THE GIFT OF LETTAH’S GIFT by GRAHAM LANG.
One more reason to be glad of my Tanzanian experience is that having read this very good novel afterwards, I am able to discern just how a good a writer Graham Lang is. His descriptions of the dust, the landscape and the bird life as well as the smells of Africa had me swooning with longing for the time to pass, so I can return. As well, I might have sneered at the ending as being sentimental but Tanzania cracked my carapace and I completely understand Frank’s final decision.
However, this book is about modern Zimbabwe and the horrors of Mugabe’s rule,the violence “Comrade Bob” has engendered. Frank Cole has been forced to return to Zimbabwe by his mother’s will: she wants her son to find Lettah, a family servant, and give her gift of a considerable amount of money. Frank, his parents and his brother had moved from what had been Rhodesia and wandered through other African countries before settling in Perth. Unlike the rest of his family, Frank has drifted, finally becoming a bus driver albeit on Rottnest Island. There is no duty to detain Frank in Perth so he reluctantly returns to “Zim” to attempt to trace Lettah. He re-connects with the few old hands who have remained and is greeted with a mixture of interest and resentment of the luxury of safety of his life in Perth.
Frank’s increasingly frustrated search in a country decaying with systemic corruption forces him to travel around some parts of the country, most of which are achingly sad in their poverty and hopelessness. His boyhood friends from forty years ago have hardened their opinions to ones that would suit dinosaurs. Interestingly, their wives and female partners seem much more able to understand the complexities of the country they still love and about which they have so many well-founded fears.
When Lettah is discovered, she is living in South Africa, no longer the pariah state, horribly disfigured by the brutality she had endured at the hands of the militia in Zimbabwe. The reason for the bequest from Frank’s mother is beautifully subtle and, on one level, one could see both Lettah, the woman, and her story as metaphors for her apparently accursed country.
It does not really matter about whether she is a symbol and an individual or both: this is a completely captivating story that left me sobbing while, at the same time, the ice fragment in my brain thinking how wonderful a Related Text for Belonging for the HSC this book would be. I am currently trying to track down Lang’s earlier novel which search seems to be as baffling as Frank Cole’s search was. I hope to be as profoundly rewarded as he was.
Review by Suzanne O’Connor