An Act of Defiance


Irene Sabatini
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How do you imagine the future when your story traps you in the past?

Harare, 2000. Gabrielle is a newly-qualified lawyer, fighting for justice for a young girl. Ben is an urbane and charismatic junior diplomat, attached to Harare with the American embassy. With high-level pressure on Gabrielle to drop her case, and Robert Mugabe’s youth wing terrorising his political opponents as he tightens his grip on power, they begin a tentative love affair. But when they fall victim to a shocking attack, their lives splinter across continents and their stories diverge, forcing Gabrielle on a painful journey towards self-realisation.

Irene Sabatini, Winner of the 2010 Orange Award for New Writers, navigates Zimbabwe’s unfolding political crises, showing how the dehumanising effects of political violence can shape and remake a life. An Act of Defiance is a sweeping political drama about a young woman’s fight for love and agency in troubled times.


‘An incredible achievement.’
—Chika Unigwe, author of On Black Sisters’ Street

‘A searing, delightful gem of a book. In prose that delights and informs, Sabatini’s characters soar, gifting us with all that is tender and brutal and beautiful and honest.’
—Novuyo Rosa Tshuma, author of House of Stone

‘Raw, moving and utterly compelling. Sabatini has written an incisive and unflinching novel.’
—Tendai Huchu, author of The Hairdresser of Harare

Dimensions: B format paperback with flaps
Length: 336 pages
Published: 19 March 2020
ISBN: 9781911648048
Cover design: © House of Thought

Publicist: Susie Nicklin at The Indigo Press
Foreign rights: The Marsh Agency

About the author

Irene Sabatini spent her childhood in Bulawayo in Zimbabwe. After attending the University of Zimbabwe in Harare, she moved to Colombia, where she worked as a teacher. She has a master’s degree in child development from the Institute of Education at University College London.

Irene is the author of two previous novels; her debut novel, The Boy Next Door, won the 2010 Orange Award for New Writers. She divides her time between New York, Geneva and Bulawayo.

Her book, An Act of Defiance, was published in March 2020.

An Act of Defiance

Gabrielle Busisiwa Langa steps out from the darkness into the light. Her eyes are at first blind but then they see. Flashes of images stun her in the dizzying sunlight until her eyes stop blinking and settle. There, bearing down on her, a swollen, pitted face, glistening with sweat, a grubby Youth League T-shirt straining at the belly, thick fingers plucking at patches of wetness. A panga, its blade rusting, raised, slices through the air, once, twice. A movement on her left, metal scraping the ground, stones flying, a hoe swinging from one thin hand to the other and then back again. She looks up to see a khaki, military-style shirt, unbuttoned, exposing ribs, cheap sunglasses lying askew on a gaunt face, the lenses pitch-black. This one she knows. ‘Hure,’ she hears, the voice low and thick. Her eyes swoop to the right – a figure bent over, spitting. She registers the torn, dark green string vest hanging off the sloping shoulders, the tree branch sweeping the ground, the shaven head raised, spit dribbling, the eyes, bloodshot, bulging from their sockets, fixed on her. His lips form the word again. Huuureh. Whore.

There are others around Ben, who has been knocked to the ground. All she catches are snatches of him, fingers splayed, a foot shuffling in the dirt; a glint of metal in his palm, the keys to the red car.

‘I’m – I’m – a diplomat. You’re making—’

The words straggling out, as if his mouth might be full of blood, loose teeth – the flurry of blows falling on him in the moments before she stepped out.

‘I – I – have my papers—’

He coughs, hawks up phlegm.

‘Here, wait a—’

‘Shut up!’

The men move so that in the shift of spaces and light she sees him there struggling to get up, his hand bloodied, reaching out, red seeping through the white and green of his shirt. It is the same shirt he wore

the first time she set eyes on him, over a month ago now, when he’d strode breezily into that vet’s surgery. ‘Hello folks,’ he’d said, his voice sonorous and foreign,‘I’m Ben, it’s good to be here.’

‘Idiot! Idiot! We know you are American. We are not interested.’

‘Gabrielle . . . Ga— are you—?’

Shrill laughter slashes through his words. Her name is a cacophony of sounds in their mouths, mimicking his accent, taunting him. In an instant, her fear gives way to something else. She lifts her gaze, faces them, sets her eyes on the pitch-black lenses.

‘Please, let us go. We—’

The slap sears through her cheek – the burning, stinging imprint of it is alive on her skin. It is so hard she staggers backwards. Stars zing around her as if she is a cartoon character.

‘Hure.’ A shove on her back fells her.

‘Listen to me.’ Ben, trying again to get through to them. ‘The embassy—’

‘Shut up!’

A boot-clad foot rising over him; shouts, dull thuds, slaps, a crack.

Linda Hepworth for NB Magazine, 18 September 2020: ‘An Act of Defiance by Irene Sabatini’

Kate Webb for The TLS, 19 June 2020: ‘Ahistorical fantasies: Hope arising from brutality in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s This Mournable Body and Irene Sabatini’s Act of Defiance’

Susan Osborne for A Life in Books, 20 March 2020: ‘An Act of Defiance by Irene Sabatini: The power of hope’

Alessandra Bassey for Literandra, 28 November 2019: ‘BOOK REVIEW: An Act of Defiance by Irene Sabatini’

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