Book Review: “The Ear, The Eye and the Arm” by Nancy Farmer

I recently came down with a touch of that pernicious malady sweeping the globe. Not COVID-19, thank goodness, but Lockdown Languor. It’s not the social distancing that bothers me: for a disciplined moonlight novelist with a deeply introverted partner, the normal pattern is to avoid people and stay home. The problem is that we don’t have a home anymore. As I described in my last post, the pandemic caught us in the middle of moving. Our house sold and our belongings are in storage, we’re adrift until travel restrictions allow us to proceed to our new territory. Currently we’re ensconced in an AirBnB basement apartment. It’s a lot cheaper than a hotel, but has far less light and space than I’m accustomed to, which magnified my already-heightened anxiety. My frazzled brain was in no state for writing, and I didn’t have my library, piano, or gym to occupy me. 

Luckily, I did have a bag of my favorite YA and middle-grade paperbacks that my mom (knowing I’d need a distraction) had given me to re-read. Curled on the hard sofa in our bunker, my fingers revisited pages I last turned as a 12-year-old. I gobbled up all five of Lloyd Alexander’s Vesper Holly stories in as many days, delighted to find them as funny and charming as I remembered. Paul Zindel’s Loch didn’t hold up quite as well to adult scrutiny, but I can appreciate how it earned its frayed cover from endless middle-school perusals. I saved the best for last: The Ear, The Eye and the Arm (Oxford comma omission the publisher’s, not mine).  Decades before every MCU fan waxed woke about Afrofuturism, Nancy Farmer wrote this magnificent tale set in 23rd-century Zimbabwe.

The wealthy Matsika kids—thoughtful Tendai, clever instigator Rita, and bold little Kuda—live a life of cloistered luxury in future Harare. But teasing the robotic doberman and reprogramming the pantry to give them junk food for lunch won’t earn them coveted scout badges for exploring, so they scheme to sneak out from their father’s obsessive protection and cross the city alone. Their inexperience quickly leads them into danger. When they don’t return home, their mother hires three exceptional detectives with super-sensory abilities from childhood pollution exposure. As the sleuths follow the trail, and the siblings attempt to save themselves with growing savvy, a dark force draws them all into a fight for the nation’s very soul.

I read this novel countless times as a kid, not only because it was one of the few sci-fi stories for my age group in the mid-’90s, but because it was as vibrant and richly textured as artisanal African fabric. Farmer, who worked in Zimbabwe with the Peace Corps in the 1960s, deftly weaves elements of traditional Shona culture into her vision of tomorrow, contrasting ancient and modern societies without demeaning either one.

This admirably holistic approach shows in the characters, too. I especially enjoyed the petty villains—the small-time crooks, greedy matrons, and weak-willed sycophants—who all have redeemable qualities despite their selfish choices. Flawed humans like these engaged me far more than the supernatural evil that emerges as the final antagonist. But even that fits with the dualistic themes, pitting mystic power against advanced technology. Science receives less explanation than the supernatural in this story, which would annoy me in most sci-fi contexts; here, it works because Farmer doesn’t rely on gadgetry for plot devices. Robotic servants and flying cars are simply a high-tech backdrop for a timeless narrative about leaving home to find yourself.

Despite its reductive designation as a “children’s novel”, this was the first fiction I’ve read in months that fully absorbed me, even though I knew how it ended. That experience crystallized some recent contemplation about the direction of my own writing, which I’ll discuss further in an upcoming post. In the meantime, if you’re getting as restless at home as the Matsika kids, The Ear, The Eye and the Arm offers an adventurous escape for the entire family.

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