This is a cleverly structured novel; each city represents a stage in the lives of Germaine Spencer and Martin O’Malley, a mixed race couple who meet in London in their twenties. Germaine is a young, white English woman who is a budding ceramic artist. Martin is the son of Sindiwe, who had left South Africa for Britain during apartheid. Sindiwe met and married an Irish man, who adopted Martin. He had a son, Liam, from his previous marriage who was 5 years older than Martin.
The novel begins with a Prologue that announces Zuko, the 13-year-old son of Germaine and Martin has committed suicide. Germaine withdraws and Martin cannot understand why she will not communicate with him. Finally, she is able to talk and she hands him the letter Zuko had left. From there the narrative moves to London in 1994. Another technique that I like is that throughout the novel both protagonists narrate the same events consecutively. It is a convincing and effective way of showing their different perspectives and interpretations.
They meet in London and fall madly in love. The tone and dialogue in this section was perhaps my least favourite being typical of the slang-peppered manner in which twenty-somethings converse. This can sound clichéd but after finishing the book, I realised that it was appropriate for that stage of their lives. The many witty one-liners are very amusing while the wild, crazy sex is frequent and ongoing. After a whirlwind courtship, they get married and Zuko is born. In 1998, they decide to move back to Cape Town.
This section is more serious in tone and reflects a period of growth, of learnings and of new beginnings. Martin wants his son to “grow up among people who look like him”, especially when he thinks of the prejudice he had experienced growing up in England being so different from the norm. I could not help thinking that Cape Town may have not been the best choice in that case, however, this is where he is offered a job. Liam, his brother, had returned to South Africa four years previously. He is politically well connected. He tries to persuade Martin to become a card-carrying ANC member. They have an interesting political discussion in which each brother takes an opposing view; this is a good way of demonstrating the typical South African discourse and showing both sides of the argument.
Germaine, as an outsider, sees the country with fresh eyes and her comments are both insightful and amusing. She has to learn new rules, like what it is like to be a “mlungu in the township”, when she opens a studio in Gugulethu in collaboration with women who live there. She realises she has a lot to learn when she discovers that “South Africa is one of the few places in the world where being referred to as a liberal is an insult”. In the ten years they spend in Cape Town, Zuko grows up, has a close relationship with Uncle Liam and becomes an excellent swimmer; Martin faces brick walls at work where he realises he is a token appointee and Germaine’s career as a ceramic artist takes off. I love this aspect of the book; at every significant event in her life, Germaine fashions a specific piece and the symbolism is very creative. I can see these pieces in my mind’s eye.
After ten years in Cape Town, they both need new challenges and in 2008 the family moves to Joburg. Zuko’s voice enters the arena via his journal and it is sobering to see events such as the xenophobic outbreak of 2008 through his eyes. Martin accepts Liam’s offer and becomes CEO of his company, Mokoena Holdings. Life takes a completely different turn; secrets hidden for years are revealed and this has a huge impact on the family. The reader discovers the reason for Zuko’s suicide and it is a shock, at first. On reflection, however, one can look back and make sense of it.
London Cape Town Joburg is a multi-faceted novel that provides a witty socio-political commentary on the vagaries of living in South Africa where “most conversation is laced with race”. The narrative weaves through many aspects of life via the different cities and personalities from all sectors of society. Despite the seriousness of the subject, it has many fun, light-hearted moments and the writing style is very accessible and non-assuming. A good read that should have wide appeal.