The Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam “tells the story of two young sisters, Nyree and Cia O’Callohan, who live on a remote farm in the East of what was Rhodesia in the late 1970s. Beneath the dripping vines of the Vumba rainforest, and under the tutelage of their heretical grandfather, Oupa, theirs is a seductive world laced with African paganism, bastardised Catholicism and the lore of the Brothers Grimm – until their idyll is shattered forever by their orphaned cousin, Ronin” (littlebrown.co.uk).
I should probably warn you all right now that despite the fluffy and fun title, this is not a light book. The Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam is most of all a tale about a childhood in Rhodesia of the 1970s, just before it became Zimbabwe under Mugabe. Although there is a prologue from a grown-up Nyree, the story is narrated by her 8 year old self. Nyree is an intelligent child, very close to her younger sister Cia, and makes for a very likable character and narrator. I especially like how she embedded scoldings and opinions of her mother and Oupa (grandfather) in her narration:
“Oupa is supposed to be helping me with my homework, but he´ll be buggered if he´s going to play governess now on top of being nanny”
Together with Cia, Nyree wanders very freely around her parents farm and the surrounding area. They experience Rhodesia´s wild and dangerous beauty in a way that is both practical (they know all about worms and snakes and watch chickens get butchered) and magical (waiting for their wings to grow so that they can fly with the fairies). They listens constantly to their Oupa´s carelessly racist comments and of course attend an all-white school, but they are intrigued by the African myths and very close to the farm´s main worker Jobe and his wife Blessing.
While their father is off fighting the Terrs (terrorists) and the situation between the Africans and the white settlers gets more and more dangerous, their bastard cousin Ronin arrives on the farm. It is him more than anything who is a danger to their world. The last days of Rhodesia are noticed but not as immediate to them.
Their father is thus only in their lives when he is on leave and it is their Oupa and their mother who are their main influence. Oupa is definitely racist, but in a curiously offhand way, perhaps this comes with growing up that way and viewing his superior position as white farmer as normal. Liebenberg does not excuse his comments or position but she does not make him a weak cardboard character either. Through Nyree´s eyes Oupa is shown to be very attached to his granddaughters although they are no heirs but only “lasses”, and we see that in his age he has not much but his stories to live on, as the country he has known and grown up in is changing and dying.
The children´s mother takes on the role of farm owner and baas (boss) in her husband´s absence and Nyree tells us that her mother changes from the soft, nice-smelling woman into a harder version who commands the workers and wears her husband´s shirts. Through the eyes of a child all these changes are noticed and as readers we can make up our own minds about the causes and effects of absent fathers, working mothers, old grandfathers and the last days of Rhodesia.
The author, Liebenberg, grew up in South Africa and her knowledge and love for the country show through in this novel. The Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam is also full of Afrikaans, Rhodesian and Zulu slang, but this adds to the authenticity of the world described and does not make it more difficult to read (there is also an appendix with the translations for these terms).
This is one novel that I can highly recommend, without reservations. In fact, I will need to get my own copy of it as I can see myself rereading it lots of times. I hope I have given you the right impression, this novel is not fluffy, it´s much better in that it does not shy away from darker and more serious topics. The lighthearted moments are still there though, and Liebenberg made me laugh and cry many times.
A few of my favorite passages:
“It´s in his eyes most of all- they´re colourless and polite. After a while, I have to turn away- if I look at that portrait for too long, I can feel Great Grandfather´s ghostly eyes watching. (7)
“Cia has a sort of monkeyish look about her face, a cheekiness that cheats her out of her sweetness, and she has a smile like a Cheshire cat that slits her eyes, so that all up she looks like a wickedly smug little Chinese simian- but cute in a way against which I can´t compete.” (9)
“Oupa is supposed to be helping me with my homework, but he´ll be buggered if he´s going to play governess now on top of being nanny and I can chant the six times table to myself when I´m on the bog, so we sit and hear about the toiling instead.” (13)
“Shrouded in the forest, we are lifted above the grubbiness of chicken slaughters and peanut butter and jam, and are allowed to enter another world- one where things flit on gossamer wings and anything is a mere wish away.” (18)
“Adults say all sorts of pious and noble things about the wisdom of age and whatnot, but in truth, for old folks, it´s like their story has ended before they have, and all that´s left is the re-telling, (except they´re not heard or even seen by the ones whose time it is, instead they´re seen only by us, the ones whose time has not yet come), until the book finally closes on yesterday´s story. (133)
“The day has a sort of glow about the edges. Perfect. I feel it searing onto my brain the way something does when you know you´ll always remember it.” (168)
Have you reviewed this book? Let me know and I´ll add a link!