An elderly couple are packing up, leaving their farm in the Midlands where they had spent most of their adult lives, and moving to Durban where they will see out the end of their days. Patricia has to make the decisions because her husband, Richard, suffers from senile dementia and needs constant supervision. He does very strange things; once he was found naked inside a disused porcupine hole. Their marriage had been disastrous; even in his prime he was ineffectual yet imbued with that peculiar sense of entitlement of the white man in Africa. Patricia took over the management of the farm, which she had inherited from her father, because Richard “gave up any pretence at being good at anything after her father died”.
The narrative occurs over two days. Patricia reflects on her life with regret and some bitterness. Although she adopts a flippant manner, she has insight into herself and is aware of her own complicity in events. Beauty and Bheki are the only workers left on the farm and they will accompany the Rileys to Durban. Before she leaves the area, Bheki drives Patricia, in the long-suffering Mercedes, to visit her long-time friend and erstwhile lover, John Ford, headmaster of the private school in the area. When he asks her if she is leaving without a backward glance, her reply is that “backward glances only crick the neck”. This is typical of Patricia; flippant, practical, unsentimental – yet masking her underlying feelings.
The narrative suddenly shifts and its true purpose is brought to light. Someone arrives, someone from the past; he is known as Looksmart. He has arrived to confront Patricia with events that occurred on the farm in the past. These events have tormented him his whole life. Although he is now a successful businessman with a wife and two children, he cannot forget these events. He feels compelled to challenge Patricia but he does not really know what he hopes to achieve. The interactions between Patricia and Looksmart are very powerful. There is a menace in the air as they talk past each other. Patricia was present at his birth and formed an attachment to him. She had lost a baby in childbirth and this event darkened her life and her marriage. Perhaps subconsciously he was a substitute. Looksmart was a particularly bright child and she arranged a scholarship for him at the private school in the area. She loved him yet she did not realise how she remained rooted in her whiteness. He loved her too but did not initially realise that he would never be fully accepted in the ‘dream house’. This was brought home to him by a horrific incident and he left the farm. Patricia had no idea why he left or what had happened. Because of Looksmart’s return, she is forced to confront the truth about herself and her husband, Richard.
This novel is greatly enhanced by the way it is written. The perspective moves from one character to another. The chapters are short and each one is from the perspective of a different character. Sometimes the new chapter begins with the end of the previous chapter but from the point of view of a different character. This is effective as the reader gains insight and shifts understanding accordingly. Another aspect of the novel that I really like is that the characters are portrayed as unique individuals and there is a total absence of stereotyping. The voice of Beauty, for example, comes across as if translated from her mother tongue, rather than in broken English. This means each character, despite their position with respect to class, is dignified. One gains a sense of the mother tongue form of expression when Beauty describes Richard as a person who “never looked for the reason to be happy, only the thing that could confirm the bad news”. Richard is an extremely unpleasant person who made my hackles rise but Beauty is more accepting of him. There is also a sprinkling of Zulu in the novel that is sometimes explained, but at other times not; one can understand the gist through the context if one is not a Zulu speaker. This too adds colour and authenticity to the novel. It is a treat to read a novel set in the KZN Midlands, a part of South Africa that I know very well. I especially like the use of birdsong and specific bird names; perhaps that is because birding is a hobby of mine but I do think it adds an auditory dimension to the reading experience.
This novel captures the tensions between black and white in South Africa. The well-meaning nature of the privileged white person who is oblivious to their own faulty value system, as well as the many things to which they turn a blind eye, is counterpointed against the situation where black people such as Beauty and Bheki are themselves oblivious to what is acceptable treatment. The not so prodigal son, Looksmart spotlights this. Yet, essentially, the novel illustrates the changed nature of South Africa as well as the fraught relationship between two people that were each products of their own conditioning.