The Stone Virgins A Novel

Yvonne Vera

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



Trade Paperback

192 Pages



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Winner of the MacMillan (UK) Writers' Prize for African Adult Fiction
A San Francisco Chronicle Best Book

In 1980, after decades of guerrilla guerilla warfare against colonial rule, Rhodesia earned its hard-won independence from Britain. Less than two years later, Robert Mugabe's rise to power in the new Zimbabwe brought an explosion of violence across the land that reverberates to this day.

In The Stone Virgins, renowned author Yvonne Vera examines the dissident movement—a subject long taboo among her countrymen—from the perspective of two sisters living in a small township outside of Bulawayo. She explores their quest for dignity and a centered existence against a backdrop of appalling brutality; the rival tensions between township and city life; and the twin instincts of survival and love that motivate them in the face of mankind's capacity for terror, beauty, and sacrifice.

Weaving historical facts into a story of grand passions and striking endurance, Vera has fashioned a portrait of life before and after liberation that is both radiant and haunting. The result is a powerful and provocative testament to the resilience of the Zimbabwean people that will not soon be forgotten.


Praise for The Stone Virgins

"The lyricism Vera employ[s] so movingly . . . acts like a klieg light, exposing carnage motivated simply by brutality for its own sake."—Alix Wilbur, The New York Times Book Review

"This short, powerful book, which won the inaugural Macmillan (UK) Writer's Prize for Africa, should be read again and again. It's a vivid introduction to that clearly beautiful but violence-torn (and now hunger-torn) nation. Writing no more and no less than necessary, Vera demonstrates what fiction does best: showing us how it felt to be there."—Eric Grunwald, San Francisco Chronicle

"This is a strong, haunting story."—Edna O'Brien, The New Yorker

"Her descriptive powers are consistently impressive and often dazzling . . . [This is] first-rate writing [with] provocative meditations on memory, corruption and loss."—Jabari Asim, The Washington Post Book World

"The Stone Virgins is Vera at her lyrical best. Her affinity for visual art comes through in her writing. Her descriptions are painted, by turns, in bold palette-knife applied strokes and delicate pastel colors. The novel exudes compassion, tolerance and sensitivity—the three hallmarks of great writing. Post-colonial African literature is led by Zimbabwean writers and she is the by far the most imaginative and original voice among them."—Zakes Mda, author of Heart of Redness

"Much of The Stone Virgins is told in a kaleidoscope of narrative techniques. Vera shifts casually from first- to second- to third-person voices. Some of her sentences are enigmatically abstract . . . while others are full of lush, indigenous imagery . . . Some mystify as they hevoke . . . Yet the gorgeous elusiveness of Vera's writing sneaks up on a reader and creates a mood of somber woe more persuasive than a mere story."—Melvin Bukiet, Chicago Tribune

"Yvonne Vera writes with magnificent luminosity. The Stone Virgins is song about the author’s people, and the tragedy of their lives and their loves, contrasted against the sheer beauty of their land. It may yet prove to be one of the notable novels of the twenty-first century."—Ama Ata Aidoo

"Vera brings to this novel her extraordinary gift of sidelong and oblique entry into the heart of things using the total environment—trees, sky, rivers, rocks, and mountains are themselves characters—to express human emotion. Her treatment of love is unusual and strikingly original, bringing out its redemptive power which triumphs over the horrors of war and human cruelty."—Eldred D. Jones, Editor, African Literature Today

"Writing no more and no less than necessary, Vera demonstrates what fiction does best: showing us how it felt to be there . . . We must thus keep an eye on Yvonne Vera . . . Not only because after this book we will hunger for more, but also because she dares speak unpleasant truths about her own country."—Eric Grunwald, The Boston Globe

"A poignant novel . . . Vera is to be commended for confronting Zimbabwe's violence-ridden past, and for seeking to break the silence that perpetuates further violence."—Tracy Price-Thompson, The Black Book Review

"Vera's not for readers who want their fiction simple to read and comfortable to mentally digest. With that in mind, if you're willing to give The Stone Virgins a try, afterward Yvonne Vera is likely to be counted among your very favorite authors."—Jeff Guinn, Fort Worth Star-Telegram

"With simple poetic words, Zimbabwean writer Vera brings home the ochdaily struggles in her country, from the harsh repression of the long colonial regime through the fight for independence and the horrifying brutality of the civil war. She focuses on two sisters, Thenjiwe and Nonceba, and the rural community of Kezi where they live. The brilliant opening chapters are set in Kezi's village store, where the people wait for news from those who have left for the city, and the bus brings back messages and packages (some of them empty) as well as returning migrants happy to be strangers at home. Then comes the war, and the women grab their new role as freedom fighters, but dreams of independence are shattered in a new world of land mines, roadblocks, and guns. Without sensationalism or heroics, this searing novel speaks of dislocation, terror, betrayal, and strength."—Booklist

