In her debut novel, set in Pennsylvania, New York and Johannesburg, Zinzi Clemmons takes on big subjects. She explores cancer, death, race and sex in an unflinching, but not fearless manner. She is fearful. Cancer is frightening and relentless. Dying is painful and sordid. Racism is all around. And sex can be dangerous.
Thandi, as a light-skinned African American woman, challenges the way others see her. She describes herself as a ‘strange in-betweener’, one who never feels accepted. Her mother warns her not to make friendships with women whose skins are darker than her own, stating that, inevitably, envy will lead to rancour.
As she matures, Thandi chooses white boyfriends, often freckled and/or red haired. Clemmons doesn’t draw the obvious conclusion – that Thandi is attracted to those at the very end of the continuum between whiteness and blackness. But it may be that she would love to be, like these boyfriends, definitely something. Others are constantly confused by her appearance. Is she black? Or Spanish? Or Asian? Or Jewish? At one time or another she is assessed as all of these. She’s told that she’s not a ‘real black person’.
In terms of the boyfriends, there are gentler passages about skin and stroking but, on the whole, the descriptions of sex are pretty graphic. The language she uses is coarse and direct. Thandi loves sex and gets a lot of it, one way or another. It’s not a novel for the prudish.
The most important role in life is, Thandi believes, that of a mother. The account of her beloved mother’s death from breast cancer, is gruelling. No detail is omitted. And the void left by her mother’s absence is at the centre of the novel. Numbly she and her father mourn her, surrounded by dust and take-away cartons.
In looking at motherhood Clemmons discusses the extraordinary iteration of Winnie Mandela, otherwise known as Ms Madikizela-Mandela, who was involved, alongside the Mandela United Football Club, in the torture and murder of youths. Clemmons moralises that maternal models are inappropriate for peace-keeping.
Other examples of the real world intrude. Political events such as Obama’s election are documented. These do not seem to be inserted to provide a contextual time-line, but rather to make some sort of philosophical point about life and death in a fundamentally racist world. It’s mannered and is a bit of a stretch from the overarching memorial/ memoir tone of the novel.
What We Lose is, perhaps, an attempt to emulate or match Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s work, such as Americanah: a love/hate song to Adichie’s two countries, America and Nigeria. It doesn’t really succeed though, for three reasons.
Firstly, it is too much like the sort of autobiographical piece submitted to ‘true story’ women’s magazines, entitled I Lost My Mum to Cancer or I Know What You’re Thinking When You Look At Me.
Secondly, although the blurb describes the book as moving and emotional, it really isn’t. The characters do not ring true. Even Thandi herself, a protagonist who is supposed to be entirely self-centred, is lacking in personality.
Finally, the prose is fragmented. The style is more blog or notebook. Chapters are so short as to be mere paragraphs. Linear chronology is sacrificed leaving the reader floundering. It almost seems like a series of creative writing exercises have been cut and pasted. It’s a shame because Clemmons probably does have interesting things to say about cancer, death, race and sex. Perhaps she needs to move away from what seems to be fictionalised autobiography to achieve that.
Ngozi Adichie, C. Americanah. Alfred A. Knopf. 2013. Print.
Clemmons, Z. What We Lose. 4th Estate. 2017. Print.
A version of this review was first published on page 36 of the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 22nd July 2017.