BOOK CLUB: What Will People Say

TARAH CHILDES is enthralled by Rehana Rossouw’s quietly funny and heartbreakingly sad debut novel.

What Will People Say

Like the ceaseless Southeaster that whips through the desolate, concrete landscape that is Hanover Park, Rehana Rossouw’s words evoke emotions that carry the reader hurriedly through her debut novel, borne along by a sense of urgency and technical sophistication that make for a visceral, unforgettable read.

What Will People Say is set in the heart of the Cape Flats of 1986. And while its characters are undeniably affected by the evils of the gangs, the drugs, and poverty that surround them, as well as the struggle against apartheid, this is not primarily a story about the history of the Flats, or of the ineptitude of law, and cruelty of the oppressive regime of the past. Rather it is a close look at the dissolution of an ordinary family, struggling to maintain the tenuous bonds that bind them together.

The Fourie family — law messenger Neville, his factory seamstress wife, Magda and their three children — are the lenses through which we see the world of 1986 Hanover Park. The Fourie teenagers, Suzette, Nicky and Anthony, initially trapped in the banality of home, school and church, led by parents who are trying to “raise them decent”, are quickly plunged into the external world of politics, gangs and the lure of a better, moneyed life, forcing them to navigate their way through situations and choices they are frightfully ill-equipped to deal with.

Rossouw sets the scene with a sentence that any literary fan would relish. “The South-Easter lifted the smell of pig manure spread across farms in Philippi, crossed Lansdowne Road and dumped it like a wet poep over Hanover Park.”

The wind carries with it a set of problems that plague the Fouries, Rossouw deftly using her figurative language gift to foreshadow the coming trials.

The story unfolds in a first person narrative framework that allows us to experience each chapter from a different family member’s perspective.

We are introduced to Nicky, the middle child with academic ambitions who sees a future in law as her only escape route; Suzette — a beautiful and determined girl of 17 who drops out of matric to pursue her dream of becoming a supermodel; Magda – the churchgoing, conservative mother, more concerned with her family’s outward appearance than her children’s struggles, and Neville, a well-meaning but fallible and out-of-touch father, who spends more time with the Neighbourhood Watch than with his family. But it is Anthony, their naïve boy of 13 around whom the plot spirals. His fast and unwitting decent into the world of the JKFs — a local gang with whom he initially feels a sense of belonging — propels the story with a sense of urgency, as we witness the futile efforts of his parents to protect him from a world that ultimately leads to his inescapable destruction.

Rossouw, who has been a journalist for more than 30 years, has often been asked if her characters are real. And while they are all fictitious (aside from notorious gang man Jackie Lonte), the timeline is real. In a recent conversation with Professor Tawane Kupe, Dean of Humanities at Wits University, Rossouw explained the importance of 1986 – the year in which the South African government declared a national state of emergency.

“I still meet people in Joburg who firmly believe that there was no struggle against apartheid in Cape Town,” Rossouw said. “What about the launch of the UDF? I feel that the contribution of our comrades from Cape Town especially is being rewritten out of a lot of history today.”

While the political turmoil shapes and informs the plot on a macro and micro level, it is ultimately Rossouw’s skill with language and metaphor (a technique honed during her MA in Creative Writing at Wits University) that imbues her characters with so much life. Characters speak in unabashed Cape Flats vernacular, viscerally describing their feelings, reactions with onomatopoetic delight. Nicky huks when she cries, while Suzette ruks her arm away from a would-be skelm suitor.

And while I foresee a time where Rossouw will need to include a glossary of terms for foreign readers, and perhaps local ones too (should it ever become a set-work book for school), she describes her lack of appendix, and her refusal to italicise Cape Flats slang as an act of rebellion. In order to make her characters real, she had to “let them speak, the way that we speak.” “This is our language, and if I’m writing a book about us, the book should be the way we are.”

The result is a novel spectacular at engendering empathy for its central characters: quietly funny, heartbreakingly sad, and not easily forgotten.

While I found the dénouement to be somewhat abrupt and unsatisfactory, Rossouw has explained that she is open the idea of the sequel after multiple requests from likeminded readers. I certainly wasn’t done with the Fouries – and I earnestly hope Rossouw isn’t either.

What Will People Say was one of just three novels shortlisted for the 2015 Etisalat Prize for Literature – an accolade well deserved.

What Will People Say is published by Jacana. Read an extract here

GIVEAWAY: Win one of two copies of What Will People Say! To enter, email competition(at)aerodrome.co.za, with the book’s title in the subject line. In the body of the email please include your full name, contact number and physical address (including area code). Only readers resident in South Africa are eligible. Entries close on 15 August 2016.
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