They had the experience…but missed the meaning

They had the experience…but missed the meaning

(Youth provides no indemnification against accountability)

Book Review By Colin Bower (July 2006)


House of Stone

by Christina Lamb

Harper Press;  322pp; Pounds14.99


If there is one thing that the writer of a book ought surely to get right, it is his – or her – choice of an epigraph. Here surely is an area where writers cannot easily fail, for no matter how tepid their own imagination, how vapid their powers of cerebration, how disjointed their prose, or how limited their ability to formulate original thought, they can at least – in this matter of choosing an impressive epitaph – ride on the coat tails of the gifted and the celebrated. They can impress by indicating the intellectual company they keep, and, for the brief moment before the reader embarks upon the main body of their work, they can bask in the reflected light of another’s.


But even in this regard, Christina Lamb, author of the recently published work House of Stone, fails. For she chooses to preface her work with this time-worn and oft-repeated quotation from Alan Paton’s 1948 book Cry, the Beloved Country: “I have one great fear in my heart – that one day when they are turned to loving they will find we are turned to hating”. The words are spoken by Msimangu. “They” are the whites, “we” are the blacks. Whether the observation ever had currency is open to question, but from the aspect of nearly 60 years on, it overpowers with its simplistic and saccharine sentimentality. In the first place, the public affairs of Africa turn no more around issues of love than they do anywhere else in the world. In the second, we can now see that – under the guise of its Patience Strong surface – it is plainly racist, “they”, the whites, all feel the same thing, “we”, the blacks, similarly all feel the same thing. Thirdly, in the wake of the Truth and Reconciliation hearings after the demise of apartheid in South Africa, it has proved to be a hopelessly inaccurate comment upon the resilient human resource of South Africa. And finally, it fatally undermines Lamb’s purpose, which is repeatedly to question exclusively racist interpretations of the farm invasions (“…it was never really a racial issue”), to demonstrate the continuing goodwill between people at ground level in Zimbabwe (including the war vets themselves), and finally to highlight the incomprehensible visitation of terror and destruction by black Zimbabwean upon black Zimbabwean, in regard to which one might ask, “who has stopped loving who?”


Just a little more on Cry, the Beloved Country. For many years it enjoyed the status of a classic, and it became a setwork in schools and universities. I wonder if this continues to be the case. I read it as a schoolboy, and, without knowing why – because on the face of things it seemed to glow with human concern – I was unimpressed. It was only years later that I realised why. The “system” it depicts is of course profoundly evil, but oddly, none of the people who populate its pages are. They are all either good, or misunderstood, or confused, and all of them are forgivable. What then is the origin of the evil? It just appears, and no-one is to blame. This was of course the deadly trap of the kind of liberalism espoused by Paton. From the perspective of that liberal view, nearly all people are good, and, when they are not, they are always forgivable. No-one is purely evil, and with understanding always comes pardon. Well, again in the light of the Truth and Reconciliation hearings in South Africa, with their revelation of planned killings, torture and detention, we know just how purblind such a view is.


Cry, the Beloved Country is in my view, then, a sentimental work, and no where is this sentimentality better reflected than in the Biblical affectations of the language: “I have one great fear in my heart…”  Why “…in my heart”? Why not just: “I have one great fear”? The effect of this language is to suggest that life is an eschatological drama playing out to predetermined and tragic ends, irrespective of human intervention. It lets us all off the hook. In short, an association with Cry, the Beloved Country must surely be the kiss of death for any a book about Africa in 2006 that invites our serious consideration. It is not therefore an auspicious start to House of Stone.


Lamb’s is indeed a lamentable book, and none of what follows would ordinarily be of interest to readers who want to know what is worth reading, rather than what is not. But, in this case it is of interest, because she has won a string of impressive prizes for her writing, she is a Nieman Fellow of Harvard University – no mean achievement – she holds a top job in international journalism, she has had three other books published, House of Stone is in at least its second printing in Britain, and it is currently one of the top ten best sellers of non-fiction in South Africa, and, finally, because Edwina Currie is quoted on the book’s jacket as expressing this extravagant opinion: “…perfect in every way”. Here is a serious tide of opinion to turn, if one can.


