Eight years have passed since Nozizwe Cynthia Jele’s striking debut novel, Happiness is a Four-Letter Word, was published and won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in the Best First Book category for the Africa region. It was also chosen as the winner of the M-Net Literary Award in the Film category and turned into a highly successful movie that made a huge splash in local cinemas two years ago. I loved the book and the screen adaptation and was very eager to see what kind of novel Jele would write next.
The Ones with Purpose was well worth the eight-year-long wait. I couldn’t put it down and devoured it in the course of a single day. It has been a long time since a novel captivated me to such an extent. To say that I feel truly bereft after finishing it is only fitting, since the plot of the book centres on the death and funeral of one of the main characters, the narrator’s sibling: “I imagined a dying person’s last breath as something resembling an exclamation mark, distinct and hanging mid-air like an interrupted thought. My older sister Fikile’s last breath before she dies is nothing of the sort. There is no rattling noise at the back of her throat. No relentless twitching. No clinging to life. Fikile dies with no more fuss than a switch of a light bulb.”
The life that is extinguished with that last switch was one lived to the fullest. When Fikile is first diagnosed with breast cancer, she has everything going for her. With a national diploma in Early Childhood Development to her name, she is running a successful crèche and lives in a comfortable home with her husband Thiza and her own three children. It is clear from the start that growing up wasn’t a stroll in the park for her and her two siblings, Anele and Mbuso, but as the oldest, Fikile did whatever she could to keep the family going after their father’s death in a horrifying road accident and their mother’s subsequent descent into alcoholism: “Ma had returned to life too soon after our father’s death, before her heart was completely healed and before much of the grief had poured out of her system.” Neglected by their mother who, shattered by the loss of her husband, was too ill and self-absorbed to care for the young children, Anele and Mbuso looked up to Fikile to provide for and guide them when the adults in their lives had messed up. “I didn’t bring you into this world,” she exclaimed, “I’m not responsible for you and I cannot be expected to raise you. I have my own life to live.” But even though the burden was too much to handle, she did her best.
As the family gathers to mourn and bury Fikile, Anele recalls her sister’s life and the choices they all made in order not only to survive, but to thrive and aim at a different, more fulfilling future. Sacrifices and impossible compromises had to be made, some best forgotten. But Fikile’s passing brings their individual histories into focus and long-supressed tensions and regrets surface, demanding to be faced and resolved: “Ma maintains that when people come to pay respects to the aggrieved family it is rarely about the deceased; she says people are there to mourn their past personal losses, and that as an aggrieved family it is important to keep your grief in check and not to get caught up in other people’s emotional tangles.”
Anele is ridden by guilt. She is also angry with her brother-in-law for abandoning Fikile in her hour of need. It is now her turn to accept an enormous responsibility for the bringing up of Fikile’s children entrusted into her custody by a sisterly promise. And there is her own daughter to think of, and the child’s father Sizwe, who showed up one day unexpectedly and stayed to the benefit of the entire family. But now, his own past comes back to haunt him.
After a long, painful absence Mbuso returns home to be with the family and has to navigate the minefield of the hurt he had left behind. Unspoken truths fester and need to be revealed. Love springs up in the most unlikely places. Betrayals, old and new, want to be acknowledged and have to be atoned for to bring healing and closure. Some things cannot be unremembered, no matter how hard you might try to escape your ghosts. Throughout it all, traditions have to be observed and respects paid according to family customs. In the middle of the necessary arrangements, Anele makes a crucial resolve: “I ask that we bury first, hold court later.”
Reading The Ones with Purpose, I was often reminded of Anne Enright’s brilliant The Gathering which won the Man Book Prize in 2007. Both novels have the same premise: family dynamics and secrets are explored through the prism of the death of one of family members and the emotional chaos which ensues after such a traumatic event. Jele’s take has a wonderful local flavour which makes it even more appealing, and like the other novel, it tackles psychological landscapes we are all familiar with, independent of where and how we grow up.
Using a quote from Elizabeth Berg for her epigraph, Jele dedicated The Ones with Purpose to “women with cancer who have found their fire, and for those who are still searching.” Having once experienced what it means to be confronted with the threat of a breast cancer diagnosis, I understand the all-consuming fear one has to deal with knowing that perhaps nothing will ever be the same again. “All through this,” Anele tells us, “Fikile hadn’t cried.” Jele captures the utter helplessness and the unbelievable courage required to soldier on when the battle rages inside your own body.
The Ones with Purpose is a powerful novel about endings and new beginnings. Written with wisdom and compassion, it will resonate long after the last page is turned.
The Ones with Purpose
by Nozizwe Cynthia Jele
Kwela Books, 2018
Review first published in the Cape Times on 17 August 2018.