4 out of 4 stars
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A Whistling Girl is a work of historical fiction by Nola Schiff. Set in 1952, the story takes place in Sauersville, a poor district of Bulawayo in Southern Rhodesia. Rooted in the author’s own upbringing in Rhodesia, the story is a coming-of-age tale told from the perspective of eleven-year-old Nicola (‘Nick’) Doughty. Nick lives with her parents and her younger brothers, Douglas (‘Fuzz’) and baby Pete.
The title of the book is derived from the expression ‘A whistling woman and a crowing hen is neither good for God nor men.’ The expression captures the patriarchal view that some things are unnatural and shouldn’t happen; the context is usually how women are expected to behave and live their lives. Nick is a young girl who refuses to conform to these kinds of ‘norms’. She dresses like a boy, fights better than most of her male peers, and tries her best to ignore all the rules of gender, race, and class that surround her.
Nick’s heroine is a British journalist, Sarah J. Bridgeworthy, who goes missing from a train in Bechuanaland. Sarah embodies the spirit of adventure and freedom that Nick wants for herself as an adult. She scans the papers and listens to the radio for news of Sarah before writing up the imagined adventures of her heroine and projecting herself into the story. Outside her imagination, Nick must navigate some traumatic incidents in her life. Alongside these seismic events, there are more mundane childhood concerns: why does Fuzz get to go to boarding school and she doesn’t? Why should Jannie be the leader of the Black Mamba Gang instead of her? And why won’t Bonus, the young black gardener, join the gang?
This is a captivating story from start to finish. It is told in the first-person by Nick which gives it the flavor of a memoir. The author manages to combine a poetic prose style with dialogue that rings true for every character. Her liberal use of Afrikaans, Ndebele, and slang words helps establish this authentic note. Her characters come alive for the reader as does the environment they inhabit. Nick, in particular, stands out, with her determination to be the kind of girl she wants to be. She has a natural affinity for the ‘rebels’ in her life; witness her friendship with Edwin, who likes to put on Nick’s dresses, as well as her admiration for the ‘bold and carefree manner’ of the teenage gay couple, Sissie and Soenkie.
The author shows great skill in dealing with these adult themes, given that they are being revealed to us by an eleven-year-old narrator. In such cases, she uses the innocence of the child to stop things from becoming uncomfortable for the reader. For example, when Nick overhears her parents having a heated discussion about an adult issue, the subject of their conversation sails right over her head: her only concern is that they are talking so loudly that she can’t hear the news.
If I had to pick one aspect of the book that I disliked, it would be that the author has chosen not to use speech marks to denote when dialogue is taking place. This can get a bit confusing in one or two places, but it did not spoil my enjoyment of the book.
I am giving this novel 4 out of 4 stars. It has been professionally edited even if I found a few errors amongst its pages. The book has adult themes and language. Aside from some swear words, there are racist, sexist, and homophobic insults used in some of the dialogue sequences. There are also descriptions of a flogging and a sexual assault which some readers might prefer to avoid. I recommend this book to adults who enjoy character-driven historical fiction written in the style of a memoir.
A Whistling Girl
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