Rutendo Tavengerwei offers us a glimpse into the lives of two struggling teens in her young adult debut, Hope Is Our Only Wing.
We begin with a new student arriving at a boarding school in Zimbabwe. Shamiso has spent most of her childhood in England with her mother and journalist father, an investigative reporter intent on telling hard truths about his beloved homeland and its many corruptions. When her father dies in what looks like a car accident, they are forced to return home to bury him and try to set up a new life in Zimbabwe.
While her mother struggles to make ends meet, Shamiso is sent off to boarding school. School isn't what she expected, with teachers permanently on strike, food shortages, and no one to help her work through the enormous grief she's feeling after the loss of her father or answer her pressing questions about why he died. When a pushy girl named Tanyaradzwa tries to make friends with her, Shamiso lets her know that she isn't interested.
But Tanyaradzwa is attracted to Shamiso's sorrow for a reason. She has spent her childhood battling cancer, and now it's back. With the whole country teetering on the brink of economic collapse, hospitals are underfunded and understaffed, the electricity keeps flickering on and off, and it feels like everyone wants her to just accept her fate.
Shamiso is reluctant to open her heart to another person who may leave her too soon, but Tanyaradzwa's tenacious yearning for life is hard to resist.
Cancer and government corruption are weighty topics that could easily sway into melodrama if handled too heavily, but Tavengerwei's straightforward style really works to make the subject matter feel raw and present. This is a tight, succinct text that doesn't feel the need to over-explain or elaborate at length. Even at sentence level, the book has something to tell us and it isn't interested in meandering, which makes it feel literary in its approach without entangling the reader in stylized prose.
As a very visual reader, I do sometimes find myself wishing for a little more description to ground me in the place and time. Tavengerwei has a real gift for painting little moments of universal truth; when she describes Shamiso sneaking a cigarette, I can smell the forbidden smoke and imagine her face glowing as she tries to soothe her ragged feelings. What's somewhat lacking is more detail about the things that make this particular story unlike anything I've read before — the landscape, what the buildings look like, the taste of the food, and other unique elements about the setting. It's clear that Hope Is Our Only Wing seeks to focus on internal landscape rather than external, but it left the bigger picture a little blurry around the edges for me.
While the narrative alternates between Shamiso and Tanyaradzwa's points of view, as well as occasional asides from supporting characters, Shamiso feels like the true protagonist. It's her emotional arc that we follow, and she is the character most changed by the ending of the book. Despite being privy to her inner thoughts, at times I feel as though she's keeping me at arm's length. Her grief and disorientation at the upheaval of her life is so extreme that I'm not certain I really know who she is as a person. This makes it a little challenging for me to feel completely invested in the story at times — but upon reflection, I have to admire the creation of a character who feels so real, even if knowing her isn't comfortable or easy.
Two storylines are a lot for a book this compact to juggle with grace, but Hope Is Our Only Wing manages to entwine them into a moving metaphor. One girl is the victim of actual cancer ravaging her body, while the other struggles with the cancer of corruption as a country that was ripped apart by colonialism tries to find its way into the future. Both sicknesses take their toll — on bodies as well as minds. But the bravery of two young women and their connection to each other will overcome.
Caitlyn Paxson is a writer and performer. She is a regular reviewer for NPR Books and Quill & Quire.