Prospects for Connection

Ian Holding, What Happened to Us

Little Island Press, 256pp, £14.99, ISBN 9781999854904

reviewed by Jacqueline Landey

To read Ian Holding’s What Happened to Us is to be drawn into a state of suspension, to hover with a child, a family and a country on the edge of possible unravelling. Set in suburban Harare between the hey- and dying- days of Robert Mugabe’s presidency, the novel circles around the night a family home is shattered by a brutal break-in. Far from being a one-dimensional portrayal of crime in sub-Saharan Africa, this novel’s depiction of family trauma is presented within a context of a country in deep-seated distress.

Chapterless, the story streams by. In taut, laconic prose Holding pulls you into the claustrophobia of fear and paranoia, the urgent desire to return to a state of peace. While easy to read it’s often difficult to sit well with, strained with racial tension as suffocating as the heat wave stifling the characters as the story begins. The narrative is told from the perspective of Danny Walker, a boy on the brink of manhood, being intimately shaped by the reverberations of a shifting nation. Through well-executed interiority it explores the development and inheritance of discrimination, as Danny acutely observes his bigoted, emotionally unavailable father grappling to retain power and control in a political climate no longer rigged to his advantage. When the safety of his family is threatened, his father puts up further walls to protect them from the society in which they live.

A story that begins with the narrator accidentally pissing on a poster of the President’s face is evidently not overly concerned with obliquity – which is just as well, because the subject matter presents no shortage of complexities. Holding manages the thicket with deft control. The weight of the story is filtered through the boyish animation of the narrator’s voice, with its abundance of just’s and what the hell’s, and fresh lyrical descriptions – Danny riding his bike ‘cruising the cusp of the crescent in no time’ where ‘sweat sluiced my baked brow, the nearly hairless hollow of my armpits’ – and the delineation of sensory details reflecting a child-like appreciation of visceral joys – chipping ice away from a frozen ice-cream carton, imagining sheets of cold water cooling his neck in a heat wave, ‘a volley of slobbered snot’ from a sneeze. The language evokes the vulnerability of childhood, and Danny’s observations of his family in the throes of PTSD following the break-in are often heartbreaking.

Holding has been likened to JM Coetzee, and although similarities in theme and style are evident, the distinctive tenderness of Holding’s first-person voice, which poignantly evokes the vulnerability of boyhood, is very much his own. So much is revealed in the space between Danny’s interior and exterior self. Mired in a culture of machismo, he surfaces silently longing for his parents’ affection, struggling to hide his emotion, being split by their demands – to ‘be tough and put on a brave face’ on the one hand and ‘Danny, be a gentleman’ on the other. His sensitivity stands in stark contrast to the emotional density of his father. In a telling scene they stand on the pavement outside their home puzzling over the meaning of a Shona word that’s been scrawled on their wall overnight:

‘… “Looks like it says hukuyu,” Dad said.
“Not huku?”
“Dan, think my boy, why would someone right ‘chickens’ on our gate when I’m sure it’s more meaningful and pointed to write ‘beware,’ hey?”
“I guess. But isn’t hukuyu spelt hokoyo? And maybe ‘chickens’ could imply something as well. If you’re chicken you’re like lame at something, or scared.”
“No,” Dad said, “it says hukuyu. I’m bloody sure it does.”’

In his projection of what the word means and what he refuses it to mean, Danny’s father reflects an individual feeling threatened but lacking the emotional capacity to acknowledge it. It emerges as a dangerous disconnection. As Danny’s father’s public stature dwindles, he grips all the more tightly to his sense of superiority at home, making frequent use of dehumanising racist rhetoric and wasting no opportunity to put Ignatius the gardener ‘firmly in his place’.

Through Danny’s imitation – his repetition of language, mirroring of prejudice and cruel competition – the narrative shows noxious cultural norms passing from one generation to the next. The novel is at its most quietly devastating in the illustration of racism passed down, not through tiki-torch wielding KKK-indoctrination, but in ways far more insidious, through Danny’s imitation of entitlement and racist dogma in pursuit of love and belonging. Holding shows us a society divided by prejudice, in which the injustices of the past engender the mutual suspicion of the present.

And yet What Happened to Us is not without hope. It offers prospects for connection, if only through mutual pain. By marking the space between interior and exterior selves and blurring boundaries between the humiliations of the present and those of the past, it contributes to a more nuanced understanding of violence in postcolonial societies, illustrating Cathy Caruth’s observation that history, ‘like trauma, is never simply one’s own . . . history is precisely the way we are implicated in each other’s traumas.’