I read a book called Poppadom Preach at around about the same time as I read this novel, Patchwork, by Ellen Banda-Aaku. They’re both very similar; first person narrations by neglected children suffering at the hands of their parents. However, where Poppadom Preach uses a heavy dose of black humour to illuminate the story, Patchwork follows a much more traditional path. In other words, you’ll be filing this under Heavy Going.
Set in Zambia in the 1970s – 80s, 9 year old Pumpkin is an unwilling accomplice in her mother’s alcoholism, hiding her empty bottles, mopping up her vomit and heaving her unconscious weight into bed night after night. They live in a community housing block, the setting for most of Pumpkin’s early memories, not to mention street-wise education. The bulk of their material needs are met by Pumpkin’s father, a wealthy businessman who keeps his lover and illegitimate offspring hidden away from public view.
That is, until he discovers the truth about the conditions in which his daughter is living. In a rage, he dismisses Pumpkin’s mother and seizes their daughter, delivering her back to his expansive mansion in the country to be brought up by his wife. You might think such a move was admirable on the part Pumpkin’s father, intervening to rescue his child like that, but his wife would not have agreed. Her fury at her husband’s infidelity, so long suspected, now had a tangible target. And she would take aim each and every day, so long as the bastard child lived under her roof.
The interesting thing about this novel is that its protagonist isn’t all that likeable. As a child, Pumpkin’s defiant, bordering on nasty. Although you can clearly understand her need for retaliation, even respect her stubborn determination not to be cast aside, her actions make you cringe. Later, as an adult, she’s visibly broken, a paranoid and angry individual. She doesn’t trust anyone, least of all her husband, yet clearly she’s still tormenting herself with the guilt of past actions. And you can draw a straight line from the Pumpkin as a child, to the Pumpkin as an adult.
Then there is a war – it’s an African novel, what did you think?
The formula for books like this normally involve a fair dose of sympathy for the victim, a vulnerability that is impossible to question. And there is no doubt that Pumpkin is anything but a victim. But Banda-Aaku doesn’t paint any pictures in sepia around here. Pumpkin is real; a person whose tangled emotions find expression in predictable but sometimes shameful ways. However if Pumpkin’s not to blame for her actions, who is?
It’s easy to point the finger at the step-mother, that is, until you know her story. You can blame Pumpkin’s mother, but hang on a minute, what demons was she living with, that she would make such poor choices in life? Pumpkin’s father must accept some responsibility, and he certainly tries to. Should he not, therefore, earn some sort of reprieve? These are questions that Banda-AAku leaves you to answer for yourself.
The beauty (or should I say sadness?) of Patchwork is that it reveals a certain truth about damaged families, damaged children, up and down the country, all over the world: Everyone is at fault, but no-one thing or person is singularly to blame.