REVIEW: Grace

MANOSA NTHUNYA reviews the new novel by Barbara Boswell.

“Her whole life it had been drummed into Grace that every living thing had its cross to bear.” This is what Barbara Boswell’s protagonist, Grace, lives with, and accepts, from an early age. It is the knowledge that life is difficult and therefore every single being has to bear something as long as they are a part of it. The perilous aspect of this is that one bears what one cannot anticipate and it is here that Boswell’s remarkable debut novel, Grace, shows how vulnerable human life is.

The first part the novel is set in the 1980s, a tumultuous time in South African history, in the Cape Flats. Grace is a teenager who has little interest in the political matters of her day. Even though other young people, including Johnny, her first love, are engaged in the struggle, she has been taught by her parents to respect authority and to therefore not participate in actions that challenge its power. This approach to political issues is, as the reader slowly learns, also tied to how she responds to events that take place in her own home. Grace’s father, Patrick, is an abusive alcoholic who does not tolerate dissenting views from his wife, Mary, or Grace. When the novel begins, Mary has made a decision to divorce him and it is this act that informs how the plot evolves. The narrative moves between their present lives and their past and in this way allows the reader to see the devastating impact that Patrick has had on them.

Boswell’s stunning novel is about the consequences of living in a world where power is distributed in a hierarchical manner and the dehumanising effects this has. Grace admires her mother’s beauty and often compares herself to her. What she sees, however, when she looks at herself is “a pleasant round face, nut-brown skin and adequately pretty eyes”.

There is, though, a contradiction between this figure that she admires and the abuse Mary has to endure from Grace’s father. In one moving scene, after another night of beating, Grace accompanies her disgraced mother to a cosmetic store where she is going to buy make-up in order to cover her injuries. Observing her mother, Grace is distressed at her mother’s “cowering” attitude towards the store’s white assistant when she is refused to test the make-up and instead told that as a coloured woman, she has to buy the product as testing is only reserved for white women.  It is no surprise then that “Grace wished her father would just die.”

When we meet Grace in the second part of the novel, in 1997, she seems to have a stable family; she has had the advantage of going to university and lives a lifestyle that makes her a part of the new black middle class. She is married and has a child with David, a man that she met at university and who gives her care and attention in a way that is vastly different to the relationship that she witnessed between her parents. She seems to be happy until her past returns to haunt her when her first lover, Johnny, who had mysteriously disappeared in the ’80s, returns and demands that they continue where they left off.

One of the questions that the novel asks is whether societies that have experienced trauma survive or will a traumatic history recreate itself in the new. The last paragraph of this novel attempts to answer this but is somewhat unconvincing. If individuals cannot anticipate what will happen to them, it seems impossible to see how one can claim to be free, as Grace does, even if they are in a process of reinventing their lives. Freedom will always depend on a constant negotiation with others, including those who might enter one’s life to question one’s assumption of freedom as Grace is consistently forced to learn. Ultimately, though, Grace is a beautifully written novel that interrogates the history of South Africa and its continued impact on personal lives with extraordinary effect.

Grace is published by Modjaji Books.

From bathtub to ocean

BY GARETH LANGDON

People often say that there is nothing worse than losing your own child. Death comes to everyone eventually, but to lose someone you would never expect to must be one of the most painful experiences for any human being, no less a proud and loving mother. This, then, is a difficult subject to brace and one which Tiah Beautement explores in her second novel, This Day.

Ella is a grieving mother, not yet in middle age, living in the seaside town of Mossel Bay. Her son, Kai, died in the bath when her mother in law left him there to answer a phone call. Her husband — Kai’s father, Bart — is severely depressed, refuses to get out of bed most days and eats very little. She has to force him to live when it is quite clear that he is not interested in life. Ella however remains steadfast, and refuses to be defeated by the tides of her life, doing her best to swim against the rushing waters and find her way to the proverbial shore.

The novel spans the course of a single day, and the tides of the ocean provide the titles to sections, measuring time but also keeping the reader aware of the patterns that inform Ella’s life. We see her go about various activities: a maternity shoot with her best friend, Kamala; her gardening ritual and the hiring of a new gardener; and a scuba diving excursion. All of these things serve only as background noise to what Beautement is really trying to get at: Ella’s mind as it reels in the mundanity of the every day and tries to come to terms with Kai’s death.

