Review: The Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam

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!

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15 thoughts on “Review: The Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam

  1. I really enjoyed reading your beautiful review! I am adding this book to my ‘TBR’ list. It is interesting that though the title is playful, the book is a little bit serious. I think that the 1970s was a sad time for Rhodesia / Zimbabwe – I remember (from what I have read) that it was not recognized as an independent country and there was a white-minority government similar to the South African government during apartheid times) – what happened in most African countries in the twentieth century because of colonial rule was sad. For me the thing that I keep track about Zimbabwe is their cricket team 🙂 It is made up of wonderful amateurs and they spring up a surprise once in a while, knocking off one of the big teams. They also bring an amateur air and style of play to the game which is wonderful and to watch and is like a breath of fresh air, as the other teams are a bit intense.

    1. You´re so right about the sad situation many African states/ countries found themselves in due to colonial rule! This book is is the first I´ve read that deals a bit with Rhodesia, I really should find out more about it. I hope you´ll enjoy this book 🙂

      Haha, that´s a great way to keep track, Vishy! And a fun one. I have to admit that I like amateur teams best, they are so invested in what they´re doing and seem to be having much more fun than the professionals.

      1. I hope to get this book and read it sometime soon. Yes, amateur teams are the best 🙂 There is a tournament going on now and the Zimbabwe team has made it into the finals – it knocked out the Indian team (and so logically I should be really feeling sad about it, but I am not) – I am thrilled and am looking forward to seeing the final on TV 🙂

        On a different topic – I got ‘The Pigeon’ by Patrick Süskind today 🙂 It looks like a novella and I am hoping to read it soon 🙂

        1. Too bad India lost, but it´s great that you enjoy the success of other teams as well! 🙂 Hope you have a blast watching the finale!

          Oh, I so hope you´ll like The Pidgeon (have to confess it´s been ages since I read that one, but in my opinion you can´t go wrong with Süskind), looking forward to reading your review of it 🙂

  2. I have to say that the title DID make me imagine something completely different! It sounds like an excellent book, in an unexpected way.

    1. It does rather sound like summer afternoons with yummy sandwiches, doesn´t it? 🙂

      It´s still an amazing read, even in an unexpected way.

    2. The title made me imagine something completely different too, something more whimsical like I Capture the Castle or something like that. But it sounds like a really great book. I’d never heard about it before you first posted about it Bina, but I’ll keep my eyes out for it now. 🙂

    1. I love this book, so I really hope you will as well! 🙂 I can´t wait for TEoMY, will probably leave it for the weekend so I won´t be disturbed by unimportant things like cleaning up and uni stuff 😀

  3. Bravo on this wonderful review. I really thought it would be a light read instead it is one that provokes thought about cultural prejudices and life in Rhodesia (aka Zimbabwe). I will search out to see if I can get a copy via my library if not I will order it. You convinced me that it is one to be “owned” & “not returned” category.

    1. Thank you! The title is very misleading 🙂 I really hope you´ll love the book and it´ll be worth buying it for you!

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