Review - The Word Tree by Teolinda Gersão

Before reading Teolinda Gersão’s vivid evocation of a girl’s coming-of-age in Africa, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, I knew little about the history of Mozambique, its Portuguese colonisers, the crushing poverty and its fight for independence.

The daughter of Portuguese parents, Gita is growing up in the sprawling, chaotic port, Lourenço Marques, as the capital of Mozambique was known until 1976. For Gita, life revolves around her adoring father Laureano and black housekeeper Lóia. She is at pains to avoid her seamstress mother, Amélia, whose crushing sense of disappointment weighs heavily on them all. An unwilling immigrant, Amélia travelled from a rural village in Portugal to Africa in response to Laureano’s newspaper advertisement for a young bride.

Gita’s joy in simple pleasures is infectious: “Everything in the back yard danced: the broad leaves of a banana tree, the flowers and leaves of the Hibiscus, the still tender branches of the jacaranda, the blades of grass that grew like weeds…”

Her sense of wonder is in sharp contrast to Amélia’s relentless dissatisfaction. Not content with their modest wealth, especially when compared to those living in the shanty towns, Amélia craves the lifestyle of Mozambique’s rich with their servants, chauffeur-driven cars and expensive clothes. Gersão perfectly captures these two distinct voices -- the tart despair of Amélia and youthful exuberance of Gita.

Amélia is doomed to remain forever an outsider looking in. The impossibility of her aspirations is revealed when she enters one of many shops aimed at the Portuguese elite: “You could live without jewellery or perfume. In that climate, gloves and furs were quite superfluous, a luxury that could only be shown off on very rare occasions. But that was precisely what attracted her, it was why she had gone into that shop. She had wanted the superfluous, the luxurious, what was reserved for the few.”

This desire to possess what is so blatantly unnecessary in a country battling with poverty is heartbreaking. Inevitably, Amélia’s growing disillusionment and the decisions she takes taint her husband and daughter.

Gersão’s achievement is to use the personal stories of one family to shed light on Mozambique’s troubled past and the immigrant experience in Africa.

It is indicative of the dire state of foreign fiction in this country that despite being translated into eleven languages, The Word Tree is only the first of Gersão’s twelve novels to be published in English, thanks to Dedalus’s new Africa series. Hopefully, other will swiftly follow. After a two-year campaign, Arts Council England recently restored its regular funding of this tiny, literary powerhouse, allowing them to continue to publish new literary fiction in translation and offer readers a window into other worlds.

Tr Margaret Jull Costa

Dedalus, £9.99