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Whatever Happened to Rick Astley

by Bryony Rheam

Whatever happened to Rick Astley? She imagined that he was happily married with children. A record producer, perhaps? That was the usual way with singers, wasn’t it? From Bryony Rheam, the award winning author of All Come to Dust and This September Sun, comes a collection of sixteen short stories shining a spotlight on life in Zimbabwe over the last twenty years. The daily routines and the greater fate of ordinary Zimbabweans are represented with a deft, compassionate touch and flashes of humour. From the pot-holed side streets of Bulawayo to lush, blooming gardens, traversing down-at-heel bars and faded drawing rooms, the stories in Whatever Happened to Rick Astley? ring with hope and poignancy, and pay tribute to the resilience of the human spirit.


ISBN 9781779310958 | 224 pages | 198 x 129mm | 2023 | amabooks Publishers, Zimbabwe | Paperback


eBook ISBN: 9781779311207


'Whatever Happened to Rick Astley?, Bryony Rheam’s wonderful collection of short stories, deals with loss—loss of identity, loss of memory, loss of country, loss of someone you love. While the theme seems to be a heavy one, the stories capture the beauty and the magic of the ordinary. There is nostalgia here for what once was, but there is also a lot of hope for what could be. Anything that can give us hope in today’s day and age is truly amazing, and that is what this collection is.'

Siphiwe Ndlovu, The Theory of Flight

'Bryony Rheam’s short stories are skilled, perfectly formed, and compelling; the characters are largely outsiders – whether geographically, culturally or emotionally – and completely realised, inhabiting detailed and believable worlds. In all, Whatever Happened to Rick Astley? is a deeply satisfying collection.'

Karen Jennings, An Island

'This varied and eclectic collection from Bryony Rheam sizzles with the undercurrent of a continent always on the very edge of chaos and disorder, and yet there is such warmth, strength and humility to the lives of her many eccentric characters. In turn these stories are funny, poignant, at times shocking, but always deeply moving.'

Ian Holding, Unfeeling

An intriguing title that matches the short stories that follow, Bryony Rheam’s Whatever Happened To Rick Astley? opens a window to allow readers a glimpse of life, in all its forms, in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. The collection opens strong with the story of a young man, a modern Sisyphus in some ways, who has the self-appointed task of filling the potholes on a road every day, despite how they return… until a high profile politician is due to move nearby. Then, of course, the road is fixed professionally. Luckily – or probably unluckily – there is always a potholed road in Bulawayo. The stories that follow take us from the dusty streetside to lush gardens, filled with characters facing different but constant challenges and experiences. Each story forms a piece of a larger, mismatched-but-realistic puzzle of the fluctuations of life in a country that mirrors these ups and downs in different ways. As a well-rounded and gratifying short story collection should, Whatever Happened To Rick Astley? is both an anthology of tiny worlds, each compact and consumable on their own, but they also form part of a bigger collection of work which, on finishing, feel inseparable from one another.’  
Buzz Magazine

Potholes by Bryrony Rheam
Wales Arts Review

Interview: Bryony Rheam talks about her new collection of short stories ‘Whatever Happened to Rick Astley?’

The Financial Gazette


Pat Brickhill reviews a collection of short stories by Bryony Rheam Bryony Rheam’s latest book is a collection of short stories, each one is linked in some way to Zimbabwe. Most are set in various suburbs of Bulawayo, where Bryony lives with her family. A handful are set in the UK, and The Piano Tuner, a touching story of prejudice and compassion, is set in Zambia.The subject of each story varies from potholes, to disappearing electricity, to the physical and human neglect of Zimbabwe, but each describes a different facet

of loss.

The beauty of the ordinary

I would agree with fellow Zimbabwean writer Siphiwe Ndlovu, who writes on the back cover that Bryony portrays loss & 'of identity, memory, country or a loved one' and 'capture(s) the beauty of the ordinary'. The writer has a talent for vividly painting with words the world she is writing about. We are drawn into a realm of reflection that arises with the passage of time as we grow older: reliving childhood, or the excitement of joining the world of adults, combined with the loneliness that can come with old age. These themes are developed in The Queue and These I have Loved, while the consequences of bad life choices are explored in Dignum et Justum est. 


