The Stone Virgins

Stone Virgins is a tale of crushed hopes. Through Nonceba and Thenjiwe’s story, Vera gives the reader a glimpse of life in rural Bulawayo during the post-independence war. She juxtaposes this period against the simplicity of life before the war. All the villagers looked forward to, was the Shoeshine Bus Service bringing their hopes from Bulawayo (loved ones coming back from work in the city, and parcels from loved ones). Thandabantu Store was the village meeting point. It was the bus stop. Men sat under the marula tree, and young people milled around the shop veranda. Independence had brought about “a new and purposeful gaiety”. Returning soldiers, including women soldiers, were an integral part of these gatherings. They were very much part of the Kela community.

These post-independence hopes are abruptly shattered when “The war begins…The ceasefire ceases…Memory is lost. Independence ends. Guns rise. Rising anew. 1981”. Returning soldiers “commit evil as though it were a legitimate pursuit”. Thenjiwe is blatantly and brutally murdered on her way from fetching water from the river. Her head is literally sliced off. Her sister, Nonceba, who witnesses the murder, is callously attacked and left for dead.

Vera succeeds in depicting the brutality of the Matebeleland war. She highlights how atrocities are directed at the most vulnerable. Women are turned into weapons of war. Their lives are turned upside down. In hospital Nonceba finds a wailing woman who is forced to chop her husband with an axe in order to save her two sins. These women carry these scars for life. Stitches and bandages only heal the skin, the real wound remains embedded in the heart.

The brutal killing and burning of Thandabantu Store and its owner, Mahlathini symbolises the impact of the war on the very core of the community. “Thandabantu Store was razed, bombed to pieces, and silenced”.

Vera treats Sibaso, Thenjiwe’s murderer with such delicate compassion. This left me reflecting on how little we have done to heal the wounds of young people who fought for our liberation. It is raw and bleeding, yet invisible wounds that leave them so vulnerable to acts of violence.

Vera is a “mistress of prose” and visual description. For you to enjoy the book you must have an insatiable love for the art of words. Stone Virgins is Vera’s third novel. It is no surprise that it won the Macmillan (UK) Writer’s Prize for Africa (adult fiction).

By Yvonne Virgins – (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)