An Act of Defiance by Irene Sabatini
Harare 2000. Gabrielle is a newly-qualified lawyer fighting for justice for a young girl. Ben is an urbane and charismatic junior diplomat attached to Harare with the American embassy. With high-level pressure on Gabrielle to drop the case, and the president’s youth wing terrorising his political opponents as he tightens his grip on power, they begin a tentative love affair. But when they fall victim to a shocking attack, their love splinters across continents and their stories diverge, forcing Gabrielle on a painful journey towards self-realisation.
This powerful story begins in 2000, during the lead-up to the referendum which could give Robert Mugabe even more power than he already has. The country is in a state of political turmoil and anyone opposing ‘the Old Man’ faces violent retribution, much of it carried out by young people loyal to the existing regime. Gabrielle’s father is a successful man, a keen supporter of Mugabe but, she is an activist, an idealistic young lawyer who works for an aid centre, so wants little contact with him. As the story opens, she is involved in preparations for the private prosecution of the man who has been accused of raping fourteen-year-old Danika. As he is a powerful member of the government, the State has denied he has a case to answer but Danika’s family is determined to seek justice. In the midst of this, whilst in the early stages of her relationship with Ben, Gabrielle is abducted and taken to a torture camp. When she finally escapes, she is traumatised by what has happened to her, Ben has been deported and it is her ex-boyfriend, Giorgio who looks after her and tries to help her overcome the trauma. In her dissociated state she allows this to happen, although thoughts of Ben and their nascent love-affair are never from her thoughts.
Through the swift changes in the timeline which are a feature of the first half of the novel, the events which led to Gabrielle’s abduction, both personal and political, are gradually revealed. Although initially I found this rather disconcerting, as the story unfolded, I not only adjusted to it but in fact felt appreciative that this allowed some moments of respite from the descriptions of the horrors she was being exposed to. The remainder of the story, written in relatively short chapters and covering the next eight years, then follows a ‘real-time’ progression, exploring not only how Gabrielle deals with her trauma, but also how her reactions and decision-making affect her relationships with the other significant people in her life. A recurring question, which is central to her long struggle to come to terms with what she has experienced, is ‘how can you imagine the future when your story traps you in the past?’ I was impressed with the ways in which the author explored the psychological vulnerability of victims, the long-term mental health implications which can arise following violent traumatic experiences and the consequent pressure which this puts on all other relationships.
Interwoven into the story are reflections on what was happening in Zimbabwe during the first eight years of the twenty-first century. Although I already knew a lot about the history of the country, both pre and post the 2000 referendum, I found it very disturbing to be reminded of the extent of the corruption, the absence of democracy, the prevalence of every-day casual violence, the intimidation, the torture and killings of hundreds of thousands of people, the hyper-inflation, the expelling of aid organisations etc. I really admired the way in which the author, whilst never shying away from showing the extent of the violence and upheaval, showed that, against all the odds, her characters were trying to live their lives in the best way they possibly could, determined to hold onto the hope of a better future. The fact that there is a poignant and convincing love-story at the heart of her novel is, in my opinion, testament to the skill with which she combined all the elements of her story into such a credible whole. The brief ‘Afterword’, which is set in 2017 and holds the promise of better things to come, for Gabrielle and for Zimbabwe, felt a very comforting end to this complex story.
Although there were moments when I was reading this deeply-disturbing story when I almost couldn’t bear to feel exposed to any more descriptions of trauma, violence and terror, the compelling nature of Irene Sabatini’s writing meant that I very quickly felt emotionally engaged with the characters, especially Gabrielle. This meant that I soon found it almost impossible to put down, even during the first half of the story when some of the descriptions of violence were particularly graphic and the escalating tension felt almost unbearable. It was almost as if by stopping before I knew what the future held for them, I’d be abandoning them – the fear and anxiety being generated felt so powerfully visceral.
When I finished reading, I felt as though I’d been put through an emotional-wringer and, as I write this review, the characters and all the thought-provoking themes which run through the story, remain vivid in my mind. This gives some indication of just how brilliant Irene Sabatini’s eloquent prose and writing-style is. I haven’t read either of her previous novels (The Boy Next Door and Peace and Conflict) but the wonderful quality of her story-telling in this novel has left me determined to remedy that omission as soon as possible!
With my thanks to the publisher and NB for a copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review.
Personal read: 5*
Group read: 5*
The Indigo Press 19th March 2020
Review by Linda Hepworth