The exploration is a revealing one. Beautement weaves a complex picture of the mind of a bereaved mother. However, the prose at times feels too thin to carry the weight of Ella’s thought – the words chosen are reaching for something that they cannot quite grasp – and this leaves the phrasing feeling trite, and sometimes clichéd. With the focus placed so heavily on Ella, most of the other characters are not adequately developed either, leaving blank spaces where there could be revealing dialogue. The story demands a richer, more mature prose.

The novel is redeemed by its honesty, though. It confronts a harsh tragedy unashamedly, with a sense of bold confidence. The closing provides an excellent climax to the struggles of Ella’s day and we for the first time see her true pain revealed. The potent use of water and the sea as a metaphor (in Ella’s fear of the sea, the seaside setting, the way Kai dies and the continuous brewing of tea) is tied together well in the closing pages, and the reader does feel as though there is resolution for Ella.

This Day is published by Modjaji Books.

 

EXTRACT: The Blacks of Cape Town by C.A. Davids

C.A. Davids

The building that she walked from, 780 on Bloomfield, was a handsome turn of the century building in the Spanish Mission style, or so the advert on the internet had said. The walls were a pimpled white beneath overhanging red roof tiles. Black curled iron bars kept out peeping toms, an array of intruders and all sorts of unsavoury types that the news was always warning about. The News at Ten the night before had had such a feature: “Ten observations that could save you from your neighbours.” Apparently one in ten was likely to be a sex offender while five in ten were bound to be shoplifters, sex addicts, drug addicts, food addicts or would-be Islamic terrorists.

Zara didn’t think her neighbours were any of those.

It was just after Zara reached home from work, when the light had not yet retreated entirely, that she needed to hear children playing or feet shuffling down the brown-stained corridors. Instead the evenings were frighteningly peaceful. Yet when she placed her head on the pillow each night and tried to close out thoughts of home and the story that she had to tell, only then did the building awake and the shut, numbered doors began to reveal the depths of activities behind them. Someone flipped channels till the early hours of the morning, someone’s child had nightmares, someone else awoke at 1:30 every night to use the bathroom and didn’t flush or wash their hands. The couple next door hadn’t had sex for two weeks. Zara knew because when they did, the paper thin walls revealed the plumbing of their married lives. Zara never looked at the couple when they got into the lift with her.

That morning, Zara met none of these people in the deserted, dark corridor.

She walked past the store adjoining her building and as always heard the greeting before she saw the store owner.

“My friend, my friend. What lovely weather this is, wouldn’t you say?” He always came hurrying to the front of the store to catch Zara as she went by, his limp most noticeable when he rushed. The man’s silver hair was combed heavily to one side and his still thick moustache – a spirited black – was fluffed and buoyant like a feather duster. He always spoke about the weather and didn’t seem to mind that Zara always responded with the same curt reply.

“Yes, lovely. Good morning, Mr Ortez.” At least she assumed that was his name. That was what the sign on the storefront read: Ortez and Sons, Quality Tobacco Merchants since 1950. Was this Ortez the original? Zara wondered as she walked on, and was Junior waiting patiently or even impatiently somewhere in the wings? Or could this be the son whose life had so carefully, so distantly been laid out for him? She walked past the cluster of restaurants: Indian, Moroccan, Ethiopian, Thai and Vietnamese, already sending their spicy, sweet odours into the morning air to lure an early crowd.

“We make the third world more palatable,” the owner of the Ethiopian restaurant had said mockingly one evening as Zara found herself searching for a place to eat.

“Come, sit, we bring the rest of the world to you in nice bite-sizes, so you don’t have to get your shoes dusty…” he’d said, teasing and taunting the crowd of students and lecturers as they apologetically acknowledged the little they knew about his homeland and agreed they were not likely to visit anytime soon.