Bryony Rheam has a wonderful talent for bonding the reader with the story, tackling emotions that are familiar, looking at belonging, the loss of country, of husband, or merely the passage of time. Each story left me with a strong sense of the character struggling against the vagaries of life and perhaps attempting to reach a point of resolution or even redemption. Castles in the Air was a beautiful descriptive story blending the compassion of motherhood with the magic of childhood, as the mother distracts from a power cut by taking her daughter on a late afternoon walk, enthusiastically joining in her child’s imaginary games. My least favourite story was The Colonel Comes By, which describes the stark, desperate struggle of a single mother, as the ending left this reader rather confused. The Big Trip, The Young Ones and Last Drink at the Bar explore the familiar divide that opens with choices, or the lack of them, by those who leave their country and those who remain – as each attempts to justify or acknowledge where they live. Moving On is a touching story of coming to terms with the hidden trauma of loss that surfaces when memory and reality merge. Bryony gives a glimpse of her skill at humour with Christmas. The Fountain of Lethe uncovers a memory from childhood perhaps best left buried. Finally, the title story is a wonderful wistful reflection of a mother inspired by remembering a song from her youth in Whatever Happened to Rick Astley?. I found this anthology both touching and entertaining. To some these stories will provoke nostalgia, for many people have endured the trauma of leaving the country of their birth – often leaving loved ones behind. Some tales will leave the reader with a familiar longing and feeling of sadness but every narrative is bursting with warmth and empathy. This anthology provides a poignant glimpse into the lives of strangers who are nevertheless familiar, to all who are fortunate enough to be able read it. I thoroughly recommend it.

Pat Brickhill is a freelance writer and BZS secretary.

Zimbabwe Review, The Journal of the Britain Zimbabwe Society

Whatever Happened to Rick Astley? is an unforgettable collection of stories that take you on an emotional roller coaster. Bryony Rheam is amazing in the way she is consistent in carefully crafting and sustaining the intensity of emotions in her stories. She does not just narrate a story but rather she becomes part of the story, as a keen observer who picks small but metaphorically rich actions and reactions, splashing colour here and there to make murals. And besides the colours, she wields a powerful hammer like the mythical Thor, and uses it to demolish façades in relationships, triggering mudslides of vulnerability and emotions, exposing complexities and fractured pieces of what appear to be good normal lives.

 Rheam almost effortlessly but slyly uses irony in most of her stories. I particularly enjoyed the vividness with which she captures emotions and thought processes of her characters. She is a conscientious arranger of lines, sense, feeling and tone – coming up with a heavy, rich-smelling and fresh bouquet 'The Colonel Comes By' exhibits the intense power and beauty that Rheam, like a gardener,

uses to cut and arrange relationships, casting away some, and allowing them to wilt and be burnt. The metaphorical richness of the story – those errant flowers, the order and the effect we have on each other’s lives leading almost to death – is unforgettable, almost haunting. 

'Potholes' is another harrowing but beautifully told story. Although talking about a man’s strange relationship with potholes along a road that he has appropriated, the story is a well-executed commentary that centralises traumas of ordinary marginalised people of Zimbabwe against the socio-economic and political milieu. It brings out the raw creativity that is the hallmark of this talented storyteller. 'Potholes' is brilliantly metaphorical as 'Castles in the Air' is beautiful and multi-layered. 'Castles in the Air' appeals to readers in the way it suspends reality to allow the grotesque to take place, yet the reality has a stubborn way of disrupting the fantasy. This story is a shrewd creative tour, analysis and commentary on life and the state of things in Zimbabwe. And I just loved 'The Piano Tuner', and how Rheam makes the reader respect the art of creative writing because of the patience and magic with which she lures the reader into her story. The mystery and suspense she weaves into the story – casting it against a background of racism, classism and unparalleled irony is stunning. Rheam is indeed what Ngũgĩwa Thiong'o called “a writer in politics” – she exhibits brilliant awareness of class struggle, coloniality and the challenges of postcolonial Africa. 

 If there is a theme that Rheam tackles so well, it is that of the passage of time, and the inevitability of change. 'Whatever Happened to Rick Astley' is an ingenious multi-layered story that serves as a brilliant commentary on morphed relationships. There is a cyclic pattern in life, and Rheam shows how love comes and goes, and how we invest in new loves that are intrinsically anchored to the first love, even though they are completely separate.

