The White Shadow by Andrea Eames

19th Jan 2012


I was therefore a little wary of Andrea Eames’ second novel, The White Shadow. I reckoned it was easy enough for a white woman brought up in Zimbabwe during the early noughties to write about the time she experienced as a teenager, but could she write about anything else as well?

The answer is yes. She certainly can.

Beginning with a feeling of utmost despair (how could you not fall in love with a story that starts with a man sitting in the corpse of a rotting elephant?) it is clear that this, once again, is not going to be a happy novel.

Tinashe is a Shona boy growing up in rural Rhodesia in the late 1960s with his Baba, Amai and younger sister Hazvinei. Hazvinei has always been different; not speaking until she is seven, biting, and being generally spoilt by her doting parents.

Intelligent but little, Tinashe is also under Hazvinei’s spell along with his city-dwelling cousin Abel, who stays with the family ever summer by the request of his pompous father, who escaped the rural life through a University scholarship and now lives in unimaginable luxury in the nearby unnamed city.

As the children grow, their lives seem to blend the traditions of Tinashe’s Shona ancestors with the influence of the white colonialists, although there is always an undercurrent of fear and racism.

They play in the river pretending to be white soldiers vs. black rebels and the adults teach the children to ‘act stupid’ in front of any whites passing through the village to avid abuse.

Eames describes childhood perfectly and shows that ‘play’ is universal no matter where in the world you live. Although some scenes are laugh out loud funny there is always the sense of panic in how Tinashe and Hazvinei interact with their world.

The book blends folklore and superstition perfectly with accessible language, relatable characters, believable dialogue and a fast-paced, well-structured plot.

As the children grow, Tinashe loves learning whereas Abel and Hazvinei are mischief-makers and leaders of the gang of village children. Tinashe is constantly told to look after his sister, despite her clearly being the leader of the pair and him her shadow.

Cultural gender differences are subtly included throughout the book – one of the most moving moments is when Hazvinei is born; father and son are excluded from a room full of women, and share a cigarette on the porch of their house. These segregations are made even more apparent when the siblings enter puberty, Tinashe behind his sister and cousin.

The fear that has followed Tinashe since childhood comes to ahead when Hazvinei’s mischief-making goes too far, and tragedy strikes the village. Along with rebel forces growing in the forests and the rumour of a powerful female spirit called Nahanda stalking the land to reclaim Rhodesia from the whites the fallout from Hazvinei’s actions affects both Tinashe and Abel profoundly and the outcome is devastating.

The last half of the book is not an easy read, with naïve and trusting Tinashe’s life rapidly falling apart. The tragic, graphic writing and subject material means that this book is definitely not suitable for younger teens.

However, the book is yet another powerful piece of writing, Eames’ main achievement being how she once again uses the voice of a teenager to bring important events and issues to the reader.

Although this book is a lot less political than The Cry of the Go-Away Bird, the way she handles issues such as gender roles, abuse, poverty, unplanned pregnancy and the difference between rural and urban living makes this point a brilliant talking point.

I would recommend this to parents of older teens wanting to discuss these issues with their children. This is a less personal, more profound novel and once again made me want to research and find out more about the history of Zimbabwe (as Rhodesia became).

Published next month by Harvill Secker, you can pre-order it in paperback for £11.69, or for Kindle for £9.31.

Rating: 5/5. Wonderful book, though the last third is a bit gruesome.

Recommended for: Fans of When God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman or Anne Fine, and anyone with access to an older teen.

Other recommended reading: Throughout reading this, I had flashbacks to the first time I read A Girl Named Disaster by Nancy Farmer, also set in the region and blending the traditions of the Shona with modern post-colonialist life.

I’d also recommend Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor, another book also exploring dreadful events from the eyes of a child. And obviously, The Cry of the Go-Away Bird!

Jess Haigh