Reviewed by Eddie Zvinonzwa
Grey Angels; By Virgina Phiri; Harare, Coral Services, 2018.
ISBN: 978-1-7792-9503-3 (Paperback)
WHEN I saw the smile on Virginia Phiri’s face as she greeted me holding a copy of Grey Angels, I could tell something had indeed changed on the book. I then recalled a lengthy telephone conversation with the writer earlier as she narrated how badly her book had been handled then.
This time she exuded usual radiance, joy and outright excitement as she handed over the autographed copy and I promised to do justice to it. I did not know what was in store as I immediately set to flip through, just scanning for something that could strike my eyes.
Grey Angels – which narrates the tussle between tradition and modernity – is no ordinary book by any standards. It would have been befitting to run this review around February 6, which is annually the day when the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation is marked worldwide. That way, the reading of Grey Angels becomes even more fitting as the author therein tussles with the bush school where Linda is forced to go.
The plot of the story rests on the intertwined conflicts that the reader meets in the narrative. For instance, Father has already planned to get Linda – a girl of exceptional power and determination – married to Dr Swagga just to get his personal whims satisfied without even checking whether his daughter was interested in the first place. One would think Father is a staunch traditionalist but the other things he does are not consistent with that.
Many would think Jojo, an academic and staunch believer in patriarchal power, is a traditionalist but his love of money, and ambition push him into conflicting with the very principles of the tradition he seeks to stand for. Hypocrisy, greed, deception and corruption are key drivers of most of what Jojo does in the novel.
The various conflicts that push the complex plot ahead in the book are neatly intertwined to produce an exhilarating narrative.
Later Jojo extends his sabbatical leave because he has to avoid the Addos from whom he has taken vast amounts of money after promising that he would marry off Linda to the family. “We had expected Father at the end of January but he did not turn up. Our assumption was that he had been delayed. Mother was so upset that he had no decency to at least phone or let us know what had happened.” (p151)
One of Jojo’s greatest weaknesses is his greed as shown by his selling off his daughter to the Addos. The Addos expect to get Linda who should be married off to Michael Addos. Because of the failure of the arrangement, Jojo is evading the Addos, who will leave no stone unturned in order to get what they paid for. Jojo even harasses Billy with whom Linda has fallen in love, so that prospects of success for the deal he has stitched with the Addos seem clear.
He even hopes they could get Isabella if the Linda deal falls through. “It turned out that he was not in West Africa but in Europe. According to his sources, father was on the run from the Addos hired thugs. It looked like this time he was in big trouble as he had neither returned the money nor delivered the bride as promised.
My hope was that the Addos would accept that I was not going to marry Michael and thus focus on recovering their money … What however scared us most … if the Addos failed to get their money back they could target Isabella as she was also coming up to be a fine young woman. We sensed that nothing could stop the Addos from hiring even local people to abduct her.” (p154)
Jojo stops at nothing in order to make money. The establishment of the Tradition, Culture and Research Institute is driven by greed. “My loyal former students, Adam and David, have been working tirelessly to help me establish my own Tradition, Culture and Research Institute … We have the money and the premises have already been purchased.” (p159)
The eventual and inevitable collapse of the institute, which was conducting “unethical experiments”, was unavoidable. “I was embarrassed that my own Father had caused the injuries because of greed and ambition.” (p181)
After his miraculous escape from the fire that destroyed the Institute, the reunion that follows between Jojo and his family is a marvel but this again falls apart following his joining of the Five Stars Church as leader. His healing sessions at the Five Stars Church had even led to “terminally ill patients on treatment at the General Hospital frequented father’s healing sessions … they had been ordered to abandon medication from the hospital.” (p211)
Phiri has published Desperate (2002) Destiny (2006) and Highway Queen (2010). While the woman and girl child remain her protagonists, another intriguing aspect of her writing is the poignancy in her narratives, something that is also present in Grey Angels.