In search of identity

<strong>Rainbow's End</strong>

Lauren St John <em>Hamish Hamilton, 277pp, £17.99</em>

ISBN 02411

The "Rainbow's End" of Lauren St John's atmospheric memoir is the Rhodesian farm leased by her parents from 1978 to 1983. It serves as a joyous image for Lauren's stunning homeland, and a more sombre one for the end of an era, as civil war shatters the colonial lifestyle enjoyed by white "Rhodies" and paves the way for independence, the creation of Zimbabwe - and the unstable legacy that continues today as the country implodes under Robert Mugabe's dictatorship. Lauren St John's illuminating eyewitness account of events 30 years ago also goes some way to explaining the current political and economic disasters.

In 1975, Lauren's father, Errol, decides he can no longer bear the taunts that he is avoiding the Rhodesian bush war and brings his family back from Cape Town to settle in Hartley, south-west of Salisbury. Lauren is thrilled, as this means she is closer to her dream of having a horse and becoming a champion cross-country eventer. It's a childhood of sunshine, creamy milk from the farm's two cows and "the caramel zing of fried bananas" cooked by Maud the maid. Over time, not only does Lauren progress from a frumpy mare to a stunning black stallion, but her menagerie comes to embrace snakes, Jenny the giraffe, Daisy the calf, warthogs, dogs in all shapes and sizes, and a Siamese cat. A veritable tomboy, Lauren dreams of becoming a vet.

But beneath the surface of the childhood idyll rumble domestic and national tensions, where the micro mirrors the macro. Her parents' fights, her father's abrupt U-turns and her mother's disappearances on self-improving foreign trips unsettle Lauren's world as surely as the guerrilla war unsettles the grown-ups. The move to Rainbow's End (the scene of a terrorist massacre in which the boy Lauren sat next to in class and many of his relatives were killed) is just one more attempt by Lauren's parents to patch things up.

As Lauren enters adolescence, her grappling with typical dilemmas such as acne, boys and new dreams (of being a pop star) coincides with an awakening of her own white consciousness, her own guilt. Her sense of betrayal (that things she'd thought true aren't so) compounds her disillusionment. In parallel with revelations of her father's serial infidelities, the war she'd regarded as Rhodesians against external communists turns out to have been blacks fighting whites for their rights, and black tribes fighting each other for supremacy. It confuses her that the blacks who made up two-thirds of the Rhodesian army are not accorded places in Mugabe's memorial site, Heroes' Acre. What price, this memoir demands, the pursuit of dreams?

Deep in the book lies a seemingly innocuous sentence, referring to widespread reports in 1980 of "voter intimidation by Mugabe's supporters". Ever lyrical, St John later writes that life just after the war was like "going to sleep in Jamaica and waking up in the pages of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four". She is particularly good at describing the ongoing tensions after independence: after the general weapons amnesty, people actually felt less safe. Like Lauren's adolescence, it was for the nation a time of awkward transition, when some Rhodies tried to get on with blacks, others kept their racist thoughts to themselves, and thousands more emigrated. Lauren visits Maud's hut, but the gulf between the two women is like a physical hurt.

This memoir works on many levels. It is a spot-on account of coming of age in the 1970s, at once universal (think Farrah Fawcett-Majors perms, Charlie perfume sprayed on love letters and the "porn" of Mills and Boon) and intensely African (think Willards tomato-sauce crisps and Mazoe orange squash). It also raises questions about the moral gymnastics of the time. Woven through these pages is the sense of being where you perhaps have no right to be. The people who died in the massacre at Rainbow's End were that weekend meant to have been somewhere else. Writ large, this is the question that has often been levelled at whites in Zimbabwe, and one that St John wisely leaves open.

Above all, this is a memoir of a country. It is a love letter to a harsh yet beautiful land, with invigorating prose soaked in African sunshine. Its poignancy stems from the way in which Lauren's attempts to work out who she is parallel her beloved nation's struggle to do the same.

This article first appeared in the 07 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: The reckoning