Into the gloom

BY ALEXANDER MATTHEWS

Past and present collide with iridescent effect on a misty evening in The Dream House, the new novel by Craig Higginson. As it observes the intersections between its small cast of deeply-etched characters, the novel tears open a set of truths far broader in scope than the claustrophobic confines of its Natal Midlands farm setting. Here is the complexity of contemporary South Africa — in all its anger and unease.

Inhabiting the book’s core is Patricia, who is halfheartedly packing up for the move to Durban the next morning: after decades of country life, it is time to downsize. She’s elderly but razor-sharp, assisted with quiet strength and grace by her domestic helper, Beauty, and her driver, Bheki. Outside, her senile husband roams, lost, confused by the new buildings that mysteriously now dot the farm.

And then – a visitor, from Patricia’s past (actually, from all of their pasts) arrives – not expected, and not quite welcome. The encounter sparks a remarkable meditation on forgiveness and forgetting, and on memory – both its inadequacies and its haunting power.

It’s a pleasure to read a novel this good: meticulously crafted sentences, vivid yet restrained — not a superfluous word in sight — depicting characters that are fleshy and flawed and fully realised.

Unsentimental but never cold, and capable of aching poignancy, The Dream House has one eyebrow arched wryly at the drama unfolding on its pages. That Higginson has achieved great acclaim as a playwright is hardly surprising. Not only does he have an acute ear, able to craft dialogue that rings true — but the book is also constructed rather like a play. The farmhouse is a set, and in the hours that span the novel’s length, the action never shifts far from it, with characters winding onto and off the pages like actors gracing a stage.

The politically correct thought police may well be outraged that a middle class white male has dared to imagine the internal landscape of two black servants. I think it should be applauded. Why? Because imagination is a powerful bridge, helping us connect to lives that aren’t are own.

It’s unfashionable, admittedly, to believe this, but I think everyone – black, white; male, female; straight, gay – should endeavour to write outside themselves, because doing so is a means of striving towards understanding. Even if full understanding won’t ever be reached, surely partial understanding is better than none whatsoever? It’s certainly better than indifference.

Literature enables both the writer and the reader to inhabit other worlds, other lives; to think, to question, to look beyond. It pulls head out of sand. It makes us care. It reminds us that there are other views, other perspectives, other experiences — that between black and white there are many different shades of grey.

In The Dream House’s dusky murk, that is what Higginson achieves: not strident answers or misguided moralising, but rather a finely nuanced and restless questing that reverberates far beyond the final page.

The Dream House is published by Picador Africa.

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