October by Zoe Wicomb #22_2015

October

There are those that never leave the place of their childhood. Then there are those that cannot wait to escape from the place called home. The very idea of home is a fraught idea for many people. October explores the concept of home and belonging by asking what it is that makes one place home in favour of another. People who have mixed feelings about home often have very good reasons for their confused and contrary emotions. In the case of Mercia Murray, as with so many, this stems from childhood trauma.

Mercia is in her fifties and her partner of 22 years has recently left her. She grew up in a Coloured community in the small village of Kliprand in Namaqualand and moved to Scotland during apartheid after completing her degree, and lectures at a university in Glasgow.

While she is struggling with grief and trying to make sense of “the ready-made condition of having been left”, a passive state that renders her helpless, she simultaneously receives a book called Home, (which she devours in a night), and a “please-come-home “letter from her “bad egg” brother, Jake. He asks her to come and fetch his son, Nicky, as Mercia is all he has left. This is odd because Nicky has a mother and a father. She wonders if Jake is drinking again.

The parallels between her life with Jake and the story of siblings in the novel, Home, are striking, except Mercia and Jake’s story is set in a different continent, “a harsh land that makes its own demands on civility”. The references to this novel continue throughout. This reminds me of why I like reading; recognising thoughts and feelings that are similar to my own, written by an author who describes people in another place and time. I did not figure out if the book Home read by the protagonist was the Toni Morrison or the Marilynne Robinson; quotes from each book are included. This underscores the way books talk to each other. In addition, Mercia tries her hand at a memoir, a very different sort of writing from the academic writing to which she is more accustomed. She files it in a folder on her laptop labelled Home.

This examination of home and its necessary companion, childhood, leads to the theme of memories and its vagaries. In looking at her past, she knows there are aspects which she avoids thinking about; especially the troubled relationship between her brother, Jake, and their father, Nicholas. Jake has become a drunk and he hates his father with a bitter rage. Many of his self-sabotaging actions, as an adult, are deliberate acts of revenge against his father. He cannot forgive Nicholas for the regular beatings he inflicted upon Jake all his life. These beatings were indeed barbaric and the “aapstert” was used on both children, in case they had committed any sin. Every day! In the name of God! Yet Mercia also remembers some good times and she cannot understand why these memories are lost to Jake. She knows that guilt defined their childhood but also remembers some “golden days”.

Their father, Nicholas, or Meester, as he called himself when he moved to Kliprand, represents the tragedy of the Coloured people. Colonial masters bedding their slaves, exploiting the most vulnerable from their position of power, created them. Yet, ironically, instead of rejecting his abusive forebears, Meester is proud of his Scottish ancestry and sees himself as better than the ‘hotnos’ of Namaqualand. A society that is already stratified based on race is further stratified into “decent” Coloureds and the not so decent. Furthermore, he was influenced by the hell and damnation religion touted by the missionaries, which lacks elements of human kindness. All these factors create the monster that is Meester. He pulled himself up “by his bootstraps” and is determined his children will do the same.

Mercia goes home in her favourite month, October, a month she hates in Scotland. She finds the

“moderate heat comforting, and she does love the familiar view of grey-green scrub with flat-topped mountains looming blue in the distance. She loves that hot, red sand where ancient tortoises sit for days resting in the same scrap of shade as if the earth had not moved, or night had not fallen, tortoises whose purpose it would seem is to endure the passage of time.”

Coincidentally, I was visiting this area when I was reading the book and the descriptions are wonderfully accurate. The beauty of arid regions is so different from the accepted norms of what is beautiful.

When Mercia arrives home, she finds Jake is bed-ridden and is drinking himself to death. Mercia and Jake’s wife, Sylvie, are from completely different walks-of- life despite having grown up in the same little village. Mercia castigates herself for her snobbish attitude towards Sylvie but she simply cannot relate to her. Sylvie thinks Mercia is a “namby pamby woman”. Their many misunderstandings drive much of the tension in the novel. Each of their perspectives are presented from their own point of view, which challenges the reader’s perceptions. Sylvie is a very interesting character; she grew up in a poor household with three mothers. She did not know her father or which of the mothers, if any, is her biological mother. Mercia cannot get Jake to talk to her and explain what has happened so in the meantime she takes Nicky, the child for walks into the veld. Eventually Mercia confronts Jake and discovers the reason for Jake having taken to his bed. This changes everything.

October tells the story of a Coloured family; though the history of South Africa adds dimensions to this story that probably do not exist elsewhere, it is also a universal story of people marginalised by poverty who have a drive to improve themselves and wish to ensure that their children can lead better lives than they did. Yet, what makes this book special is its exploration of ideas of home as well as the recording of personal history that is very aware of the “presumption of knowing”. Despite exploring many varied themes, because these themes are inextricably linked, October is coherent and insightful. The way it illustrates the faultiness of memory while engaging the reader in the lives of its characters is wonderful.

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3 thoughts on “October by Zoe Wicomb #22_2015

  1. This is one of the books I have on my reader. Your description of the themes it explores makes me most interested to read it.

    Racial identities are of course so highly charged here in South Africa in a way that are less specific (but mirrored in other contexts) elsewhere. My friend and I have been comparing Canadian and South African identities and how people identify or classify themselves. I don’t think an equivalent to “Coloured” exists in Canada (not that there aren’t mixed identities of many sorts) so I am especially keen on reading more from this perspective.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think you’ll enjoy it. Racial identity can be weird. There are so many different Coloured identities. Eg, the Coloured Community in Durban has an entirely different accent and usually does not speak Afrikaans. They see themselves as a cut above the Cape Coloured. Interestingly, to us African-Americans often seem closer to our Coloureds as they are usually mixed race. I look forward to your thoughts on October

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