Glory by NoViolet Bulawayo: When animals tell the story

Book review: Allegorical novel is set in a fictionalised Zimbabwe – without humans

Author: NoViolet Bulawayo
ISBN-13: 978-1784744298
Publisher: Chatto & Windus
Guideline Price: £18.99

“This is not an animal farm,” declares Dr Sweet Mother in the opening chapter of NoViolet Bulawayo’s second novel, a satire called Glory. The “doctor” is a donkey and the wife of the Old Horse, an avatar for Robert G Mugabe, who led a corrupt Zimbabwean government for 37 years. Given the context, the donkey’s statement must be a reference to George Orwell’s hallowed Animal Farm. Perhaps unintentionally, it should be taken at face value. The 2022 reader is moved by Orwell’s 1945 novella for its prescience; the 400-page Glory looks backwards but doesn’t illuminate a new truth. It does, however, illustrate a quandary. In the internet era of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Vladimir Putin and indeed Africa post Mugabe – when daily reality surpasses itself in shock, absurdity and tragedy – how can the novel offer political satire?

In a letter to her reader, Bulawayo wrote that “allegory [felt] like the perfect technology” to storify the surreal conditions of Mugabe’s end. Glory’s chosen allegory is creature characters; there are no humans in the book. A mix of individual narratives and an anonymous chorus (occasionally composed of inevitably diminished Twitter storms) tell the story.

It takes place in Jidada, a fictionalised Zimbabwe, and traces the deposition of the Old Horse, the Father of the Nation, who has ruled for “longer than the nine life spans of a hundred cats”. His vice-president, also a horse, incites the coup and becomes the Saviour of the Nation. Roughly one-third into the novel, Destiny appears. She is a goat and a prodigal daughter of Jidada. She must reconnect with her mother, uncover their war-ravaged ancestry, and bring some much-needed heart to the narrative. Destiny won’t go on to lead, she is killed for speaking out against the “new” government, but she raises the citizens to true rebellion. The ending is both bloody and saccharine.

Allegory is intrinsic to story. It needn’t preclude a novel’s subtlety and precision, which Bulawayo proved in her lively debut, We Need New Names, a coming-of-age tale that effectually depicts postcolonial inequality. In Glory the use of animals is awkward and distracting rather than demystifying. The book has a lot of structural scaffolding, which obstructs the reader’s emotional connection to characters. Few writers can engineer a sentence like NoViolet Bulawayo, but if a book’s political and artistic intentions don’t strengthen each other, the novel can’t support the premise.