Arthur Shearly Cripps was a poet, athlete and Anglican missionary who arrived in Southern Rhodesia in 1901. He found a country torn between white settlers and the Africans who were increasingly exploited by them. Taking the Africans' part against this exploitation, Cripps became a lone voice among the European settlers. When the government imposed an increase in "hut tax", which deliberately pushed the Africans out of their traditional pastoral communities into earning cash from labour-hungry settlers, Cripps bought 7,000 acres on which he founded farms, a school and a church. It was to be a utopia in which the local Shona people could live freely, without interference from the colonial government or the land-gobbling British South Africa Company. Cripps was buried there in 1952, but is still commemorated at an annual festival.
Owen Sheers discovered diaries and letters that led him on a hunt for Cripps, his great-great-uncle. But what he did not discover is that to mix biography, fiction and travel, as he has done in The Dust Diaries, does not work. Sheers describes his uncle as "elusive" and feels the need to imagine his way into his head and heart in order to get to know him better. Thus Sheers attributes to him intimate thoughts and invents his most private actions. But instead of enlivening Cripps, these imaginings mean we are forever wondering what is fact and what is not. Some characters are invented and others are real, but we are not told which. If this was either a novel or a travel book, we could trust the author, and relax and enjoy what is essentially an excellent story. Instead we are left with an intrusive sense of uncertainty.
The Dust Diaries not only jumps between genres, it also leaps about in time. Sheers ranges across the first half of the 20th century, rewinds to a time before Cripps's arrival in Africa, and fast forwards to his own visit to Zimbabwe in 2000. Sometimes he addresses Cripps directly as "you", turning the reader into the voyeur of a private letter.
However, when Sheers detaches himself from Cripps and sticks to a simple historical narrative, his style becomes less laboured and the book takes off. Sheers is a poet, and his descriptions are peppered with vivid details. When Cripps travels by train, Sheers perfectly evokes the hard seat, the random stopping and starting, the unmoving grass of the windless veld.
Cripps was a saintly figure, and in a moving chapter Sheers returns to his uncle's farm to meet Leonard Mamvura, the Zimbabwean schoolteacher now in his eighties who became Cripps's secretary, and who still keeps his name alive. Mamvura is dismayed by what is happening in modern Zimbabwe, by the economic chaos resulting from Zanu-PF's "redistribution" of white-owned land; but this is only what Cripps had predicted 80 years earlier.
In an elegant final twist, Sheers finds himself drinking in a Harare bar with Dr Chenjerai "Hitler" Hunzvi, the notoriously brutal leader of the Zimbabwean war veterans and organiser, since deceased, of the farm invasions. Hunzvi dismisses Cripps as just another white exploiter and the conversation turns nasty. Hunzvi's driver warns Sheers to shut up, or he will be made to do so. When Hunzvi and his bodyguards leave the bar Sheers sighs with relief, then the driver returns and he feels the adrenalin run through his veins. Instead of arresting him, the driver shakes Sheers by the hand, and hurriedly tells him that he is from Cripps's neighbourhood, and that he loves what the missionary did there.
Helena Drysdale's latest book is Mother Tongues: travels through tribal Europe (Picador)