The Ear, the Eye and the Arm – Nancy Farmer

The three children of a broadly benign dictator, General Matsika, languish within the protected compound that is their home, forbidden from all but the most proscriptive exposure to the world outside for fear of offering their father’s enemies an opportunity to kidnap or kill them, and lay him low.

Empathetic Tendai, his thorny sister Rita, and their young brother Kuda long for an unrestricted taste of the rich world beyond those walls: Harare, capital of Zimbabwe, where life is really lived – not like their days of studious isolation, which are only enlivened by the daily praise singing of the household’s Mellower, a semi-psychic servant whose hypnotic chants reinforce each listener’s sense of personal pride and well being – but that can only go so far.

When his duties are complete, the Mellower is as much their playmate as he is their babysitter, and together they hatch a plan to win a day’s freedom from their comfortable cage: the next morning, his songs lull their mother and father into a suggestible state, and they depart to their jobs leaving pass cards and money on the breakfast table. When they realise what has happened, it’s too late: the kids are already free, walking into the marvels of the nearby Mbari Musika market with wide, and too obviously naive, eyes.

The first to see them coming do nothing more than overcharge them for a delicious taste of the market’s spicy delicacies, but more threatening encounters are hot on their heels. The children are snatched off the street and thrust into a series of oppressive worlds, demanding they grow up quickly or succumb.

Days turn to weeks, to months as they languish – but even as their memories of the safe, boring world they gave up begin to fade under the onslaught of ever more serious dangers, all is not yet lost: for Zimbabwe’s poorest, strangest, and least predictable trio of detectives have been hired to track them down, using the unique skills that only they have to offer…

I stole a friend’s copy of The Ear, the Eye and the Arm while they were off gallivanting around France on holiday (call it a tax for plant-watering services rendered), mostly due to the novelty of the cover art. The back of the cover hinted at this being a tale in the vein of The Wizard of Oz, and though it’s been centuries since I read that (during childhood, if I ever did) now I’m finished this seems a reasonable comparison to me.

Although this is superficially science fiction, those elements of the story (robot butlers and gardeners, vid-phones that walk and emote when threatened by angry owners, non-lethal “Nirvana” guns, flying vehicles) really are superficial in the extreme – though some, like the mile-high skyscraper and the mutant abilities of the detectives, are used well. More properly, this is a future-set fantasy novel, in which the Zimbabwe of the late twenty-second century plays host to communities segregated by wealth and the statuses of different “tribes” (British and Portuguese minorities are included in this category, amidst the native African Shona, Ndau, Matabele and Gondwanna – a smart re-levelling of the cultural playing field).

In addition to this vibrant, only sort of sci-fi setting, is the fantasy – a traditional-spiritual element that initially seems to be little more than cultural tradition but gradually reveals itself to be “actual”. Different degrees of spirit possession are perceived to have everyday roles in society: an ancestor’s affinity for some particular skill is thought to give rise to their descendants sharing that ability; at the other extreme respected individuals are believed to host the embodiments of tribal personality, even that of Zimbabwe itslf, and serve as honoured advisers to the rich and powerful. The reveal that this is not mere superstition forms the basis of the fantastical in the story, and this is where the book proves most striking, especially in the crisis-climax the narrative builds towards.

The story itself is highly episodic, and to a degree repetitive with it, though it manages to be so in quite an engaging manner. The formula is of the three children falling into a state of peril, gradually coming to understand the rules they are thus forced to operate under, and escaping, only to fall into peril again. Alongside this, the trio of detectives piece together clues and intuitions to the point where they figure out where the kids now are, only to arrive in the aftermath of their most recent escape and find themselves rudely bumped back to square one. This allows the story to keep the initiative with the young protagonists, who may be treated like prizes to be claimed or prey in need of rescue, but are for the most part forced to save themselves.

The resulting journey explores first-hand a melange-environment which does for Harare what William Gibson did for New York et al in his Sprawl novels, though this is certainly aimed at a young audience. Two stops are particularly vivid, the trash mines beneath a huge (possibly toxic-)waste dump in the city’s centre, and a vast walled enclave that separates a flawlessly preserved enclave of traditional tribal society from the corruptions of the city around it. These serve to highlight the sheltered nature of the children’s original home life: never exposed to hard labour on the one hand, trapped within a protective shell that denies them social growth on the other.

Most of the character development focuses on two personalities. Tendai, the eldest of the three children, is clearly the main protagonist, and while his siblings are both well-drawn they basically conform to type throughout. Tendai on the other hand enjoys a straight-forward but engaging coming-of-age arc, one with what struck me after the fact as resulting in a slightly unusual end-state: the maturity he attains could be seen as a distillation of his potential, not just a flourishing of it.

The other main character is the Arm, nominally the leader of the three detectives, a string-bean figure whose mutation – unlike the Eye’s too-remarkable sight and the Ear’s deafeningly superhuman hearing – is emotive: he feels with overwhelming sensitivity, reaching out to the minds of those around, which delivers both valuable insight but also incapacitating overloads from the crowding populace.

And there are plenty of overloading personalities out there. Even leaving aside the overt antagonists, some of whom mix their villainy into pleasing shades of grey, this is a grotty world in which even “ordinary” people have their own agendas: often selfish, rarely noble, but rarely the traits of absolute evil either; even casually bad people can love their families, for example. There may be no demonic betrayers in our midst but real life is full of people like this, and their presence here lends an authentic air to the presentation of an amazing story world.

The Arm’s part in the narrative comes to centre on a theme of parenthood, paralleling and amplifying the roles of the children’s parents. Although they are mostly peripheral to the main action, “Mother” and “Father” (as they are referred to throughout) are not bystanders by any means, and come the final scenes this becomes very much an ensemble piece in which the whole family play their part – with perhaps one exception in their father, the General, whose essentially domineering presence has to be shaken off for the others to express their own worth.

The book closes with a rather old-fashioned Epilogue, rounding up the action with a “Tendai grew up to be… The She-Elephant did this…” montage of future beats, which ended nicely but felt to me like a bit of a trailing off (plus a Glossary and Appendix, the latter of which I thought rather interesting). However, overall I found The Ear, the Eye and the Arm a fun read with a bit of an edge to it, culturally informative without being preachy. Recommended for (if I’m judging this right) upper tween-age or young YA readers who are hungry for something a bit less familiar than another Western White Adventure.

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