- Fortunate by Andrew JH Sharp
- Genre: Fiction
- Quick Summary: A Welsh doctor finds herself running away from home at the age of 28. She’s running to Zimbabwe: a place she barely knew existed until a patient asked her to fulfil an important mission there. As she becomes more embroiled in events in Zimbabwe, she realizes that this new land could answer questions about her own life that she’d thought were forever silenced.
- Why read it?: Told in an authoritative and humorous voice, this is an action-dense story that is full of intrigue. It’s set in a time when the Zimbabwe dollar was at its height of inflation: well worth reading for an insight into those crazy times when shoeboxes of money were needed just for daily life – only 7 years ago.
- Published June 2013 by Matador
Doctor Beth Jenkins has been married for a year but finds herself wanting to stay at work with people who are ill and depressed rather than going home. Her husband has had a brain haemorrhage and is no longer the man she married. She can now only see a life of loneliness ahead of her. As her personal life crumbles, her working life seems to be pulling her towards a country she’d barely heard of until now.
She’s called to see a dying man in a care home who entrusts her with a document that could change a Zimbabwean family’s future. She finds herself booking a flight to this far-away land, so that she can uncover the mystery of her dead patient and perhaps escape the cage of her own marriage.
“She runs her finger carefully and slowly under the words as if she’s translating a sacred text: The day comes when they have to declare the great Yes or the great No …
Something gives way in her. A snapping stay. A crack in an ice field. She’s falling into a white silence and in the vast quiet she makes her choice.”
In Zimbabwe, Beth travels to Victoria Falls, Bulawayo, the Matobo Hills and Lake Kariba – all the while surprising herself at how many rules she can break, just to stay away from home. Her life is in danger many times. Yet the deeper she looks into this land, the more dogged she becomes, and the more she finds out about herself and her marriage.
The plot of Fortunate is full of action: it pulled me forward; I wanted to know what happened next. It’s ultimately a story about identity and redemption, but along the way we’re treated to much more: we see assassination attempts, illegal border jumping and car chases. It’s a book that would make a smooth transition into a film if the opportunity ever arises: it has a fast-moving pace, a beautiful setting, vivid characters, all unified by the mission that our heroine must complete.
I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of 2007-era Zimbabwe; the mementos of a time not so long ago when the Zimbabwe Dollar was in its last days of existence. Price restrictions were in place to curb hyperinflation; trillions of dollars could hardly buy food for one week. There were no tourists, no foreign journalists and no end in sight for this disarray. Everyone was desperate to get foreign currency, something that wouldn’t devalue in a day, but only the black market, could offer a realistic exchange rate.
We meet characters like Deirdre and Judith, who show us a glimpse of what life was like for a generation of white people who had reached old age at the time of Zimbabwe’s economic decay: They are ensconced in previously beautiful houses which have fallen into disrepair; they daily go without running water, electricity or enough food. Worthless money; worthless pensions.
These are not the only characters that Sharp brings to life: here we also see Zimbabweans who have sought greener pastures in the UK, secret intelligence agents, land grabbers, big game hunters, politicians and archaeologists. These thrilling, almost incredible characters are balanced against Beth the protagonist, who anchors us to the realm of normalcy and reality. It is ultimately her story, and it is told in such an accessible way that it is still moving and evocative, as well as exciting. I only wish that the book depicted more of the other key characters like Beth’s friend Christina and the brave Hope, and less of those like Alena, who doesn’t feel like a necessary part of the narrative.
“She steps out of the brook and her eye is caught by a dark form ahead. Standing amongst fresh grass is a sable, just like the one on the wall in Matt’s office. The sable is motionless and tranquil, black coat glossy and flecked with rainbow colours in the sunlight, its horns arcing long over the golden haze of its mane. She couldn’t have been more enchanted if she’d come across an ebony unicorn.”
Like many good books (and films), the landscape is a key character in Fortunate, and we become better acquainted with Zimbabwe’s bare-faced rocks, exquisite animals and golden earth as the narrative progresses. We learn a little more about why the land is so important to Zimbabweans, how it forges identities and can also drive men to tear a people apart. As well as the more current issue of land redistribution, Fortunate increases its scope further to tell of the atrocities of the Gukurahundi massacres that happened in the early days of Mugabe’s rule.
“We can speak plainly Mr Madzwaya. I’ve no pressing personal interest in the history and politics of this country, or your part of it. In fact I’ve had enough of it. I never wanted to be part of a revolution gone rancid, a liberation war that subsitutes one form of injustice for another. I’m not a detective from a human rights organisation and I’m not in a position to change the past.”
Fortunate is told from an outsider’s point of view, which makes it a good book to introduce readers to the story of Zimbabwe, and also to remind Zimbabweans themselves of things that have perhaps been forgotten under a blanket of familiarity. This book doesn’t try to be The Great Zimbabwean Novel, and as such it occupies a rather comfortable space in the landscape of Zimbabwean literature.
Buy Fortunate from your local Amazon, Amazon UK, or direct from the publishers for a discounted price.