The Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam (2008) – Lauren LIEBENBERG

Yes, that is the insanely long title of this book. Though, I do think that it is an excellent title, that really stands out. And, even though I have to read another Haggard novel for class, this won out, because I figured there was going to be less racism and misogyny. Then I realised that this was another book about white people in Africa. My bad.

Nyree and Cia are two young girls growing up in Rhodesia – that state of Africa that we now like to call Zimbabwe. Set during the war between the English settlers and the troops of ‘Terrs’ – that is, people fighting to kick the English out – it manages to use this only as a backdrop to the more intimate story of Nyree and Cia’s childhood. In particular, it marks the story of their cousin Ronin, who is sent to live with them during his school holidays. This turns out to be not such a good idea, as the balance of power in the family slowly changes, and the simple balance of family is upset forever.

I think the best thing that Liebenberg does in this novel is not focusing on the war that is going on around this family. While it is certainly ever-present – Nyree’s father is in the English army, fighting against Mugabe’s troops – it is not the focus of the novel. Instead, it provides a backdrop to what is perhaps not the most unique coming of age story, though certainly a very good one. Once again, I am going to make a small point about the ‘voice’ of the main character who, despite being nine years old, manages to use language well beyond her age. Though, this time, I am not going to complain. I kind of got the feeling from this novel that Nyree was telling someone her story – her use of the present tense perhaps helped – and it was a refreshing change to have a child narrator who is not some kind of tortured genius.

While the story of Ronin is the most important part of the novel, it has so much more to offer. Each chapter is almost a self-contained episode, and the Ronin ones kind of fit together to form the over-arching narrative that pays off in the end. It is clear that this novel is based on Liebenberg’s life – she probably had episodes from her own life in Rhodesia, and adapted them/changed them a bit to fit in with this story. There is one scene that I had to skip over, but it is near the end, and I’m sure most other people will have no trouble with it.

Nyree and Cia are the main characters, but the other characters are well defined, and certainly not boring. The girls’ insane, religious, imperial grandfather provides them with a warped education, and provides the ‘old voice’ of the colonisers of Africa. Ronin himself is a bastard, and nothing more, especially considering he is 14. By the end of the novel, you really hate him. Which is what he is there for, I suppose. And I have to make special mention of Moosejaw, one of the best literary dogs ever.

It took me a while to get into this book – the beginning chapters are pretty slow. And, to be fair, some of the chapters that don’t have Ronin, while nice, just seem to fade away sometimes. It is when Ronin is in full-swing that the story comes together and becomes really good. This is a solid first novel (and educational, too, since I didn’t know anything about Rhodesia before this), and hopefully the first of many.

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