Lucinda is not doing well. Her husband, Amir, has disappeared again, without a word. He has been gone for seven weeks, having only been back from his previous disappearance for six months. Their Cape Town home resonates with the “exaggerated empty of recent absence, the nagging hurt of an amputated limb”. While she is dragging herself through her days, she receives a phone call from Thomas the Grey, an old friend who makes movies. He has come across a house on the outskirts of Heuwelhoek and wants to “make a film about the belief that a house is haunted, if not by an actual ghost, then by superstition and a history of unfortunate events”. He asks Lucinda to accompany him for a weekend to ‘find ghosts’.
In trying to make sense of Amir’s disappearance, Lucinda reflects on their relationship, how they met and the way they interacted. He had a girlfriend, Gabby, when they met and now she cannot help but think that their relationship was founded on the tears of others. Gabby continues to hang around but there is a disturbing incident at Princessvlei that changes things. Lucinda thinks about her childhood disrupted by the affair her mother, Rose, had with Uncle Basil. Uncle Basil was married to Dolores and see-sawed between the two homes on the Cape Flats.
Which is the cutting room? The place where Lucinda, as film editor, manipulates content into shape or the bedroom in her home where she is attacked by a masked man with a knife? This attack affects her deeply even though she is not badly hurt. Or is it the room in the Heuwelhoek house where Jeremy is murdered in 1933? All these aspects are explored in the novel and the different strands add layers of richness.
The Heuwelhoek house story is complex; different incidents over the years seem to replay as if each group of inhabitants inherit the trauma of the past and unconsciously twist it to fit their own lives. An old man in the nearby village would rather these stories are not unearthed while BEE developers are considering developing the land. Parallel to this there are some strange and sinister incidents, such as Wayne who becomes obsessed with her and Isobel, her niece, who behaves badly at a birthday party. Every chapter ends with an excerpt from a newspaper, reporting on different crimes or aberrant behaviour. This punctuates and re-inforces the underlying sense of menace.
In between visits to Heuwelhoek, Lucinda tries to overcome the fear she has felt since the attack. Friends invite her over but she hates being a pity guest; still they persuade her and she begins to find out more about Amir’s recent strange interests. She thinks about their visit to the bush and slowly the pieces start falling into place.
As much as anything else, Lucinda tries to make sense of herself but she struggles to see herself clearly or to admit to the wrongs she may have committed. The narrative sees her slowly circling around the bad things that happen until she learns about herself. We see Lucy through the eyes of many other characters who variously see her as someone who takes “wanting things to go her own way to an extreme”, or as clingy and dependent, or as the one to blame for Amir’s disappearance. His mother, in particular, turns against her and she feels like a pariah in the home where she had previously been welcome.
The beauty of this novel is the sense it evokes of how apparently slight imbalances put one’s world out of kilter; incidents take on a significance that seems unjustified by the bald facts. There is “a disturbance, a ripple on still water, something torn, now a jagged edge or nick that hadn’t been there before.” The language creates a sense of menace that lingers throughout, subtle yet unavoidable.