 Personally, as a Zimbabwean writer who mainly creates in my indigenous language, Rheam has helped me get a quick update of how white people are seeing, managing and documenting happenings in independent Zimbabwe. This is a very important voice in Zimbabwean literature. Through her sensitivity to race and class struggles she allows African readers to see white people struggling with the very same issues that also affect black people. The stories therefore become a window and an intercultural dialogue of some sort. 

 Although I was a bit apprehensive that Rheam writes about detailed and complex relationships among Africans as she did in her story 'The Big Trip' – she managed to tear down the wall of my fears by writing in an amazingly convincing manner the type of politics usually found in African families – especially the strain on kinship due to living in a foreign land. She is not writing Africa – looking at it with imperial eyes. She has my respect.

 Overall, Rheam’s biggest achievement is her ability to create and curate, as well as sincerely capture the soul of characters, places and relationships. Her characters are unforgettable. She respects the art of creative writing as can be observed in how she is not just for the story, but is able to experiment with form in a manner that only seasoned writers can do. She writes Africa in a sensitive manner – yes, like Doris Lessing.

Dr. Ignatius T. Mabasa

Research Associate, School of Languages: African Languages

Rhodes University, South Africa

The NewsHawks

Eluned Gramich reviews a vibrant new collection of short stories from one of Zimbabwe’s leading writers in the form, Bryony Rheam.

‘The afternoon hangs suspended in the drowsy heat of late October. The house is quiet with the softness of sleepers.’ So begins ‘Music from a Farther Room’, one of sixteen stunning stories in Zimbabwean writer Bryony Rheam’s collection, Whatever happened to Rick Astley? The themes of the story are echoed throughout the book: isolation, loss, and a profound dislocation; of not knowing whether it’s the place or the people that truly create a sense of belonging. This particular story focuses on Julia, an elderly woman sharing a house with her son and English daughter-in-law, newly arrived in Zimbabwe from the UK. It moves deftly between the two women’s perspective, full of curiosity and understanding for both points of view. It’s not simply a generational divide that complicates their relationship, but cultural and social differences too, leading to a profound loneliness for both of them. Rheam’s smooth, resonating prose captures the increasing solitude thus: Julia’s ‘children are scattered throughout the world, not one on African soil. They’ve all asked her to live with them … but she always shook her head and gave a little laugh. Gradually, they stopped asking.’

 Rheam writes beautifully and skilfully about people whose lives have been affected by waves of migration and immigration; of the generational ebb and flow of people coming to, and leaving, Zimbabwe. One story in particular, ‘The Last Drink at the Bar’, sees a man visiting his homeland over the years from his job teaching in Wales, and each time he feels as though he is being pushed away, alienated, from the culture and community in which he was raised. His old drinking mates are suspicious of his desire to return; after all, shouldn’t he have everything he wants in the UK? Rheam explores the idea of belonging and un-belonging further by revealing the tensions in travel and tourism: ‘His was the oblivion of the tourist who sees only himself, the pivotal figure around which everything else revolves’, she writes of one character during his visit to Bristol, heavy with its history of the slave trade, its ‘Whiteladies Road’ and ‘Black Boy Hill’. In ‘The Fountain of Lethe’, a woman insists on bringing her family to a beloved holiday spot in Bulawayo, but the visit does not turn out to be what she had hoped: ‘What was it, that particular feel of hotel rooms? That mixture of holiday excitement and disappointment one wavered between.’ There are countless moments like these in the collection: sentences, wonderfully wrought, that illuminate everyday life. This is Rheam’s third publication in Wales – following two successful novels This September Sun and All Come to Dust, both of which received major prizes. I enjoyed her novels, which are expansive and wide-ranging, but entering into the compact, complex, emotionally layered world of her stories, I was amazed by Rheam’s ability to move, and to create a deep sense of place, and character, in only a few pages. For me, one of the strongest stories is ‘Dignum et Justum est’, which follows two immigrant English teachers in Bulawayo as they travel towards very different fates: the story spans decades, yet it succeeds in giving a detailed portrait of the lives of these teachers, and the society to which they adapt – or fail to adapt. Rheam does this by employing a ‘light touch’; by never saying too much, or too little, which shows what a consummate writer she is. As for what happened to Rick Astley, you will have to read the collection, right to the last story, to find out.

Wales Arts Review



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