces her to his other family.
Pumpkin’s stepmother who is tasked with raising Pumpkin is the religious Mama T whose faith borders on fanaticism. Until Pumpkin’s arrival, Mama T has lived in oblivious bliss of merely suspecting her husband’s infidelity with no proof. Pumpkin becomes the stick that stirs the waters of oblivion to show the murky dirt hidden below the surface. As somehow expected, Pumpkin is at the receiving end of these built up frustrations.
Pumpkin, however, is without fault; she is a troubled child who is nasty and a liar. She does nasty things, deeds her father readily forgives claiming the effects of a childhood that is less than ideal. Pumpkin is definitely an insecure and confused child, who makes the reader want to despise her but at the same time want to protect her and erase all the turmoil she has suffered. This insecurity and confusion sticks with Pumpkin until adulthood, perhaps because it has never been confronted or no attempt has been made to rectify the problem or heal her.
The tale builds up its plot with the turn of every page and gives the reader doses, each more than the previous one, of a glimpse at the far-reaching effects of turmoil suffered from childhood, demons which not even maturity or adulthood can shed. At the same time, it is a book that shows all too well the class segregation of urban Zambia.
Perhaps the one thing that separates the storyline from many others like it is the way the story weaves around traditional beliefs, Christianity and modernism all coming together in a manner that teaches us that humans are not passive recipients of turmoil, disasters or any situation for that matter; we strive to find answers within what we know and the best way we know how.
In simple, but highly engaging prose, Ellen Banda-Akuu weaves a tale that aptly encompasses Zambian lifestyle through a time of war, the early years of AIDS, infidelity – both real and perceived, pain and anger of betrayal and the people that all these draw in. I especially like that the tale features AIDS as a mere inference, that even though in reality affects almost everyone in Zambia, becomes part of the thread that is woven into the fabric of people who try to find answers to problems the best way they know how. It is an important reminder that there is more to the life experienced by sub-Saharan Africans than disease, hunger and disasters.
The following paragraph strikes me as a nuanced but profound statement of love and hate and indeed perhaps of our emotional existence:
“Sometimes people do things even they don’t understand.”
Sissy nods at me, enticing me to agree. ‘If I could choose who to love as if I was picking a mango from a tree, I tell you I would leave Zu to rot. I would leave him to die.’ She lets out a harsh laugh, then says, ‘But when it comes to here,’ she thumps her chest, ‘I can’t control my heart. Pumpkin, one day, when you grow up, you’ll understand. Love and hate is same-same.’
I like this paragraph because it adequately sums up the essence of the book; the essence of characters in the book that love and hate – they all didn’t choose to love or hate, they are victims of the heart’s desires.