One of my reading resolutions this year was that I would try and read more short story collections. For all my reading life I have avoided them. I think from knowing they are one of the hardest forms to write I worry they will be the hardest to read. I think of them as needing double the concentration as so much is crammed into so little, I also worry that I will muddle all the tales. Petina Gappah’s collection ‘An Elegy for Easterly’ has blown me away, I think it could be one of the best short story works I have read, which is even more impressive given that it is her debut work.
Petina Gappah’s debut and collection of short stories are fictional tales of her homeland Zimbabwe. Though these are fictional accounts much of the descriptions and facts are very true to life based on what Gappah knows. Now I don’t see very much on the news about Zimbabwe and after reading this I am shocked and quite saddened at that, for it’s a place where things aren’t easy under the regime of Robert Mugabe. It’s also a place that has become slightly unstable since leaving the commonwealth. It’s a place where the rich get richer while the poor get poorer, a place of political regime and corruption which cannot be questioned, a place where aids is abundant and the economy has gone to pot – a loaf of bread costs half a million dollars.
Through the eyes of her characters, or tales in third person we get an insight into some of these situations. A minister’s wife watches an empty coffin being buried in order to stay in line with the president and have a life now her husband is gone in At the Sound of the Last Post. A congregation watch on as a bride marries a man with all the visual symptoms of aids and no one stops her knowing her marriage will also be the death of her in The Cracked, Pink Lips of Rosie’s Bridegroom. In the tale Our Man in Geneva Wins a Million Euro’s we learn the pitfalls of email lottery winners who end up in huge debts. Most tragic for me was the books title tale An Elegy for Easterly which showed how when the Queen visits all the mentally ill, the prostitutes, diseased and very poor are shipped out of towns and into the countryside and the shocking results this has.
With ‘elegy’ in the title you would expect it to be a form of lament; Gappah does throw in humour through some of the wonderful characters we meet such as the marvellous M’dhara Vitalis Mukaro. “When the prices of everything went up ninety-seven times in one year, M’dhara Vitalis Mukaro came out of retirement to make the coffins in which we buried our dead. In the space of only six months, he came famous twice over, as the best coffin maker in the district and as the Mupandawana Dancing Champion.”
To combine all these things and to then fill the tales with such emotion and vividness is incredible and shows the remarkable skill of Gappah. Whats more I have only told you about a few of the tales, there are many more most which deal with the shocking lack of monogamy in marriages and the effects this has health wise, emotionally and mentally. All this in under 300 pages too! It’s frankly a shame we have a few years to wait for her novel, I will without doubt be one of the first in the queue for a copy as I think her writing is incredible. No wonder it won The Guardian First Book Award. I urge everyone to get their hands on this, it’s just wonderful. I don’t think I can say more than that.
Which collection of short storieshas had you feeling like this? Which would you thoroughly recommend me to look out for? I am clearly thoroughly recommending you run and grab this collection right now.