Hlongwane is twenty-four and Nomaswazi is seventeen when their arranged marriage collapses at the altar. This unravels a chain of events that they both struggle to reverse. But it also opens a Pandora’s box of dark family secrets that are rooted in each of their subconscious minds. Plagued with nightmares, Hlongwane’s demons and skeletons manifest in violent nightmares, and they drive him into toxic masculinity. On her side, Nomaswazi’s impacts her self-esteem and drowns in self-hate and self-annihilation.

The underlying theme of the book is the impact of family secrets on family relations, and the dire consequences these have on women and children. In most instances these secrets revolve around the entrenchment of patriarchy; and the protection of men and their status as heads of families. For example, Nomaswazi does not want to inform her father about Hlongwane’s behaviour because “the way he (her father) trusts this monster, it would kill him.”

Khumalo presents the storyline in the first person through Nomaswazi and Hlongwane’s voices. This allows the reader into the hearts and minds of these two main characters as they wrestle with their intertwined lives, at once wanting to be together but also wrecking each other’s lives. The writer makes very effective use of passionate, emotional, confrontational and explicit language to keep the reader on the edge.

The toxicity of Hlongwane’s masculinity will push any woman reader over the edge. He is powerful, handsome, self-assured. He starts off by body shaming Nomaswazi as “the blackest and fattest brat”. But then when it suits him, he “want(s) to mark her so that everybody knows she’s mine”.

In some ways Nomaswazi is a passionate love story. But I struggled with Hlongwane’s kind of love that seeks to only tame and control. For example, he declares that “I would never hit you Nomaswazi but there are other ways to punish you and get you in line”. I cringed at Hlongwane’s friend who believes that “women love to be dominated but hate to be controlled”. There is an overt celebration of male sexuality and sexual violence in this book. Its extreme manifestation is the naming of Hlongwane’s penis, Zikode – which is his clan name. Calling a man by his clan name is the ultimate veneration in the Nguni culture. So, there is an explicit veneration of masculinity in the book.

But Nomaswazi is also not a timid victim. Whilst she struggles with her “resentment, fear of rejection, the hurt, insecurities, love, hate and some (emotions) that (she) couldn’t put a label on”, she has a hold on the boisterous Hlongwane and his roving Zikode. Her virginity raises the stakes. The fact that the book’s primary setting is eSwatini, makes Nomaswazi’s character that much more interesting. She challenges the status quo in a powerful, yet quiet and non-threatening manner. Her character grows from an insecure young girl into an agent ofchange within her own family, Hlongwane’s family, Hlongwane’s life, and also in her community as the anointed heir to her father’s chiefdom.

Khumalo is self-published, and Nomaswazi is her second novel. Sisterly warning to woman readers: Be prepared to be taken out of your comfort zone!