Sue Nyathi’s fourth novel is her most remarkable and complex to date, writes Jennifer Platt



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Sue Nyathi’s An Angel’s Demise was written after a series of fortunate events — and quite a bit of hard work. A 15-year-old Nyathi penned a novel about an interracial relationship set on a farm. She called it Skeletons in the Closet. Its focus would be on a family called Williams, their life on a farm, and a girl named Angel. It was a simple interracial love story. Fast forward a few years and Nyathi found this handwritten novel when she was at university. She typed it up and saved it on a floppy disc. Not giving it another thought, she later discovered it again — by accident, says Nyathi. “I e-mailed the manuscript to myself! I found it when I was going through my hotmail in 2019. I thought I should revisit it as so much work went into it. “I don’t even remember how I came up with the story. It’s different to what it is now, but has more or less the same setting. I just added history.” It’s still an interracial love story set on a farm called Belle Acres in Zimbabwe. It begins in 1977 with farmworker Douglas running “like a thief in the night” to find the owner of the farm so he can get help for his girlfriend, Simphiwe, who is having trouble giving birth. “‘Baas! Baas!’ he bellowed in his raspy voice. ‘Baaaaaaaaaaaaas Paul!’ The echo of his desperate cries resound in the night. Paul is not happy about being woken up and tells his wife, Melanie: ‘You can’t get a peaceful night’s rest here without those munts causing chaos.’” Melanie orders Paul to take Simphiwe to hospital, where Velile is born. Her parents want a better life for their child. They get married; their daughter is baptised by the Roman Catholic Church and renamed Angela Velile Nzima. Then Douglas and Simphiwe decide to leave the farm and join the fight for liberation. Angel is left with her grandmother and great-grandmother on Belle Acres. They both die in a fire and Angel is adopted by the Williams. Angel and the Williams’s son, Bradley, fall in love but ... we all know the but. This is where Nyathi brings in the turmoil then under way in Zimbabwe. How it moves from being a segregated Rhodesia, the years of gruelling warfare, the harmful Lancaster House settlement, Robert Mugabe’s punitive rule and the horrors of land redistribution. It is a terrifying read of what happened and continues to happen. We learn about the political situation through Simphiwe and Douglas’s horrific experiences in the Zipra camps, as well as the consequences of Angel being brought up as a Williams. Nyathi says: “It made sense to go into the history of Zimbabwe, especially to explain the farms and of why land distribution happened so brutally. I wanted to tell both sides. I was interested as history keeps repeating itself. To weave it into a love story also makes it light. The history and the war are very heavy.” Nyathi uses her own life as a timeline to write about this period and what happened to her country. “I had to read quite a bit of the history as we didn’t have it as part of our school curriculum. The more I read, the more interested I became. There was so much I didn’t know, and what I knew was not correct. I wanted to focus on what had not been covered, which is mostly what happened in the Zipra camps in Zambia. “My aunt Jane joined the war movement and it was fascinating to know about that. I also read accounts of women who joined the struggle. The experiences they had were harrowing. The conditions of living in the bush where they had literally nothing — no food, no toiletries.” This is Nyathi’s fourth novel and her most complex. It takes the horrifying aspects of war and shows how they erode the souls of individuals as well as the country they now have to survive in. She says: “Douglas started off being a gentleman in love with Simphiwe. Then he went to the camps. He suffered from PTSD. “I wanted to touch on how people went to war and killed people but never got therapy or any sort of healing. And afterwards, they were simply expected to integrate into society and be normal. But a lot of them were not normal. It was never dealt with. I found that so disturbing and I wanted to show how war can change you as a person. Douglas was a lovely man. He became hardened. It says something about the loss of innocence.” Parallel to what is happening to Douglas and Simphiwe in the camps is what is happening on the farm. Nyathi creates characters who are deeply flawed, often mean and yet somehow sympathetic. She says: “When Angel is running the farm with Paul, she realises that people see Paul differently. She also wonders if they see her differently. So how do people view her? And who is she?” This is the secret of Nyathi’s successful storytelling; she seamlessly brings different perspectives of people into her novels. She allows people to have flaws, shows their humanity, shows their messiness, their need to solve the mysteries of their lives and learn from them.