The trope upon which the work is built is as follows. When the farm of a white Zimbabwean farmer Nigel Hough is invaded, he sees to his astonishment and disbelief that leading the wave of so-called war veterans is a black woman who has lived in his own household for the previous six years, working as the nanny of his five children. Lamb sets out to provide case histories of the lives of the two protagonists, Hough and Aquinata (“Aqui”), presumably with the intention of revealing important truths about Zimbabwe along the way, and then, when their two lives intersect in this dramatic fashion, to illuminate the broader context. If this is indeed her goal, she fails.


There is a palpable discontinuity between her accounts of the life of Hough and the life of Aqui, who is never in the book accorded the dignity of having a surname. The genre is “faction”, and so Lamb creates as an imaginative undertaking the dialogue and the fine detail of the circumstances of Aqui’s life. But Aqui is never saved from being a cardboard cut-out. She is a product of Lamb’ journalistic notebook, and remains immune behind barriers of language, culture and time from understanding by the westerner. Lamb never gets under Aqui’s skin; her character remains merely the locus of external descriptions of a tribal childhood and of tribal customs and the like.


The technique is, in itself, legitimate enough, but in the actual performance it can be – because gauche and unrealised – embarrassing. Although what purports to be direct speech in the text is indicated by italics, it is hard to know from place to place whether it is the “voice” of the narrator or the protagonist we are hearing. As a twelve year old, Aqui is raped by her schoolmaster. “But before she knew what was happening he had thrown her to the ground and her face was full of his stale smell, his head bald like a lizard thrusting back and forth…Finally he shuddered to a climax, yanking himself out so that his juice sprayed in a sticky white fountain over her thighs and skirt”. Typographically, this is not represented in the book as Aqui’s direct speech; it is part of the narration. But is it the adult narrator or her child protagonist who describes semen as “juice”? Why was it the schoolmaster’s head that was “thrusting back and forth”? Surely it was his pelvis? Is this Aqui’s actual experience…or Lamb’s fictionalised account of it?


Lamb’s style is to strive to re-create the consciousness of the child Aqui as she lives through this and other experiences. But when on the next morning after the rape Aqui goes to find a secret place to hide and deal with her pain, she finds herself amongst some ancient ruins. Her own consciousness is abruptly terminated as the author butts in, so to speak, to tell us: “The central Zimbabwe plateau, on which lay Zhakata’s Kraal, has many such mysterious ruins…” and so she continues at some length. It is a farrago. The rape is never again mentioned in the book, and we have no means of knowing how it shaped the emerging consciousness of Aqui.


On the face of it, these may seem like trivial stylistic concerns, but they are not. Aqui, a living person, is raped. This is presumably a life-influencing event, and an experience of some considerable pain and terror to her (or is it? how are we to know?). But we are given a set piece, profoundly generic, employing language used a thousand fold times before for such a purpose. Under these circumstances, how do we truly get to know Aqui? How can we be sure that the account, mediated firstly by the adult Aqui’s recollection, and then by the author’s sensibility, can be trusted? The procedure is flawed.


The issue of “voice” re-emerges in different ways. Take this: “As on most Rhodesian farms, this (the veranda) was where much of life took place and where tea turned to sundowners brought by servants”. Whose is that problematic word, servant? What, no inverted commas? Any historian writing about South Africa would clearly distance himself or herself if forced into using a word like “kaffir”, or even “native”, and there is a raft of assumptions that also go with a word like “servant”. 


She describes a railway station as follows: “…the platform was packed with natives hoping to sell sodas…”, and because I find no trace of irony, I believe the offending word – natives – has been used thoughtlessly at best, at worst, reflecting an unconscious “buy in” to caste stereotyping. When Aqui is described by Lamb as being “much loved”, does it mean that Lamb has herself acquiesced in the Hough’s understanding of his family’s relationship with Aqui? A phrase like: “Even with Rhodesia’s cheap labour, they would not have been able to maintain their lifestyle…” is not used with any indication that the “cheapness” is seen only from the perspective of the employer, and not from the employee, for whom the labour comes at considerable cost in deprivation, nor any understanding that it is precisely in words of this sort that we can profitably start to trace the origins of Aqui’s “incomprehensible” participation in the invasion of Kendor Farm, owned by someone Lamb has called “a model white farmer”.


