‘On the 18th of April 1980, my grandfather burnt the British flag. I remember because it was my sixth birthday and he ruined it.’ (p1) This begins the narrator’s recount of the occurrences surrounding her sixth birthday and – thus – sets the novel in motion. The narration of Rheam’s compelling first novel is entrusted to the care of Ellie, born in 1974, and living with her parents in small town Bulawayo. Ellie’s sixth birthday coincides with the birth of a new country: Zimbabwe.
‘The day of my sixth birthday was the day Zimbabwe got its Independence from Britain. No one went to work. Prince Charles came all the way from England to shake Mr Mugabe’s hand and give back the country to the black people. Many white people had already decided to leave by the time the Rhodesian flag was lowered and the new Zimbabwean one hoisted.’ (p1)
The period Zimbabwe gained independence from Britain marked a significant moment in the life of Gran, Ellie’s grandmother, with whom she was closely attached. The flag burning incident, resulting from the intoxicated grandfather’s behaviour, during which Gran’s forearm is permanently scarred, sets the basis on which Gran leaves Grandfather in search of her own freedom. Ellie describes the scar: ‘I said that it looked like the shape of Zimbabwe etched on her arm. I think Gran was always a little proud of the mark, a symbol of the price she paid for freedom.’ (p2)
The story thus emerges out of Gran’s separation, as she leaves Grandfather to set up her own home. Gran’s departure affects Ellie’s regular routine and this creates a longing that is hard to fill. Among other things, Ellie misses Gran for the times when she would read to her from her library books, or when they would walk to the library together. Now, to cater for the boredom and loneliness created at home because of the absence of Gran, Ellie passes weekends at Gran’s and thus creates a strong link between her old life and that of her new life. Ellie describes herself as a ‘go-between’. (p5)
As the story moves back and forth, Ellie is determined to seek a life beyond what the little Bulawayo offers. In one of the many conversations that ensue between Gran and herself, she declares why she wants to leave Bulawayo. ‘I’ll die, Gran, if I stay here. I’ll shrivel up and die.’ (p83) Ellie’s wish is realized when she finally leaves Zimbabwe in January 1993 and relocates to England. While in England, she embraces the warmth the new environment offers:
‘Here was everything I had ever dreamed of… It had absorbing culture, it had art and, above all, it had books. There was no pressure to conform, no need to be anyone but myself. It is strange now to realize that freedom, or an idea of it, is something that exists in one’s mind.’ (p85)
Ellie returns to Zimbabwe after her grandmother has been murdered and embarks on a journey in which her past family secrets are to be unveiled. The mysteries that surrounded her childhood are unraveled, thrashing out the opaque secretive past. The question of identity, in the end, becomes paramount and Ellie discusses this with her suitor, Tony. In response, Tony says:
‘We both want to be in control… both black and white. The problem in Zimbabwe is that whites want to live first world lives in a third world country and can’t understand when it doesn’t work out like that. The problem with blacks is that they want to do things their way, but it’s never really their idea. Their own idea. Democracy, for example. It’s somebody else’s invention. They talk of colonialism and the need of an African culture, but they wouldn’t swap any of the benefits of colonialism for the chance to have their old way of life back.’ (p187)
Ellie’s return is marked with a sense of hope, one that promises a new beginning rather than returning to the past. It is with this sense of hope that Tony presses on. ‘Africa is Africa… Accept it and move on.’ (p249) In the end, it is clear that Ellie has pondered on these words and concludes: ‘I felt it was time to put my life into perspective… I don’t want to live in the past.’ (p250)
‘This September Sun’ is an overwhelmingly interesting narrative with a dual cast on life since independence and life in the Diaspora: the mainstream focus on the new independent Zimbabwe and Ellie’s journey to the United Kingdom. Rheam’s first novel is ambitious in its own right and deserves to be commended. I highly recommend ‘This September Sun’.