Of Beasts and Beings is my first foray into the Tonga Books side of Europa. Truly, it will not be an easy book to forget. As one who has studied international development, the facts and statistics about African life are not unknown to me. The personal stories and struggles too, I have read and I have struggled with. Arrogantly, I approached this second novel by a Zimbabwean schoolteacher with almost a tourist's sense of curiosity. Holding quickly disabused me of such notions. Of Beasts and Beings is a TOUGH novel. Zulu, similarly was a tough novel, but has nothing on this. Embarrassingly, when the jacket talked about a "post-apocalyptic African Republic," I thought how many African states in their past or even today face difficult circumstances such that post-apocalyptic might not be much of a change. For those who easily suffer what some call white man's guilt or possibly worse for those who never have, Of Beasts and Beings is going to provoke some thought.
The book itself is brilliantly written. Holding has an eye for detail and scrutiny that make each of the two stories come alive. The grit, cruelty, despair and violence of the first come through with as much clarity as the privilege, confusion, frustration and revelation of the second. The specific country is never mentioned and many details of the characters are left unanswered, to the point where as the book finishes the fates of every character is not fully revealed. While the jacket comments suggested a surprise ending, I found myself experiencing other thoughts and emotions more than surprise. Guilt, remorse, aversion and sympathy all took their parts, but ultimately I found myself feeling as defeated as our narrator.
Holding's particular views on Africa and its future are not particularly optimistic, though perhaps these feelings may extend more towards his own country and less towards the continent as a whole. Parse it as much as you want, it still comes out to be one downer of a thesis. Those in power are either ignorant of their role in perpetuating a system that leaves some to abject poverty and death and others to lavish lifestyles or they are aware of their role in the perpetuation yet powerless to stop it. The rest of those outside of the privileged in power are left to struggle as best they can to eke out what existence they may.
Sometimes I will go to GoodReads and see what others have thought of a particular book, especially when it happens to be a controversial or difficult one. About a third of readers on the site simply said they could not get through this book. I see where they are coming from and I understand it. I won't say Of Beasts and Beings will leave you with a smile on your face or even a tear in your eye. Its damage is simply not that external. If you can finish it, if you let Mr. Holding finish the thought he's trying to make (and it does not truly flesh itself out until the very end) I think you will find this book leaves behind quite the internal impact. Like a scar, this book may open up thoughts, guilt and dark places some readers may just as well leave be.