Aqui uses the revealing phrase: “Boss Hough and Madam Claire weren’t like other whites. They treated me almost like part of the family”, and then, a few lines later, the narrator’s voice appears: “They (the Houghs) were paying for her to do a cookery course. They even ran an orphanage for…AIDS orphans…and gave them milk from their own cows”. (my italics). There is a conflation of voice and attitude here, and it reflects the fact that Lamb has not created half enough critical distance between herself and her subjects. Describing the vets on Hough’s farm she writes: “Their leader…was strutting around directing things, though clearly unsteady on his feet after a night’s carousing.” (my italics). But Lamb was not present at the time, the scene is observed by Hough; it is Hough’s attitude that is expressed by the words in italics, but they are repeated by Lamb as her own.


The account of Nigel Hough perpetrates a myth: the innocent youth myth. He grows up in a well-to-do white family, and attends a smart public school. Not until well until his adulthood does he give any thought to the caste system that provides him with so much privilege. I grew up in a similar caste system in South Africa, and was never saintly nor an activist. However, it is frankly inconceivable to me that anyone growing up under such circumstances would not hear the inner voice of disquiet and doubt, no matter how faint. The notion of moral innocence is an evasion. Youth provides no indemnification against accountability. And if the inner voices are for some reason inexplicably silent, there are also the outer voices. Even in the most conservative of Afrikaner households in South Africa, there was the voice, for instance, of a Beyers Naude, speaking of injustice from within the most holy of holies, the Dutch Reformed Church.


Hough hears no such voices, and when a ceasefire is declared shortly after he receives his military call-up, he describes his reaction as follows: “I had desperately wanted to be part of the war and was bitterly disappointed”. Later, at the University of Cape Town, he joins the Conservative Party of the Afrikaans white supremacist, Andries Treurnicht.


In the meantime Lamb has been traipsing through the terrain of his forebears and his family in somewhat military fashion herself. It is ho hum stuff at best, and compares unfavourably with the laconic and disturbingly frank first person account of life in the old Rhodesia by Alexandra Fuller, who wrote Let’s Not Go to the Dogs Tonight. Lamb also provides something of a potted history of recent Zimbabwean political history along the way. But let’s cut to the chase – to the later years when the farm invasions seriously start. By this time Hough has “seen the light” as it were, not an inappropriate choice of phrase because he has become what people like to call a “committed Christian”, and when he talks about political strategy he uses the Old Testament as a source for his political decision-making (“The scriptures say you also need to be wise like the serpent”). He seeks an alliance with a group in America calling itself the Moral Majority.


Faith may seem to be a private concern, but it becomes a public concern when people seek to demonstrate that moral capacity is drawn from the holy texts of a particular cult or religion. It is of concern because its implicit suggestion is that those who do not wish to refer to holy texts as a basis for their behaviour are thereby incapable of demonstrating moral capacity. Christianity, I have argued at length elsewhere, is a totalitarian ideology, and by swopping his allegiance from white supremacist politics to Christianity, he is merely swopping one totalitarian ideology for another. Why can’t he just think for himself?


Other aspects of the Hough character that are depicted in the book are indicative of a persistently immature person. Now an adult, living in an environment described by Lamb as a “battlefield”, with 18 farmers already murdered, he gets involved in a poster campaign and describes his experience thus: “It was good fun, exciting like in the war”. There is a larger context to this sort of behaviour. It was (and remains) tactically naïve and culpably ignorance to imagine that you can resist the boundless tyranny of a Mugabe who abrogates the rule of law, imprisons opponents, curtails media freedom, and sponsors violence against the persons and the possessions of Zimbabweans, by a poster campaign.


Whether it is by way of his courage or his stupidity he stays on at his farm with his wife and children as his neighbours are murdered, and their farms occupied. His is finally the last white occupied farm in Marondera. The rule of law is suspended and the police wash their hands of the land invasions and the violence and slaughter that go with them. Lamb reports Hough as saying: “But he knew Claire (his wife) worried about his MDC work and wanted him to stop, and he wondered if he was being selfish. The last thing in the world he wanted to do was hurt the woman he adored”.  Didn’t want her to be hurt! Oh come on, how disingenuous can you get? This is at a time when the war vets are already on his farm, high on marijuana, burning fires, beating drums, chanting all night, and threatening mayhem. Surely adoration is expressed by getting your wife (and your children) out of harm’s way? Later we learn that the vets try to abduct Claire on five occasions.


