Evening Primrose by Kopano Matlwa was the first book that I got sent upon my arrival to England earlier this year. I first heard about it on Twitter, described as the perfect book to mix #readwomen and #readdiverse. So that was it for me.
African literature was one of my favourite subjects during my degree, and for some time I even considered pursuing a PhD in the field (that is long before I realised that crime fiction studies were a thing!). So I was really excited to read Evening Primrose, especially after I read the blurb on the back cover:
Maybe this was all my own doing. I should have never started that petition. I should have never stopped my medication […] And I shouldn’t have written all this blasphemous crap in this journal.
Evening Primrose is exactly what it promises: The journal of a young woman who did something which has had horrible consequences for her. The mention of medication – and as I later learned, the medical setting – sounded like the perfect story to enjoy from a Medical Humanities point of view. The story follows Masechaba, now a young doctor in South Africa, from her early years until the present time, when she is struggling to find balance between her personal life and the frustration of doing her job without the necessary resources, which eventually result in the death of many of her patients. However, the novel is not simply the diary of a young doctor as it explores the complex political environment in South Africa, where the ghost of the Apartheid still lingers.
If racially motivated struggles did not add enough tension to the plot, Masechaba is discriminated against for being an educated working class woman. From her early chronic endometriosis – which inspired her to become a doctor – to her current overworked and underpaid present, Masechaba’s story explores what it means to be a woman in South Africa, and how her female body is constructed as a disadvantage to herself, and to those around her.
The most interesting part of the book concerns her medical journal, where Masechaba denounces the death of many of her patients due to a lack of resources and the underfunding of the health care system. Taking into account current events in the US and the UK (though from my experience also in the rest of Europe), her testimony will be familiar to many readers, but Masechaba’s point of view as a doctor is both heartbreaking and something that we need to consider:
Patients die all the time. Nobody expects you to save all of them all the time. We do what we can. And with our crumbling health system, our staff shortages, our social challenges, well, what can people really expect? We do what we can. This is the mantra that I sing to myself, day and night, night and day, I sing it to others, they sing it to me.
Following her struggles to become a better doctor, but also a better human being the weight of South African’s patriarchy comes upon Masechaba, and her daring to challenge the system has terrible consequences for her.
If you are following me on Goodreads, you will notice that I only gave this book two stars. I really wanted to like it, but the third part of the novel just did not work for me. I have been thinking long about this, and from a feminist point of view Evening Primrose posts some hard questions about female agency, womanhood and the female body, and motherhood. However, it is a quick read, and a very different one if you usually only read Western literature, so I would definitely recommend to give Evening Primrose a try, especially if it is available at your local library.
Kopano Matlwa is a South African writer, whose debut novel Coconut made her a best-selling sensation in her native country aged only 21. She is a Rhodes Scholar, and the winner of The Aspen Ideas Award for Medical Innovation. She is currently reading for a DPhil in Population Health at the University of Oxford. Her work has been compared to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s.