Book Review: Nervous Conditions

Both a coming-of-age novel and cultural criticism, Nervous Conditions examines the effects of “post-colonialism” on young African women. The novel features Tambu, a young girl who gets the opportunity to be educated at a Christian missionary school after her brother dies. Initially, Tambu believes that eduction is her path to a better, brighter future; but as the story progresses, it becomes clear that the white man’s education has devastating effects on Tambu, her cousin Nyasha, and society as a whole.

The book: Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga
Genre: Fiction
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Nervous Conditions is an incredibly smart and thought-provoking novel. While the story starts off a bit slow, it picks up nicely after Tambu gets sent to school in her late brother’s place. What makes the novel interesting isn’t the plot, but Tambu’s analysis of the world around her. During a scene where her wealthy and educated uncle Babamukuru lashes out at his daughter (Tambu’s cousin) for coming home late, Tambu realizes that toxic masculinity isn’t unique to poor families like hers: The victimisation, I saw, was universal. It didn’t depend on poverty, on lack of education or on tradition. It didn’t depend on any of the things I had thought it depended on. Men took it everywhere with them. Even heroes like Babamukuru did it. And that was the problem.”

While much of the social commentary is told rather than shown, I think it works well in the context of this coming-of-age novel. From a young age, Tambu has been led to believe that education is the solution to all of her family’s problems – that education will lift her out of poverty and make her more worldly and civilized. The longer Tambu spends in school, however, the more she sees that the education she so desperately wanted is problematic. Not only is the sexism that Tambu resents still prevalent in school, but education at a missionary school revolves around the idea that African lifestyles and traditions are inferior to Western ideals – an idea which many of the students internalize, leading them to look down upon their own culture. As a young woman who is slowly realizing that education is not the panacea she was promised, I think it makes sense for Tambu to explicitly articulate those thoughts.

Like the social commentary, the characters in Nervous Conditions are brilliant and nuanced. Not only are they complex, but they act as vehicles for further social commentary, as they are each the product of their unique upbringing. Tambu’s uncle Babamukuru, for example sees himself as superior to his family members because he is more educated and financially successful than they are – but it’s clear that this belief is the result of being raised and practically brainwashed by white missionaries. Nyasha’s outspoken nature and unwillingness to be seen as inferior to her male peers is the result of spending some of her formative years abroad, which gave her the unique opportunity to observe and question cultural differences at a young age. It’s hard to see any main character in this novel as better or worse than one another, when they are all trying to survive the effects of colonialism.

Overall, I really enjoyed and appreciated Nervous Conditions. The beginning was a bit slow, and the ending a bit abrupt – but I can give the abrupt ending a pass knowing that there are two sequels to this novel. Nervous Conditions is a cutting and compelling critique on colonialism, and I think it should be required reading for high-school or college students. I highly recommend this novel, and can’t wait to read The Book of Not and This Mournable Body.

Author: Hannah Celeste

Hi! I'm Hannah, a book-blogger from the Northeastern United States. I enjoy reading many genres, cooking and baking, doing yoga, and spending time with my two cats.

15 thoughts on “Book Review: Nervous Conditions”

  1. This sounds very promising and I look forward to your thoughts on her other books (if you decide to go ahead). It certainly is problematic if missionary schools make students think that African culture is inferior to that of the Western world. Hopefully, that is a thing of the past.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I just purchased The Book of Not, and will probably read This Mournable Body too. I’m curious how much of that cultural criticism holds up today, as well. Maybe we’ll find out in This Mournable Body!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I like this sound of this book. Lately, the topic of “re-educating” non white children keeps popping up in my day-to-day. Both Canada and the U.S. had such programs for Native children. I haven’t read anything about African children, other than missionaries, but that wasn’t so much school as just a religious focus. I’ll bet this trilogy is fairly dynamic. I hope you continue to read and review it!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This book was great! I didn’t realize (but shouldn’t be surprised) that the US and Canada had “re-education” programs for Native children – that sounds like the ultimate gaslight. Also, I agree that the trilogy will be quite dynamic – especially because the books have been published over the course of 22 years!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. That sounds fascinating. My sister is sponsoring an orphaned girl who is being educated at a mission school in Kenya — the best and just about only option for her, and I understand it’s a very progressive mission, but your review does make me wonder. We are so blind to our own biases, especially the well-meaning ones. Sounds like a fascinating book.

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  4. Great review! I’m so glad you liked this one. I read it several years ago in a college class on postcolonial lit and remember being impressed with it at the time, though I’ve forgotten a lot about it since. I am planning to reread this one and then skip to This Mournable Body as part of my Booker reading (the second book isn’t available at my library, unfortunately) so I’ll be looking forward to your thoughts on the rest of the series as well!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you!! I hope you enjoy this one on your re-read – I’ll look forward to your thoughts on it! I’ve heard that The Book of Not is the least impactful book in the trilogy, so you might not be missing too much there (though it’s not fair for me to say without reading it myself).

      Liked by 1 person

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