A disappointing ending cannot sabotage what is otherwise a fantastic, complicated novel.
Zakes Mda is an international treasure. As the author of the relatively unsung but genuine classics The Heart of Redness, The Madonna of Excelsior and Ways of Dying as well as many other fine books, he’s received a good amount of attention, winning many awards in his native South Africa and in Europe. However, though the quality and abundance of his work matches that of more famous South African writers like Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee (both winners of the Nobel Prize), Mda has never received the same amount of attention as his peers. This is most likely because Mda is a black South African writer who most often writes about black characters in post-apartheid South Africa, which makes the literary establishment less comfortable than white writers like Gordimer and Coetzee.
This makes Rachel’s Blue all the more fascinating, as it is only the second of Mda’s books to be set in America (and the other, Cion, is a sequel to the South Africa-set Ways of Dying) and is concerned with the plight of the white working poor of Appalachia rather than black South Africans. The primary conflict of Rachel’s Blue is also tied up in very specific policy involving the parental rights of rapists on a state-by-state level.
Despite these radical changes, Rachel’s Blue is still very much a Zakes Mda book. The overall tone and style are timeless in the best sense of the word, and it comes as a shock when Mda mentions Applebee’s and “Saturday Night Live!” because they are reminders that Rachel’s Blue is set in the here and now. And while the setting is Athens, Ohio, and the characters mostly hail from rural areas even further afield, Mda’s language is still the same distinct, generous and joyful style of writing that you would find in his other novels. He manages to remain buoyant even when describing the most devastating of circumstances. Rather than read like a Daniel Woodrell novel, Rachel’s Blue reads like a Zakes Mda novel. If the reader can suspend their disbelief, then the benefits outweigh the distractions.
This buoyant Mda style is necessary for the events of Rachel’s Blue, which is consistently tragic. The two main characters are Rachel and her grandmother Nana Moira. The book begins as a Hardy-esque look at the small town of Athens, Ohio. Rachel is a busker, a roving musician, and Mda suggests that she’s not a very good one at that, describing her voice as “airy and desperate.” Regardless, she keeps at it despite a lack of success while dreaming of bigger things with a sort of detached hopefulness. Nana Moira is respected in the community but appears to be teetering back and forth between protecting and judging her granddaughter. Then, Rachel is raped by Jason de Klerk, a former romantic partner who she had dumped for an anti-fracking demonstrator, and the story transitions from the tale of a small town to a dark discussion on rape, pregnancy and child custody.
It is hard not to shudder when a male writer presents a complicated female character only to have her brutally raped. In this case of Rachel, however, Mda succeeds by not turning her into a martyr or a saint. Instead, her reaction to the rape and her subsequent pregnancy is complicated. For starters, Mda allows Rachel to be a normal young woman leading up to her rape without blaming her for it. She drinks and parties and is in no way portrayed as complicit in the crime against her. Following that, Rachel begins to suffer from post-traumatic-stress-disorder and descends into a spiral of depression and self-harm.
When Rachel learns she is pregnant, she endangers the baby by drinking heavily throughout the pregnancy and refuses to love her unborn child, calling it “dead weight” and “the enemy within.” There is no moment where she suddenly decides to become a good person for her baby. Instead, she cycles through real, often destructive feelings, before her baby boy is born, miraculously free of fetal-alcohol syndrome. As all of this is happening, Rachel is let down by the legal system and Jason ends up being charged only with misdemeanor assault rather than rape.
In its final third, Rachel’s Blue becomes a dynamic courtroom drama as Jason attempts to get custody of the child he fathered by raping Rachel. Mda clearly lays out how easily a rapist can do this in many places in the United States (including Ohio). The attack that Rachel comes under during the custody battle also leads Nana Moira to reveal long held secrets about Rachel’s family, and it becomes increasingly clear that Rachel’s Blue is a universal tale of how society punishes women who suffer at the hands of men.
The book’s quality dips only in the final few pages, in which a deus ex machina legal loophole is introduced. The final words are a bit maudlin, and paint what had up until these final moments been a nuanced portrait as a very black and white situation.
Still, this abrupt and disappointing ending cannot sabotage what is otherwise a fantastic, complicated novel that is unlike anything else out there. In addition to being a complicated story about a woman’s struggle with rape and unwanted pregnancy, it’s also an American story told in South African style. In Rachel’ Blue, Zakes Mda uses his experience of writing about characters finding hope in the shadow of apartheid to build a sensitive, generous and tragic story about how America continues to fail women.