What Happened To Us, by Ian Holding, is a slow burner building to an intensity that lingers beyond the final page. Set in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, in the tinderbox of an approaching election, the narrator is a young man recalling a pivotal few weeks in his life when he was thirteen years of age. Danny is a privileged white kid, heavily influenced by parents who are resentful at the changes being made in a country that no longer protects their interests. Although vaguely aware of the issues they must now face, the teenager is cosseted by an exclusive community that eschews its darker skinned neighbours.
The story opens with Danny cycling near his home making a nuisance of himself. He recognises that his actions are childish. He is bored and irritated by a relentless heatwave. As he makes his way back to the large, gated property where he lives with his parents and older sister, Rebecca, he becomes aware of three men heading in the same direction. He is agitated by the thought that they seek retribution for his recent foolish behaviour. When the gate bell rings while he cools down in the back garden swimming pool he ignores it, fearing a reprimand he prefers not to face.
Danny’s family life is happy and largely carefree. He harbours the usual teenage angsts – an increasing interest in girls, how he appears amongst his peers, irritation at the demands made by his parents – but with a stable home life is shielded from wider worries. He shares porn clips in a WattsApp group with friends from his expensive school, plays FPS games on his Playstation, messages the girl next door who he occasionally crosses the wall to meet in secret. It is a life of braais and tennis club and family time, a routine made comfortable by the oft berated staff who live out of sight at the edge of the garden.
The first hint of unease caused by the trio of overall clad men is followed by further phantom ringing at the family gate and then a suggestion by a coloured classmate that Danny’s father is in financial difficulties. What transpires is that the government is threatening to confiscate the business assets of the white community. Danny’s father is attempting to counter this by partnering with the classmate’s father, a wealthy banker with powerful political affiliates.
With all this in the background, and the heatwave exhausting the close-knit community, Danny’s home is broken into while the family sleep. Locked in his room for his own safety, the boy can only guess at the nature of the invasion. The fallout is a fracturing of everything on which his easy life has been based. Added to this is Danny’s unspoken guilt. He fears that the attack, which has left his sister traumatised, is the work of the three men, and that he is to blame.
The unfolding story is skillfully written with a continuing ramping up of tension. In the aftermath of the robbery, Rebecca is the family’s main concern. Danny’s parents are unmoored by their inability to protect. Their boy is sidelined. His coping strategies are harrowing. His determination to somehow help leads to a devastating conclusion.
Contemporary Zimbabwe with its beauty, heat, widespread poverty and political difficulties is sympathetically evoked whilst acknowledging the challenges faced by all who live there. There is selfishness and racism, corruption and violence, children being raised to perpetuate their parents’ prejudices. The voice of the narrator comes across as authentic, a recognition of the difficulty adults have communicating with young people, and vice versa. The tale offers a window into the psychological damage caused when property cannot be protected and personal safety is at constant risk.
This is a powerful, haunting novel in which setting and culture are key. The heart of it though is a wider perspective on the side effects of conflict and political upheaval. It is a recommended read.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Little Island Press.