Triggered and framed by her sister’s death in a car crash, Wendy Kann’s Casting with a Fragile Thread is a memoir of the author’s childhood in Zimbabwe and adulthood in the U.S. Kann writes candidly – if oddly dispassionately – about the horrors of her mother’s alcoholism and the more subtle and bizarre cruelties inflicted by her father and stepmother. After two decades in what was then Rhodesia, she meets an American called Mickey, whom she marries and accompanies to the U.S. Her bewilderment at the strange ways of Americans is as complete as her ignorance of the major events that were taking place in Rhodesia during her time there, and of the vast majority of fellow Rhodesians – that is, all those who were black and less privileged than she was, notwithstanding her alcoholic mother and heavily indebted father. By the end of the book Kann’s ‘unknown unknowns’ have become ‘known unknowns’ – she realizes her segregation from the people with whom she grew up, but the vision of her running after them with a tape recorder and sets of questions is embarrassing, leading to more than one faux pas and little in the way of insight.
This is Kann’s first book. As a window into Zimbabwe – a country whose history is made important by the misery it is now experiencing – Casting compares badly with Peter Godwin’s recently published memoir of the same place, When a Crocodile Eats the Sun. Like Kann, Godwin is drawn back to Zimbabwe by the ‘fragile thread’ that connects family: his father is dying. But Godwin’s return to the place of his childhood brings new, deep perspectives on place, history, politics and family. In contrast, when Kann presents us with a riff on the Rhodesian civil war, for example, it feels as if it has been cut-and-pasted straight from Wikipedia. Kann does not deny her reliance on the history books: “As a white girl in my relatively safe suburb of Saisbury, I was barely aware of any of it.” This blindness – for all it does, at least, reveal about white Zimbabweans – can be frustrating.
Kann’s story is anyway less about Africa than about family. Her honesty about her own failures toward family members is the most powerful aspect of the book. Of her mother, with whom she eventually broke off all contact, Kann concludes sadly, “I wasn’t strong enough to bear her.” In one shockingly candid scene, Kann speaks on the phone to her sister Lauren, who is still living in the family home in Zimbabwe. Lauren recounts discovering a strange man in her flat, rifling through her drawers. She manages to eject him, but there is no one to call – no police, no neighbors, her sisters far away – and no preventative measures to take. Horrified, Kann reacts in a way we can all, cowards, recognize: “So I hurriedly said goodbye. I squeezed my eyes together, forcing Lauren and her terrifying loneliness far out of my mind, then eagerly got on a plane with Mickey to leave Africa completely.”
In other parts of the book, there are gaps in Kann’s candor. In the description of an almost-orgiastic party she attended in Hong Kong, she seems completely absent, as if watching from afar. We are denied her feelings, interpretations, actions – all so essential to successful memoir.
However imperfect, this is a good-hearted, readable book, made all the more earnest by the use of family photographs as illustrations. The reader is left feeling that this family is as incomprehensible to outsiders as every other, but that she has nevertheless been welcomed, for a brief, pleasant time, into the family home.