Now to the crunch. The farm is finally invaded, lead by nanny turned Amazon, Aqui. If there is something in the drawn out description of her life that might explain the deeper significance of her action, this is not made apparent. If the intersection of her life and the life of her erstwhile boss is meant to result in a shower of illuminating sparks, it fails. In fact, by way of illumination or explanation, we get the dampest of squibs, and the perpetration of another myth, the myth of love betrayed. It is the lament of parents through the ages. “We loved you so much…how could you do this to us?” But surely we have all moved on since Paul McCartney, that unheralded master of the short story in lyrics, write the memorable song “She’s Leaving Home”, that so poignantly and pithily captures the self-pitying self deception of the parents, who sing: “we gave her everything money could buy”, to which the youthful response is: “fun is the one thing that money can’t buy”?


Neither Hough nor Lamb appears to have heard the song, for Hough at this climactic moment says: “I don’t want to ever talk to her (Aqui) again. I’ve trusted her as a member of the family and can’t believe she is doing this”. Lamb, characteristically confusing for the reader the source of the views being offered, writes: “He thought about all they had done for her, the medical insurance, the school fees for her children, the uniforms, even sending her second daughter Valerie on a secretarial course. Aqui herself they had just sent for some cookery lessons” (I wonder who was going to be the beneficiary of these lessons?). Lamb reports him as saying: “You have these people as part of your life, they are exposed to all of your private stuff, you trust your children to them…I wanted to kill her” (my italics). Who are “these people”? Blacks? Do they behave in this way because they are black? Are they all the same? Aqui didn’t ask to be trusted, Hough chose to trust her because it was the only basis on which he could justify taking her into his home, where of course she had to be if she was going to provide the services of a nanny.


The Houghs deceived themselves into believing that because they “loved” her, she would love them back. The nature of the underlying nexus between them: they have so much to give, she has so little and so must take, is never brought to the surface of the story, or deconstructed either by the narrator, or by Hough. Nor that their “love” is really part of a commercial arrangement between them, the “love” being a necessary pre-condition of the “trust” that they have no choice but to feel for someone who is going to look after their children. It’s plainly dishonest, and it’s patronising and its paternal – just like the Christian-formulated nexus between the God who loves us, and we who are therefore expected to love God in return is patronising and paternal. And so at the end of this odyssey of intersecting lives, we have no revealing explanation for Aqui’s behaviour.


Taken at its face value, the narrative can only suggest that the explanation lies in that hoary old chestnut, loyalty betrayed. But loyalty betrayed is not the exclusive disappointment of white farmers in Zimbabwe, it is the daily regimen of political life, corporate life and a great deal of personal life everywhere. It adds nothing to our understanding of the Zimbabwean experience in general, or of the lives of Aqui and Hough in particular, or of the motivation of the invaders. Hough must surely have known that the issues being played out on his farm were far bigger than the rubric “loyalty betrayed” might have suggested, and yet he says to two of his farm workers who are part of the army of invaders: “Wonedzi, how could you do this after all we’ve done for you?…Norman, I got you that job, how could you do this?” And how could Lamb report his words without giving any evidence or clue whatsoever that she understands the problem that they implicitly represent? She reports some sound and a little fury, but it signifies nothing. The “…astonishing human saga…” that the book is claimed to depict is neither astonishing nor a saga.


Should there be a revolution in South Africa, I would confidently expect those that I have employed in my home to be leading the charge to possess it. There is no amount of generosity that can offset the disparity of wealth that separates so many employers and their employees. And in the world over I suspect that employees even in upper middle class jobs always take some measure of delight in the misfortunes that befall their employers. After the invasion of the Hough farm is over, Hough and Aqui become friends again. The Houghs take her with them on an expensive holiday to Sun City. But on what basis of understanding the friendship is re-established is not made clear. There is no evidence that any learning or transformation has taken place, nor any process of mutual re-appraisal.


In large measure the book is also offered as contemporary history. But there are significant parts of it that I find hard to believe. This is not because I suspect the author of mendacity; it’s just that I just don’t trust the narrative style. A central case in point is the description of the actual taking possession of the farmstead by the vets, and the subsequent events. Important details are blurred, and poorly edited sentences confuse. Hough along with a male friend is trapped in his house for two days. At one stage the police arrive, and a general discussion between all the parties takes place. Where? Outside? Since the police are clearly hostile to Hough and his friend, why do the invaders not use this as an opportunity simply to walk into the house and occupy it? And since they don’t why is this not explained? Details are obfuscated: “Outside the crowd surged forth, yelling ‘Hondo! Hondo! (War! War!)’ and tried to push their way through.” But why forth – the crowd have long since surrounded the house? Through what did they try to push their way? Who or what stopped them? At this moment Hough appears to stroll somewhere to talk to two of his own farm workers. Is he not threatened? What is going on elsewhere? Where is Aqui at this precise moment?


