Monkey’s Wedding by Rossandra White
2017 Independent Publisher Award Medalist
2017 National Indie Excellence Awards Finalist
2017 International Book Awards Finalist
2017 Paris Book Festival Awards Honorable Mention
Rossandra White is the author of the multiple award-winning
Anyone who has ever witnessed a sun shower and is asked about it later likely experiences a variety of curious and immediate memories. For myself, two branches of thought come together, starting with my mother’s frequent assertion that rain on one’s wedding day is good luck. This merges with the historical status of animals as purveyors of phenomena explanation in such folkloric expressions as monkey’s wedding, which refers to rain falling when the sun is shining brightly. It is magical and wondrous, typically a short-lived event that nevertheless has the capacity to elicit thrill and awe at nature’s fantastic contradiction. Perhaps people once witnessed a group of monkeys acting joyfully during a sun shower and related it to what made sense to them, deciding the simians must be on their way to a wedding.
In my own memory a monkey’s wedding really is magical, and so, might I add, is Monkey’s Wedding. Author Rossandra White brings the theme to bear on her novel starting with the cover’s color tones—dark profile of a hut and baobab tree set against the bright, hot orange and red of the sun and sky to the contradictions throughout, sometimes so subtle we don’t recognize their droplets as they nevertheless work out as part of the situations within which they exist.
Jiminy. That’s what she called her baby brother, instead of James or Jimmy. He reminded her of that little cricket from Pinocchio: head too large for his bird body, all that thick black hair, and when he wasn’t crying or vomiting, he chirped.
Elizabeth and her British parents live in 1950s Rhodesia, members of a society in transition as indigenous peoples begin to demonstrate their resentment of white rule. Annie, Elizabeth’s expectant and often moody mother, seeks to keep her daughter separated from “those kaffirs” even while the girl is developing a disallowed friendship with Turu, son of Nelson, the family’s houseboy (an ordinary but telling appellation). Though she reveals to her mother he is nasty toward his son, Annie tends to be focused on how the help are “getting bolder.” The pair maintain a strained relationship and Elizabeth’s father plays peacemaker, though she at times agrees with her mother’s assessment.
Turu, too, evades suspicious adult eyes as he navigates through time with his grandmother, a Shona high priestess who has chosen the boy for a position he severely doubts he can fill. White expertly shifts between perspectives, revealing some but not all there is to know from any given quarter. Her narrative is also tinged with a feeling of silent mystery, as if we are approaching something that knows we are there, and the sense of expectancy is heavy as Anesu the priestess seems to speak for our benefit, all the while enjoying our unfamiliarity, playing us a bit as she leads us along a path we know not.
The plot’s parameters widen, and we see Elizabeth and Turu off on their escapades, ordinary activities for children—even their plot to steal extra sherbit from the shopkeeper— were it not for the underlying, unspoken awareness of their race differences. Each child harbors thoughts about the other’s race and its implications, though they also spend time exchanging information and peacefully learning about one another. The book’s title reflects their friendship as they sustain a mostly productive relationship amidst societal shakeup. They do row on occasion, their tiffs sometimes being related to the increasing temperature and pressures of racial tensions booming over their heads, but their childhood wisdom often sets right derailed moments and each achieves opportunities to see for themselves who the other really is.
As the author steers us through events, discord amongst the unseen occurs too, as ancient spirits demand reckoning, pulling Turu into events in ways that confuse and shake him, and Elizabeth seeks a path into a world hidden from her, all while in plain sight. With Elizabeth, we catch proverbial glimpses of another world, perhaps with some recognition as Anesu performs chants and prepares poultices, admonishes Turu’s avoidance of his duties and bestows upon Elizabeth something that recognizes a connection even she doesn’t quite understand. Exotic though it may seem, it offers a real alternative to Elizabeth while powerful forces of both worlds thunder over their lives, threatening everything they know.
Thanks to White’s proficiency in winding through varying perspectives, scenes and histories, details are deliciously different yet also familiar, and we find that identity isn’t always what we might have previously experienced. Amidst exposure to traditional mythology, we also encounter a moment in which Turu’s handling of a modern machine is optimal given Elizabeth’s inability to do. There is, of course, the male/female stereotype to consider, but Turu’s ability to get the car running also highlights the reality that this mechanical place is also his world, whatever his ethnicity. Afterward,
[a]lmost right away, it felt as if Jasu, God of the Sun, had turned his face toward them. The deep green of the sisal turned to hard green, scrubby grass the color of a lion’s haunch. The smell of rain hung in the air. On the distant horizon in front of them, the huge baobab tree beside bwana van Zyl’s shop looked like a fat stalk with tiny twigs branching upward. Acacia and other thorn trees dotted the veld. Three hundred yards away, five eland buck appeared out of nowhere and floated on a heat wave past the jagged outline of his people’s ruins.
Later, Elizabeth joyfully shifts attention to the ongoing monkey’s wedding, explaining to Turu about making a wish. His dismissive attitude highlights awareness of their shifting, sometimes merging, roles when she owns the superstition and he practical modern knowledge, bringing to delightful life the novel’s epigraph, an African proverb about sharing paths. White doesn’t spell any of this out, which is part of what makes it so superb. She allows her characters to be who they are, retaining the emotional or mystical nature of any given moment by employing a beautifully minimalist style.
Having said that, it should be noted that the author also brings to life these amazing events with imagery so stunning it provokes the senses and emotions, allowing readers to experience the moments as well, easily calling to mind scenes both reminiscent and foreign, whether ordinary or exceptional, a further union of opposites.
After tea Elizabeth headed for her bedroom, where she lay on her back on the cool cement floor. The tin roof creaked as the sun beat down on it. In minutes, she was asleep.
Night had spread its blanket over everything.
The air stirred around her, and she opened her eyes. A short distance away, down a gentle slope, sat a hut with walls the rich color of a gazelle’s hide and thatch that was plump and golden. A strange, mesmerizing, blue-tinged fire burnt in front.
He returned with the milk and plunked the bucket on the table harder than he meant to. Milk sloshed up. The small brown creature on the other end of the table gave a short jerk of surprise and blew a spit bubble.
The contradictions rain down on us throughout the book, though sometimes so subtle in application it’s as if a shower has passed us before we had time to register it. Black and white, magic and ordinary, resentment and joy, life and death, young and old, outspoken and voiceless—these and more mingle with one another, like a monkey’s wedding, inspiring those it touches as they at times recognize a spiritual connection made between a twain that ordinarily “shall not meet.”
While Monkey’s Wedding now is amongst my top five reading recommendations for those wishing to know more about Africa, I’d also add that part of White’s dexterity in storytelling is that this tale could have happened nearly anywhere, simultaneously being particularly African, further adding to her mastery of fluently combining the unlikely. Set in 1953, it also is a timeless tale, evocative, magical as its spirit, like those within, wisping in and out of environments, maintaining an absolute embrace of our senses while setting us completely free to imagine.
About the author …
Rossandra White, a fourth generation South African, spent the first twenty-three years of her life in Zambia, where she had a baboon for a pet and learned to tell a log from a crocodile. As well as Monkey’s Wedding, she is the author of the memoir, Loveyoubye: Holding Fast, Letting Go, and Then There’s the Dog, published by She Writes Press. At the moment, she’s working on finishing another novel, Mine Dances, the sequel to Monkey’s Wedding. She lives in Laguna Beach with her two Staffordshire Bull Terriers, with whom she fights for space in her bed. When she’s not writing, she’s at the gym or hiking the hills behind her home.
Author image courtesy Rossandra White
The author provided a copy of Monkey’s Wedding in exchange for an honest review.