Reading “The Ties That Bind”(New Heritage Press, 2015) the sequel to Phillip Chidavaenzi’s, The Haunted Trail (a 2007 National Art Merit Award-winning novel), left me confident that my decision to read 90% Zimbabwean books in 2015 was the right one.
The sequel in its intersection-like approach fuses hope, love and faith in a breath-taking way. This is a book that has made me decide to brand Chidavaenzi as a feminist author – one who’s capturing of women is positive without being unrealistic. Most importantly, it tears down stereotypes surrounding religion and HIV.
In my previous review of The Haunted Trail, I captured the circumstances surrounding Chiedza’s life and her contracting of HIV. The book ended with her in a rather hopeless situation emotionally. In this sequel, Chiedza has put her life back together and now works for Welsh & Co. She is on anti-retroviral therapy and has rejected religion because she believes God rejected her by allowing her, an innocent person to get infected with HIV.
The sequel introduces a striking new character, Lincoln, who is a workmate to Jackie, Chiedza’s best friend. He is a deeply religious man, having been infected by HIV through a one- night-stand with a sex worker. In response, Lincoln dedicates his life to his work, health and religion. Chiedza’s entrance into his life adds a new twist. He begins to desire more from life, such as love, from Chiedza. This love he fears to seek out because of his status.
This book does away with stereotypes of how HIV can be sight-diagnosed and it also renders null and void the images of poverty as always accompanied by HIV.
Chiedza’s vow to keep men at bay is disturbed by Lincoln’s presence. He is successful as a lawyer and rigidly disciplined in everything he does. She finds him to be an enigma and an attractive one at that. Jackie is aware of the chemistry between the two and accelerates their companionship. In the end, they find out that they are both HIV positive. This strengthens their commitment to each other.
In this sequel, Shelter whom we met in the first book dies from AIDS. Jackie finally meets a guy (who is white) and this relationship goes far. According to Chiedza, his ‘whiteness’ is a guarantee that he can handle Jackie’s liberal and independent ways.
I enjoyed the kind of storytelling the author employs in this sequel. Chidavaenzi has a real knack for uniting his readers with his characters. His narration and manner of flashbacks are enthralling. The incorporation of local languages, especially his use of the Shona Manyika dialect with Fungai’s character, are refreshing.
The climax of this novel for me was the debate between turning to the religious ‘healing’ of HIV versus using medical treatment. At one point I was on edge, fearing to read further, worrying that Chidavaenzi will miraculously cure his characters of HIV through religion. While I will not go into the final result, I would like to point out that the author brought up a critical issue for this generation.
The majority of Zimbabweans have in the past decade moved away from traditional churches to Pentecostal churches. Most who have done so, have been seduced by fantastical promises. In despair over their HIV status, these churches tell their infected congregants that they been have been healed from HIV and encourage them to discontinue anti-retroviral treatment. According to the National Aids Council, a large number of people have died as a result. What is difficult is that when a person has been on ARVs for a long time, like Lincoln, their viral load may not be detected by an ordinary test at a New Start Centre. Some people have mistaken this for divine healing.
At first, I feared Chidavaenzi wanted to reinforce the same beliefs, which are dangerous for HIV positive patients who desperately seek religious solutions. But Chidavaenzi allows Lincoln to be the voice of reason. At a conference, he talks about HIV and religion. He talks about the possibility of ARVs being that gift God has given to mankind to prolong life. He talks about his church which healed people of all kinds of illness and does not encourage defaulting on treatment with medication. This for me is the most important message in the novel. I attended a workshop on the Post-2015 Development Agenda earlier this year organised by Youth Engage. There, HIV and religion was a heated issue and participants were encouraged to go for further blood tests if they indeed believed they had been miraculously cured from HIV.
Lincoln and Chiedza represent the hope that we all need. I did wonder and want to see the drama that would unfold had Chidavaenzi made the couple discordant. Women who read this book are bound to wonder where they can find a kind of man like Lincoln.
He committs himself to fathering Chiedza’s son, taking heed of the fact that he too had been taken care of by someone who was not his biological father. All in all, he is shown as honest, caring, loving and full of hope.
This book is an important and relevant continuation of hope. It shows that HIV has no segregation – that anyone can contract it. It also shows how at the end of the day it need not have the power to irrevocably shape one’s destiny. More than anything, being infected or affected with the disease is a signal to begin life anew.
I enjoyed this book immensely especially for its positive representation of female characters. Chidavaenzi is certainly a writer to look out for.
Main image from www.artfire.com