There are more than a hundred invaders. The police leave and night falls. Why don’t the invaders simply break into the house? What does one make of the startling information that the very same Norman who had been the target of Hough’s school-marmish admonition, “how could you do this”, has within hours of this lecture gone home and hanged himself? Is it conceivable that his shame was so great? His companion who had also been lectured, Wonedzi, extraordinarily has a “heart attack” and also dies within hours of hearing Hough’s words. Here surely is a singular phenomenon that bears investigation for the light it might shed on events and attitudes. Why doesn’t the author explore so extraordinary an outcome?


Hough and his companion are arrested and taken for interrogation to the police station “where the war vets had tortured people”. There Hough deflects the life threatening situation by an astonishing tactic: he says he is quite happy for one of the female leaders of the invaders (Netsai, not Aqui) to come and live in his house, but he is frightened that his wife will be overcome with sexual jealousy.


The lady in question, a former prostitute, is described by Hough as follows: “…she was really an ugly lady, small and fat with yellow teeth all over the place, and when she snarled she looked even more ugly”. When Hough says his wife will be jealous, Netsai, he reports, says: “ ‘Oh Mr Hough’ as if flirting with me”. And then the members of the angry invaders crowded together in the police station start laughing and saying: “Hough and Netsai, Hough is marrying Netsai…”. and they repeat the story to each other “like a biblical tale”. As a result of this, the whole impetus of the meeting collapses, and Hough is released.


All of this may of may not be true. But as we all know, there is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Does the narrative satisfy all there criteria? I remain unconvinced.


A wider question implicitly posed by the book, though not raised either by the author or by Hough is inescapable and challenging. Can whites also be Africans with a role left to play in an African country where they are no longer wanted and where their rights have been destroyed? There are two possible answers to this question: yes, they are Africans – only co-incidentally white – who adapt, trade-in many of their values, their customs and their allegiances, and they are entitled to dig in their heels and insist on their right to be accommodated in Africa. But by far the majority of white Zimbabweans answer the question differently. No. there is no place for whites in an African country that does not want them, and where their rights are destroyed. Albeit unwillingly, they assert instead their rights as global citizens, and they go to countries where they are made welcome, and where their rights are respected.


It is not clear from the book, unfortunately, which answer Hough gives. He is staying on, but he doesn’t vindicate his decision unambiguously. Had he done so, one might – even with reservation – have had an opportunity to admire his insistence on his right to stay on his farm, and then to stay on in Zimbabwe after he had been dispossessed. Personally I don’t give a fig for arguments based on a quasi-spiritual attachment to “the soul of Africa”, or some such formulation. I have never believed that “the sky is bigger in Africa than it is in England”, and every country has its beauty and its virtue. Our best weapon against tyrants and political exploitation wherever it may exist is to vote with our feet, as it were, and go to where a government gives us the best deal available, consistent with our preference for climate and related factors. But no, in Hough’s case there is no articulated ideological or moral position that he has taken, one which one might admire, even if one weren’t to agree with it. It seems likely that he remains in Zimbabwe as a tactic: perhaps it’s better for the moment to be in Zimbabwe under duress, but with a job and a reasonable standard of living, than in some other country with freedom and security, no assets, and a miserable standard of living. But it’s a pity we don’t get to find out, because without such an articulation, Hough can be understood as nothing more than a pragmatist.


House of Stone opens with an extended description of the devastation that has been caused by Operation Murambatswina (Operation Clean-Up). Lamb claims to have been much moved and disturbed by this act of warfare by the government against its own citizens. Perhaps it is unfair to make the comparison, but – in expressing her reaction to such an outrage  she demonstrates that she is no Tom Paine. In the face of such an irredeemable act of spite and brutality – deliberately to destroy the meagre assets of a people surviving on the work they have created for themselves, in shelter they have built for themselves – maybe one needs to aspire to be a Tom Paine. This is no common act of cruelty. It is an act that makes me think of Shakespeare, necessarily at full stretch in order to evoke the horror of regicide: “And pity, like a naked new born babe,/Striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubin hors’d/Upon the sightless couriers of the air,/Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,/That tears shall drown the wind.” He could not have written that without feeling himself the pain and the outrage he expresses.


