WHEN NewsDay Features and Lifestyle Editor Phillip Chidavaenzi and his wife, Lyn, gave me a copy of The Ties that Bind, I felt my critical mode taking over.
Subjecting novels to a critical gaze is something I do with abandon. I opened it, inevitably took the pencil I usually use to mark places of critical importance in a story, poured myself a generous drink and went to work. The pencil found itself jobless within a few minutes of my excursion. There was no need for it.
Surprisingly (this does not usually happen to me), my critical mode had suddenly stopped working and I found my softer side being activated by Chidavaenzi’s story.
I am sure when Chidavaenzi sat down to write The Ties that Bind, he already knew the kind of emotions he wanted to excite in the reader. He also knew how to approach his dénouement. This is something short story tellers of the Edgar Allan Poe school of thought internalise quickly (except that Chidavaenzi’s is not a short story). Hold your reader in thrall for the duration of the story; purposefully construct your story with the ending in mind; everything in your story — incidents, characters (everything!) — must contribute towards the ending. You must write like someone who is fleeing from a lion: you do not have time to be mesmerised by the beauty of flowers and animals because your purpose is to get to safety as fast as possible. This is the kind of purpose I found in The Ties that Bind.
As the title suggests, it’s a series of ties that connect the characters’ lives for as long as their lifetimes. For instance, Lincoln is Jackie’s friend. Jackie is Chiedza’s friend. Lincoln contracted HIV many years back during a short time sex stint arising out of a drinking binge. Chiedza contracted HIV when she got married to a fraudulent and promiscuous banker who later committed suicide. Chiedza and Lincoln, as is bound to happen in a story whose author is aware of the ending, are guaranteed to meet and Jackie is the connection.
However, both of them have HIV skeletons in their closets and neither is ready to commit to something that might fail if the closet is opened.
The suspense that comes out of such a storyline is unimaginable. As a reader, with an activated softer side, all you want is for Lincoln and Chiedza to be together because… well, because, that is the only thing that makes sense in the situation. But most of all, it is because you cannot help, but fall in love with these two and all you want is for good things to happen to them given the bad things that happened to them in the past.
Chidavaenzi’s plot-construction is definitely commendable. I am a hard nut to crack, but he managed to convince me that the things we say or do will haunt us like ghosts even down to the grave.
Imagine Lincoln accompanying his friend, Jackie, to the cemetery for the burial of Jackie’s sister, Shelter, and discovering, among a row of old graves, the name he had read on a piece of paper after a quickie with a prostitute.
Imagine the shock of discovering that the said prostitute who wrote her name on that piece of paper is the only person he had unprotected sex with and that that same name now appears, not on a piece of paper, but engraved on a tombstone. Imagine, too, the shock of discovering that that prostitute who now lies buried in the old grave is actually his best friend’s sister. Shocking, isn’t it?
That is how Chidavaenzi connects characters and events in The Ties that Bind so that one seemingly insignificant incident impacts the future in an incredible way.
The Ties that Bind also has the basic tenets of a motivational piece. However, what gives it an edge over many motivational pieces popular among Zimbabwean readers is Chidavaenzi’s ability to combine literariness with cutting-edge motivation. The danger of motivational writing in Zimbabwe is the predictable weakness of its practitioners of forklifting experiences from elsewhere and pasting them onto the Zimbabwean space without checking them for relevance. Chidavaenzi escapes that danger in The Ties that Bind. The story is enjoyable while the lessons are creatively communicated and relevant. Motivational writers can learn a thing or two here.
I have to conclude by stating this: the fact that I have divested myself of the honour of practising hard-hitting criticism on The Ties that Bind does not mean that the novel cannot be subjected to a seriously critical gaze. I actually look forward to what other critics are going to say after reading my submission.
●Tanaka Chidora is a lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe’s English Department