When the owner of the restaurant happened upon Zara, a fellow African, he had embraced her like an old friend, before quietly admitting that he too had never visited Ethiopia, having been born and raised in New Jersey. She passed the restaurant now, stopping at the coffee shop at the corner, where she ordered her second dose of caffeine for the day. Steaming paper cup in hand, she walked beneath overhanging trees, past the junior school that revealed the changing face of the area even more than the global eateries; past the same ancient man that she saw every day, who much like the oak in his garden, appeared to be rooted to the spot, until she reached the park and her usual place on the bench overlooking the green: a neat bit of land that stood before a forest of magnificent trees.

At the start of autumn the leaves had turned the softest auburn. But each day thereafter the trees became more agitated, growing bolder and louder until all that remained were forests caught up in mass hysteria – oranges, reds, purples. Complete madness.

The Cape’s autumn by contrast had always been mild and uneventful. At the worst, cardigan season; no more than an inconvenient passing from summer to winter. Unlike the North there was no turning of leaves to unimaginable colours. Zara pulled her coat tightly around her, felt the wind lift her hair off her shoulders and wondered what would happen next. It had been two months since she had received the letter from the government announcing that documents once sealed would soon be declassified and that her father’s name was amongst those whose deeds would finally be known, for history to judge. What those acts were had not been said. So it had been two months in which she had packed up all her things, moved across the world, and yet nowhere had she seen her father’s name – not in newspapers that she scoured online. Not on television or radio programmes that she listened to each day. Ritualistically, she did an internet search on her father’s name each morning, terrified of the day that she would find it and yet somehow hoping that when the truth was uncovered, at least it would be over. She didn’t know what to expect, the letter had given her no clues as to what this betrayal might be. All she knew, could determine from it, was that her father had done something in his past to earn him a dubious reputation amongst the current government. Something which made him, at the least, appear to be a traitor.

The Blacks of Cape Town by C.A. DavidsExtracted from The Blacks of Cape Townpublished by Modjaji Books.

The past is always with you

BY BONGANI KONA

Straddling two continents, America and Africa, and shifting between time zones, from the mid-1800s to 2008, C.A. Davids’s ambitious first novel tells – as the provocative title suggests – the story of three generations of the Black family. Yet it is also so much more than a family history. It explores the madness of apartheid’s racial categories and how they still entangle us and how the past has been whittled down to a fairy tale-like story of saints and sinners devoid of complexity.

At the centre of the 237-page novel is Zara Black; a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Berwick in New Jersey and a third generation offspring of the Black family. Her life starts to unravel when she receives a letter from the South African government naming her late father, Bart, “among the traitors, conspirators and betrayers of their time.” The allegations spur Zara to dig into her family’s past in order to unearth the truth for herself.

The inquest begins with the life of her grandfather, Isaiah, the man who “had thrown a shadow on three generations” of the family. Born and raised in Kimberly during the high-tide of the diamond rush in the 1800s, Isaiah successfully passed himself off as white to avoid toiling like a slave underground and instead found a low-paying clerical job, ordering office stationery and making tea, at one of the mines. One day he stole ten uncut diamonds and stuffed them into his shoe and he fled to Cape Town. Once he arrived in the city, he opened a jewelry store and re-named himself Isaiah Black. The scandal, of Isaiah pretending to be European and abandoning the rest of the family, cloaks the Black family in shame.

Zara’s father, the last of Isaiah’s five children, is swept up in the struggle against apartheid. Until the arrival of the letter, Zara believed her father was an ardent anti-apartheid activist to the end. When she starts reconnecting with figures from his past a different story starts to emerge about who Bart really was. The question she is faced with afterwards, is can she still love him, even after all he has done? It her cousin Amy who provides the answer when she says:

“The country was not, contrary to all expectation, split into villains and heroes. Sometimes ordinary people, good people, fucked up, Zee. What if your father made a mistake? A horrible, regrettable mistake that would follow him for the rest of his life? This great struggle of ours – my God, what a legacy it has left us: we must not see anyone but the victor, the hero, the winning narrative. No we have painted over the past as it was, and replaced it with something which is pleasing to the eye. A one dimensional story!”

The Blacks of Cape Town is an astonishingly brilliant debut. Strikingly written, it piercingly illuminates South Africa’s failure to transcend apartheid’s racial categories.

The Blacks of Cape Town is published by Modjaji Books.