Mugabe’s destruction of the lives and the livelihoods of his fellow Zimbabweans is so feral, so empty of any human empathy, so solipsistic, and the cause of such utter desolation, that, in our response, we must surely express a kingly grief. Lamb is no craftsperson with words, nor is her evocation of the devastation she sees one that plumbs her depths of outrage or stretches her powers of evocation (“I stared aghast…”). Nor does she provide anything by way of analysis or forensic acumen to help her reader understand the causes, implicit or explicit, that might explain the destruction. A number of other governments are surely complicit in Mugabe’s action, for instance. Should they not be named and shamed, and opprobrium heaped accordingly?


In this respect, Lamb reminds us in a line, that Mugabe was knighted by the Queen in the mid-90s. By this time either she or her advisors were bound to have known that Mugabe had unleashed his notorious Fifth Brigade into Matabeleland, which, with the aid of North Korean advisers, had slaughtered unarmed Ndebele civilians in estimated numbers that range from 7 000 to 20 000. They knew this when they made their benighted gesture. The British Government can surely now not expect the world to believe it is morally offended by what is taking place in Zimbabwe?


Not the least of the criticism that may be levelled against House of Stone is that it is badly edited, and appallingly produced. It is no great advertisement for the editorial standards of a top British publishing house. No editor has attempted to push Lamb to an improved formulation of her thoughts from place-to-place (“Her perfumed smell reminded him of honeysuckle after rain, very different to that he was used to of boys’ dormitory reeking of sweat and damp socks”). This is a description of the effect Claire has on Hough at the time of his first meeting with her; Claire is to become his wife. It is the tortuous syntax that needs attention. But – as a matter of interest – does honeysuckle smell any differently after rain? And whose fanciful simile is this – Hough’s or Lamb’s?


There are inconsistencies in style and solecisms (sometimes “4”, sometimes “four”, “eleven visits”, “2 million” “eighteen years”. “14 weeks” “70 per cent”, “…a quarter of the population have left the country…”). Unforgivably, we find a sentence beginning with a numeral: “68-year-old Anthony Gubbay…” There are factual errors: “…the next victim of what Harold Wilson called the ‘winds of change’ sweeping through the continent” – it was of course Harold Macmillan who coined the phrase “the wind of change”. And typos have been left in the text (“Partisani resistance fighters”). Perhaps the explanation lies in the author’s acknowledgement note: “…huge thanks to editor Arabella Pike who somehow managed to turn my manuscript around in record time in between moving house, looking after a new baby and taking on a new job”. It shows.


You will also find reproduced in the book a set of pictures that look like they were taken in the 1940s with a box Brownie, including a picture of – wait for it – an ostrich, and also, amongst others, a grey picture of a cactus tree, and an irrelevant picture of “Mary and John’s wedding”. A trivial complaint? Not at all, the trivialisation lies in the use of meaningless and irrelevant pictures as if they were somehow expected to improve either our understanding or our enjoyment of the text. What is the author’s assessment of the value of her enterprise if she feels it could be improved by the use of such utterly worthless images? Increasingly as I think about the book, it seems to me to have the status of a lightweight historical travelogue dressed up to appear something much more important.


In writing about the tragedy of Zimbabwe in a manner that is both contrived (the parallel stories of Hough and Aqui that adds up to nothing, but purport to be an “astonishing human saga…”), and anodyne (“I stared aghast…”), Lamb leaves the reader with the painful impression of being a trophy hunter. She travels the world in her job, writes a book, and moves on. But of course, after House of Stone, the tragedy of Zimbabwe remains. It is, at best, a dilettante-ish approach, at worst, it represents exactly what enrooted or indigenous people fear from the culture of foreign correspondentry: it dresses up reports from the frontiers with a patina of learning and familiarity, but it trivialises complex issues, misinforms global audiences, and lets down the very people it nominally claims to be helping.


When you have read House of Stone, you might be tempted to say with TS Eliot, that the author and her protagonists “had the experience but missed the meaning”. In the book’s fore matter, Lamb tells us that her trips to Zimbabwe “would have been a lot less fun” had it not been for the presence of one Firle Davis, whoever he or she may be. We must all take our pleasures where we can, but “fun” is an odd experience to have during an assignment to observe and record events in “…the most unhappy place in the world”. What her story represents is not so much “faction” as the simple commodification of human tragedy.



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