Immigration is such a heated political topic in Britain - especially since the Brexit vote last year - that it's interesting to consider how other countries have experienced waves of anti-immigration sentiments in recent times. Kopano Matlwa's “Evening Primrose” is set in a post-apartheid South Africa where a growing wave of xenophobia causes an especially brutal period of cruelty and violence against foreigners. Not only are Zimbabweans, Nigerians, Somalis and Chinese immigrants targeted, but those who support them are derided, threatened and attacked. The novel is written as a series of journal entries by a good-hearted, but conflicted young woman named Masechaba. When the novel opens she's just graduated from medical school and she's quickly introduced to how harsh it is working within South Africa's healthcare system. Her feelings of frustration are exasperated by suffering from depression and the grief of recently losing a close family member under tragic circumstances. Becoming an anti-xenophobia campaigner empowers and fills her with hope, but it also leads to unforeseen events that produce crushing heartache. Her story is a moving account of faith, friendship, a deeply conflicted society and finding the right path in life.
It's not till the end of the novel that you discover the reason why it's called “Evening Primrose.” I rather like it when novels (like Marlon James' “A Brief History of Seven Killings”) do this as it feels like a special secret which only a dedicated reader is allowed to know. But it's interesting that this novel was published in South Africa with the title “Period Pain.” When Masechaba recounts her painful years of puberty and the extreme difficulties having her period caused her it becomes clear why this alternative title is entirely valid. Reading about these experiences made me cross my legs and understand how privileged I am as a man not to have endured this challenging stage of development. Masechaba didn't choose to study medicine for idealistic reasons but to seek help to deal with her unusually heavy amount of menstrual bleeding. Although she goes into the profession thinking they'd only help people she's quickly disillusioned because of how many people doctors aren't able to save. It leads her to feel that doctors are “Murderers, all of us. Murderers.”
Masechaba's conflicts feel all the more intense due to the directness of the narrative. Journal entries naturally contain a lot of raw emotion which is usually edited out in other forms of communication. It also adds an element of much-needed light relief to the many dark aspects of this book because she can sometimes be gossipy and humorous in her accounts. Writing the novel in journal entries also has its drawbacks where some sections rush through and skip over events. Other forms of narrative would go into more detail which would help emotionally prepare the reader for certain startling revelations. But the novel-as-journal also introduces a level of complexity to Masechaba's psychology as the person she's directing these entries to changes over the course of the book. Each section is proceeded by a quote from the bible and much of the novel shows her own reckoning with and questioning of God. Other entries are directed towards her artist brother Tshiamo. But the reader is always aware that this is a really deep meditative conversation that she's having with herself. Her quest to establish a stable and solid sense of identity is intensely felt, especially when she's utterly lost: “I don't know who I am anymore. I don't know what defines me. I feel like a failure.” The great beauty and pleasure of this novel is that she ultimately finds strength of character from an entirely unexpected source.