Having a sister is one of the best elements of my life. We used to fight a lot growing up, about almost everything (even who got to eat out of which particular bowl at breakfast). She is now one of my best friends and I love spending time with her. The thought of growing up together delights me.
The Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam is a story set in the late 1970s about two sisters Nyree and Cia O’Callohan who live on a remote farm in east Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia). We learn of their farm, the workers on it, the war, and their parents relationship through Nyree’s eyes and as with We Need New Names and Gemsquash Tokoloshe this vantage point allows us to see and hear so much more than we could through the eyes of an adult protagonist. It also shapes the importance of certain elements – the war happening at that time is only relevant in so much as it affects their parents or the workers on the farm. More important is the relationship between the two sisters, and the way in which they experience the world together as a magical and mysterious place.
A more significant source of tension in their lives is the arrival of Ronin, their orphaned cousin, who is the product of a traumatic home background as well as the challenges of being an outcast at school. Added to this is their Grandfather’s dislike of the boy for reasons we only later discover, a dislike which spills over into their every interaction and which even at their young age, Nyree and Cia know goes too far. This exclusion of Ronin in many areas of his life creates a menace within him which causes chaos in the lives of the whole O’Callohan family at a time when the broader world around them also turns chaotic.
The book is gripping and requires that the reader explore their own sense of forgiveness and ideas such as social conditioning, trauma and healing. I found it very painful to read at some points, having to bite back tears on the train. It is powerfully moving because the bond that Liebenberg creates between the sisters feels so real and powerful. You want to protect all of the characters from the cruelty of the world, but the world within the book carries on beyond your control, much like the world outside of it.
Perhaps it is this that has stayed with me the most after the book. There isn’t much that we can control in this life except ourselves. The world will take the people we love from us, and it may never replace them. It may send someone into your life that you don’t expect, and that person, who didn’t exist in your mind before the moment of their arrival, can come to consume your every thought either for good or for bad. We never know what goes on in the lives of others and I think this means we have a responsibility to tread lightly, to act with kindness, to give people the benefit of the doubt. This can be painful at times because not all people are good people. Some may choose to hurt us, and others may enter our lives to heal.
This was Liebenberg’s first book and it certainly is an incredible debut.