BEING ALIVE ON this African continent is a very complicated thing, particularly if the home in which you were raised has become lethally hostile to you. Investment analyst by day, fictional writer by night, Bulawayo born Sue Nyathi, who burst onto readerships’ awareness in 2012 with her debut novel The Polygamist brings The Gold-Diggers, a new novel which takes on the monster of xenophobia and all its tentacles. From the outset, you must hold onto your proverbial hat: this is a quick, easy but violent read which will threaten your sense of moral equilibrium, from beginning to end.
Constructed similarly to Akin Omotoso’s 2016 film Vaya, the work presents you with several characters, in the throes of illegally crossing the border from Zimbabwe into South Africa. Each is coming for their own reasons; each has no idea what the devil awaiting them in the city of gold will look like, nor what it will do to them, their relationships and their sense of hope for the future. And the book is structured along the paths that Chamunorwa and Chenai, Melusi and Givemore, Gugulethu and Lindani and others, follow, crooked and broken though many turn out.
It’s a tale of trade in young girls, of drugs, of xenophobia and one which sees people being tossed away as though they are worthless. There’s a necklacing that takes the life of one of the characters, a dead baby stuffed with illegal drugs on a Malaysian flight that’s the burden for another to carry; the lure of fame fortune and glory in this work is painted oft with a carrot of poison, that reflects a dog-eat-dog world where nobody enjoys the empathy of the common man and homelessness and aloneness are the least of their worries.
While the characters take a while to be developed, developed they are, and they break your heart in different, unexpected ways. Once the story gathers its momentum, it’s one not easily put down. But racy narrative aside, the writing itself often bruises the integrity of the read. It is written in a way that reflects on Nyathi’s youth as a writer – too many adjectives often clutter up the material in a way that makes what it is saying feel wooden. Further to that, context remains mostly undeveloped: the first mention of a date in the book is about 160 pages in. And suddenly, as you think 2008, you remember the xenophobic catastrophe that broke out in so many places in South Africa, and the blood that was spilled so violently then — and that still erupts across the board. Suddenly, Nyathi’s characters take on a gravitas and a texture that enhances their urgency and their credibility.
The Gold-Diggers is a cautionary story about the danger of too little, but also the danger of too much. In reading it, you must steel yourself to look beyond the sometimes too earnest descriptions and into the heart of the stories, and sometimes you may see hellfire and conflagration there, and at other times, you may see a mirror.
- The Gold-Diggers by Sue Nyathi is published by Pan MacMillan, Johannesburg (2018).
- This column by Geoff Sifrin considers Omotoso’s work in the light of the issue of homelessness.