There are many young black people caught between a world of achievement, consumerism, fast-living and the world of their ancestors. There is a yearning to add meaning to life, to tap into the old ways and find a spiritual home. Western values dominate and the party is not stopping. Whispers from the shadows of a whirlwind life insinuate into the subconscious; memories and dreams and snatches of a different culture make their presence felt.
This subconscious struggle between the spiritual and material worlds is skilfully laid bare in The Yearning. The protagonist, Marubini, Maru or Rubi to her friends, works in the marketing department of one of the oldest Cape wine farms in the country. The narrative shifts between memories of her childhood and snippets of her current life. The diction shifts with the context, in that the adult Rubi uses slang and contemporary speak while the narration of her childhood memories are more formal. Both are sprinkled with isiZulu and Sepedi and sometimes Afrikaans which adds colour and texture to the novel. One of the delights of this novel is the writer’s use of language, such as her description of Marubini’s physical sensations when she is feeling turned on by her lover;
There is a visitor making her way to me, and I can’t wait. She packs her bag at my stomach and slowly slides down to where she knows she needs to be. She pulls the rope and the bell in my heart starts ringing, beating faster and faster. The visitor starts unpacking her bags and I smile with anticipation.
As is often the case with daughters and mothers, Maru’s relationship with her mother is a little fraught; her mother still lives in Soweto, where she grew up, and places many demands on her. She expects her to drop everything and visit home for a family wedding and does not seem to understand the pressures of Maru’s job. Maru pays for her brother’s expensive boarding school but her mother still thinks she is selfish if she does not prioritise family affairs. She misses her father who she says she loved “before and after he became a snake”. This type of remark gives the reader clues that there is something special about her father but it is only revealed later. This device adds to the dramatic effect of the novel.
Maru begins to have strange episodes; dizzy spells, nausea and the sound of children singing in her head, in Sesotho, to the tune of Frere Jacques. This continues while she is presenting to sales reps about the new emerging market. Later at home she experiences strange sensations, glimpses of another place, other voices penetrating her consciousness until she awakes in hospital. The doctor suspects a seizure but she begins to question her own sanity. She knows there are secrets in her past but she cannot grasp them.
Her mother “is MoPedi and her father is umZulu”, so there are trust issues between the different sets of grandparents. Both are very important in her life and care for her when her mother is not able. Although she is seeing a psychologist to assist with her strange episodes, it will be her family who are best able to help her heal.
As the parallel stories of childhood and adulthood unfold, the pieces eventually come together and much, but not all, is explained. Healing cannot occur without memory and love cannot flourish if aspects of self are denied. During the narrative there are memorable scenes that will remain with you long after you have closed the book. Whether describing racism in the workplace or sacred rituals, the novel is candid, convincing and a beautiful read.