June 2011, General Fiction
Penguin Books, 216 pages
ISBN-13: 978-0143527534, Available on Amazon
I first came across Patchwork last September when it was announced it had won the inaugural Penguin Prize for African Writing in the fiction category. And being the diligent little bibliophile that I am, I went in search of the book only to find out it wasn’t available. It turns out part of the prize criteria is for “…previously unpublished, full-length adult work in two categories: Fiction and non-Fiction.” This meant months of waiting for a release date.
The central character of the book is Pumpkin. We first meet her as a nine year-old living in Lusaka, Zambia with her single mother, Totela Ponga. Theirs is a turbulent existence – Totela is a barely functioning drunk who obsesses about her married lover, JS, Pumpkin’s father. Pumpkin slips into the role of caregiver though she understands little of alcoholism and the destructive nature of her parents’ relationship. She also faces the unkind questions from her friends about her absent father which she fights off defiantly.
Pumpkin’s Grandma Ponga despises JS, and frequently admonishes her daughter for allowing him such control over her life. She’s a feisty character and often speaks her mind freely. In Pumpkin’s words, Grandma Ponga “hates JS as passionately as Ma loves him.”
As Pumpkin’s mother slowly loses grip on her drinking, JS discovers her little secret and whisks Pumpkin off to live at his farm with his official wife and family. JS, also known as Tata, is an interesting character; he is quite devoted to all his children and expects a high moral code of his women while he has no compunction about chasing skirts all over hell’s half acre.
Starting anew at Tata’s farm brings a whole host of different issues for Pumpkin. She has to deal with the resentment of Mama T, Tata’s official wife, and the general ambivalence of her half-brothers; but lucky for her the family’s maid, Sissy, serves as a much needed anchor.
Sissy is a wise, old lady who isn’t quick to judge Pumpkin as a bad seed because of the circumstances of her birth. She cares for Pumpkin and tries as much as she can to shield her from Mama T, but she’s no pushover. Pumpkin is a brat, and is capable of cruel lies and mean acts. When caught out, Sissy is there with words of wisdom and warnings of future beatings. I particularly like the way Sissy describes remorse using a sewing analogy:
“…if you say sorry, and you mean it, you won’t have to say it again because you won’t make the same mistake again…because if you make a mistake, you patch it. You make the same one again, you patch it. Third time, you patch it. And then what do you have? A big messy patchwork that everyone can see. Is that what you want?”
The second part of the story introduces us to an adult Pumpkin. She’s a successful architect and is married with children of her own. She still carries with her the insecurities from her childhood. She’s distrustful and has a knack for telling little lies that slowly chip away at the foundation of her marriage. This culminates in an ugly encounter with a woman she suspects of preying on her husband.
Elsewhere her mother is ailing. She’s experienced dramatic weight loss, and has skin rash and chest pains that won’t subside. Pumpkin and Grandma Ponga ferry her from one traditional healer to the next seeking a cure. Tata, on the other hand, is thriving – all his children have left home, are well educated and independent. He’s now focused on a bid to become president. However, his ambitions are undone quite comically at the hands of his favourite past time, a woman.
Overall this was an enjoyable book. Having the story told from Pumpkin’s point of view as a child and later as an adult was very well done. Even though she seemingly has it together on the outside, there are many times she says “why couldn’t they see the tears I was crying inside?” One can’t help but be thoroughly annoyed at her parents for failing to step back to see what their behaviour has done to their child. They fail to understand the outward expressions of love Pumpkin needs or how she struggles to fit in a world where she constantly feels rejected.
Through Pumpkin’s eyes we are confronted with various themes – polygamy, alcoholism, HIV/AIDS, trust and personal insecurities. As the lives of the different characters intersect we see how they respond and evolve. No one comes out of this as he or she went in.
So, was the wait worth it? Yes, it was.