"Zimbabwe novelist Vera presents a gruesome and unflinching portrait of a people caught between the promise of independence and the violence of civil war. As white rule in Rhodesia ends and the nation of Zimbabwe is born, sisters Thenjiwe and Nonceba can finally look forward to full lives, Thenjiwe finding love in their rural village and Nonceba discovering knowledge in boarding school. But when the new president sends forces to the province of Matabeleland to rid the country of his rivals, the sisters and their village are once again terrorized. Thenjiwe is murdered, and Nonceba is raped and mutilated by a dissident soldier who is damaged by years of violence and hardship; it is uncertain whether anyone can heal from such brutality. Vera bypasses the wider political questions, instead showing how rage, hate, and silence affect individuals, making her latest novel a universal testament of the horrors of war."—Library Journal

"The Zimbabwean war against British rule—and the subsequent civil turmoil of the 1980s—are backdrop for the author's latest African tale of maimed, haunted lovers. From the bustling city of Bulawayo, where Vera was born, the road to rural Kezi brings the daily busload of commuting workers to stop at Thandabantu Store, which becomes the metaphorical hub of black life in Vera's circular, elliptical narrative. There, a young woman named Thenjiwe spies a watchful, solitary man and allows him to follow her back to her house, where the two commence a breathless, two-month love affair. Yet the civil war intervenes ('the years of deafness and struggle'), and when the men and
up0women soldiers return to their rural homes, they are changed irrevocably by the violence they have witnessed. In a shocking, brutal incident that seems to symbolize the country's sense of rupture and discontinuity, a traumatized soldier named Sibaso enters Thenjiwe's home, which she shares with her beloved younger sister, Nonceba, decapitates the elder sister, then mutilates Nonceba, and vanishes. A suppression of memory and language ensues as part of Nonceba's healing—until Thenjiwe's former lover (significantly, he's a museum archivist of 'ancient kingdoms') returns to offer her aid and a new life in Bulawayo. The tale is told with an intuitive grace and a palpable delight in metaphor ('You are beautiful like creation,' Thenjiwe's lover exclaims ecstatically, while washing her with milk): The 'stone virgins' painted on the rocks of Gulati, where Sibaso 'takes shelter from the dead,' have been 'saved from life's embrace'—that is, from the chaos of the war. And the final burning of Thandabantu Store becomes the last devastating act in the evaporation of memory . . . A fine, excruciatingly delineated portrayal of the malevolent effects of war on a people."—Kirkus Reviews

"At times bordering on a prose poem, this dense, kaleidoscopic novel by Zimbabwean author Vera is set against the civil war that ravaged her country in the early 1980s, shortly after Zimbabwe won its independence from Britain. The story takes place largely in the rural outpost of Kezi, a small hamlet of mud huts 200 kilometers away from the city of Bulawayo. The heart of Kezi is Thandabantu Store, one of the few commercial establishments, site of the bus stop and Kezi's only phone booth (which has neither wires nor handset), and the town's unofficial gathering place. Here a young woman named Thenjiwe meets a worldly museum curator from Bulawayo and begins a tentative affair. The civil war intrudes, however. Caught up in the orgiastic killing frenzy, a soldier named Sibaso murders Thenjiwe and rapes and mutilates her sister Nonceba. Thandabantu Store is destroyed in a final conflagration, but Nonceba finds her way to Bulawayo and takes shelter with Thenjiwe's former lover, offering a pallid ray of hope. The story shifts between the perspectives of Thenjiwe, Nonceba and Sibaso. Vera's impressionistic writing . . . perfectly captures the terrifying chaos of the fighting, as well as the rhythms of provincial African life."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

The Stone Virgins
1950--19801Selborne Avenue in Bulawayo cuts from Fort Street (at Charter House), across to Jameson Road (of the Jameson Raid), through to Main Street, to Grey Street, to Abercorn Street, to Fife Street, to Rhodes Street, to Borrow Street, out into the lush Centenary Gardens with their fusion of dahlias, petunias, asters, red salvia, and mauve petrea bushes, onward to the National Museum, on the left side. On the right side, and directly opposite the museum, is a fountain, cooling the air; water flows out over the arms of two large mermaids. A plaque rests in front of the fountain
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  • Yvonne Vera

  • Yvonne Vera (1964-2005) is one of Zimbabwe's most acclaimed writers and social critics. She is the author of Butterfly Burning, winner of the Berlin Literature Prize (work in translation), Without a Name, and Under the Tongue, which won the Commonwealth Writers Prize (Africa Region). In 2002 she was awarded the Macmillan (UK) Writer's Prize for Africa (adult fiction) for The Stone Virgins.