The Ones with Purpose by Nozizwe Cynthia Jele | Fiction | Kwela Books | 240 pages | review by Jenn Augustine
Nozizwe Cynthia Jele is a South African writer and winner of the 2011 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for her debut novel Happiness is a Four Letter Word. In her latest release, The Ones with Purpose, Jele introduces the reader to the narrator, Anele, reeling from her sister Fikile’s death after a long battle with breast cancer. While attempting to navigate her grief, Anele must also manage the shifting family dynamics in the wake of her sister’s passing as well as all of the secrets that emerge.
Grief and Terminal Illness
In The Ones with Purpose, Jele deftly explores the grief one experiences after losing a loved one to a prolonged illness. The story opens with Anele trying to make sense of her sister’s quiet, and in her view, unremarkable, death after discovering she has passed away in her sleep. The reader follows Anele when she first learns that Fikile’s doctor has found a lump in her breast, through the agonizing cancer treatments, during Fikile’s four-year-long remission, and, ultimately, through the distress Anele experiences when they discover the cancer has returned.
Through Jele’s writing, the reader feels Anele’s sadness and the effort it takes for her to try and keep everything together. Anele remembers Fikile as strong and unflappable during the majority of her illness, particularly when Anele was feeling afraid for her sister and, subsequently, feeling guilty for being afraid and not having more optimism in the face of her sister’s illness.
Caretaking and Family Dynamics
Instead of being able to begin processing her own grief, Anele is shouldered with the responsibility of arranging her sister’s burial and the associated ceremonies alone as Fikile’s husband, Thiza, is nowhere to be found. Anele recounts feeling numb as she makes the necessary phone calls to notify friends and family of Fikile’s passing.
As Anele prepares for her sister’s funeral, old family dynamics are revealed; some remain the same while others shift. After their father passed away and their mother became unwell, Fikile took on the role as a mother figure to Anele and their estranged brother, Mbosu. When Mbosu returns home for Fikile’s funeral, the two siblings reminisce, referring to Fikile as their ox. Anele responds, “Well, the ox is gone. There’s no one to pull us.” Consciously or not, Anele becomes the family’s ox, ensuring that everyone’s needs are met. Anele takes care of Fikile’s other friends and family who are also mourning Fikile’s death, including their mother and Fikile’s three young children all while caring for her own daughter, Mvula, and her husband, Sizwe. Anele’s exhaustion is palpable, her inability to rest, mourn, and care for herself is overwhelming.
In the midst of these preparations and caretaking, Anele also finds herself forced to deal with the many unexpected secrets both confessed and discovered during this emotional time. Anele debates the best course of action when a major secret Fikile kept hidden is disclosed, attempts to aid Mbosu with his private and ongoing struggles, all while trying to process a discovery that threatens the stability of Anele’s own life. The reader cannot help but wonder, due to all of the stresses emerging in the wake of Fikile’s death, if Anele will be able to cope with all of the chaos around her or if she will become undone.
The Ones with Purpose by Nozizwe Cynthia Jele is a timely and meaningful read. Despite having similar incidence rates, Black women have the highest mortality rate of all women diagnosed with breast cancer. The book is an absorbing account of the very real upheaval a family experiences in the face of a family member’s passing from the disease. Through Anele, the reader experiences the loss of a loved one to a protracted, terminal illness. Jele also explores what it is to become the caretaker for family members during difficult times of loss and mourning, how family dynamics shift and change over time, and family secrets. The Ones with Purpose also deeply examines the trappings of poverty, sacrifice, and substance misuse. Jele successfully weaves all of these themes together in a narrative that is evocative, complex, and believable.
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