“My story starts in the womb of innocence- a cozy and comfortable womb, as every womb is, and ought to be.”
Thus begins an intriguing and at times heartbreaking account of a childhood that is in so many ways like any other childhood, but that is in as many ways unique. Jennifer Armstrong’s account of coming into consciousness during the early years after the Unilateral Declaration of Independence by Ian Smith, the then prime minister of Rhodesia in 1965, is a personal tale of living and existing with a status quo which she played no part in shaping and against which she was powerless. The adults were powerless, however what makes this story so compelling is the utter powerlessness of the child. It is the powerlessness of the adults in the story, particularly her father, which she captures with amazing prowess, yet using simple, child-like language. She is then able to demonstrate how this sense of impotence and loss of control and adherence to Christian ideology, which he dared not question, created a war within him, a raging minstrel which spewed its heat over her, the female child who was different because she was curious and dared to question. The young Jennifer turns inward, becoming quiet and as still as possible in order to avoid the unpredictable, explosive outbursts of anger from her father. However, it seems at times as though her very existence is an affront to his authority and a source of great irritation.
Armstrong’s discussion of the war of liberation of Zimbabwe from colonial rule provides the context to the complex emotions and the visceral fear that adults experienced and how these in turn impacted on her psyche. She chronicles events in a circuitous manner much like the memory, which does not always recall events and experiences in a linear fashion. One might call it an emotional geography, in which nature, events and subjects are all contexts for emotional expression. Yet one is truck by the richness of her descriptions of Nature, which she calls the “umbilical cord” to which she was attached.
Amstrong’s family eventually emigrates to Australia after her father resigns his job as a lecturer at one of Harare’s tertiary educational institutions. Life in the new country is described in emotional terms and the teenager Jennifer wrestles with the loss of Nature as her primal source of energy and happiness, paternal unpredictability and issues of sexism and patriarchy, which she meets head on with a defiance and determination that brings her to a point of personal emancipation.
Armstrong’s voice is very consistent but at times petulant; a child’s voice that is focused totally and exclusively on herself, with events and circumstances always being relative to herself. This is the case throughout the entire narrative, which gives it a cohesiveness, which its esoteric style might otherwise have threatened. The esoteric quality is what makes the story such a delight to delve into. It demands that the reader delve in with an open mind as well with as an open heart. It compels the reader to think deeply, all the while enjoying a gently cruising pace, giving pause for reflection on one’s own inner child and the innocence, which gives the young Jennifer the gift of exacting immense pleasure and joy from the simplest of things like jumping into a cool swimming pool on a hot afternoon.
This is a story told in a unique way. It is solid. What makes it a gem is the author’s audacity to tell of her experiences in a way that she wanted to, in a voice with which she is completely comfortable. By taking a risk with experimental form, Armstrong has demonstrated what a memoir ought to be - a means of recollection, told in a manner in with which she is at home. This in turn enables her readers to “feel at home” in her narrative.
Excellent read Jennifer! I am hoping that there is more where this came from!