FICTION: Sufficient Reason

BY J.L. SERFONTEIN

“I also know that we must go and work in the garden.”

Voltaire, Candide

John’s anticipation turns dull and dutiful as he pulls up to the heavy black wrought iron gate. Whitewashed pillars on either side arch down to the wall that is too high to see over, barbed wire spirals along the top. He has to hang half out of the car window to reach the intercom button, and is about to push it again when Elize answers, faint and crackly.

            “Hello?”

            “Hi, Mum, it’s me.”

            “Who is it?”

            Sticking his head out of the window, John raises his voice to make himself heard.

            “It’s John!”

            “Johnny! Why are you shouting?”

            John rolls the car down the long driveway, wheels crunching deliberately on the gravel. The symmetrical rows of topiary are shaggy, the lawn mangy with irregular bare and yellow patches. Skeletons of rose bushes are evenly spaced along the walls, and the geometrical flower beds are empty except for some wilted weeds. It is hard to reconcile this neglect with the meticulously manicured garden of his childhood – Petrus forever tending to it.

            The house has not changed; it is the same ornate gable, the same thatched roof and whitewashed walls, but it seems smaller, more remote. Only one of the green wooden window shutters is ajar, the rest are closed. The black iron bars over the windows look like they have latched onto the house.

            Elize is waiting inside the threshold, shading her eyes with one hand.

            “The prodigal son returns!”

            They smile and hug, happy to see each other.

            “It’s good to see you, Mum.”

            “Such a lovely surprise! Why don’t you stay the night?”

            It takes a while for John’s eyes to get used to the low light inside the house. He notices the faint smell of fresh paint in the hallway.

            “I wish I could. Next time.”

            The living room is newly renovated, glossy, like the pages of an interior decorating magazine: mahogany furniture with gently curved legs flaring to scrolled feet, crest rails decorated with ornate carvings of roses; the lounge chairs and couch newly upholstered with ivory velvet; wooden floors, with a plush morning blue rug to match the curtains; white pottery decorated with blue English countryside scenes on the coffee and end tables; fresh red roses in one of the vases; walls cluttered with paintings with intricately moulded golden frames. 

            John walks over to the front window and opens the shutters. The sunlight that reflects off the varnished wooden floor makes Elize squint.    

            “Not too wide, I can’t stand the heat.”

            Elize looks John up and down, a half-joking inspection.

            “Look how pale you are, it’s not healthy. When are you coming home?”

            John looks out the window with a small stiff smile.

            “The garden’s seen better days.”

            He remembers taking Petrus’s lunch out to him: thick slices of white bread with peanut butter and jam, and coffee, in Bettie’s tin plates and cups. Sometimes Petrus would tell him a story while he was eating, always the same story, about a poor man and his wife that decided to work in their garden. They dug the whole day, but during the night a bird came and whistled, undoing all of their work. At a loss to explain the uncultivated garden the next morning, all they could do was dig some more. When they found no trace of their work the next day, the man decided to hide in the garden to see what happens to their work every night. He caught the bird and was about to kill it, but the bird pleaded with the man, promising to make milk for him if he spared its life. It was good milk, so the man took the bird home and kept it in a cage; his family grew fat, while their neighbours were as thin as always. The man warned his children not to tell anyone about the bird, but one day the neighbours’ children begged them to reveal their secret. As soon as they took the bird out of the cage to show the other children, it flew away. The children tried to catch the bird, but it flew further away every time they approached. That night, when the man got home from work, he found the neighbours calling out for their children, and in his house, the cage was empty. He was sorry because he knew that he had lost his food, and his children forever.

            “What can I get you?”

            “Some water, please.”

            “Don’t you want some coffee? Tea? There’s beer. Let me get you something to eat.”

            “Just some water, thanks.”

            Elize gets up, calls down the hallway.

            “Bettie!”

            Sitting down, John notices a painting on the far wall, a family portrait, recognisable as one of his mother’s paintings from the deliberate idealism. In it, his mother is seated on a chair, him as a toddler standing in front and to the left of her. He is holding on to her arm and shoulder, looking up at her sweetly, expectantly. She is looking back down at him with the serenity of unconditional love. The lighting is centred on mother and son, his father standing behind them and to the right, where it is darker. He is looking down at his wife and son, resting his cheek on his fist, with an inscrutable expression.

            “Johnny!”

            Bettie’s wrinkled face is beaming. John’s delight at seeing her is easy; he gets up and they hug tightly. Standing back, Bettie holds him by the shoulders, studying his face intently.

            “My boy, it is still you.”

            “I’ve missed you, Bettie, how are you?”

            “I don’t complain.”

            “John would like some water, Bettie, and could you make me a pot of tea?”

            Her gait slowed by age, Bettie walks out into the hall without saying more.

            “I’ll go help her.”

            “She’ll manage – she hardly does anything to earn her keep these days. Are you still in that cold, dark flat?”

            “I like it there. London’s a good base for my work.”

            “I don’t know how you can do that job. It can’t be good for you, taking pictures of other people’s suffering all the time.”

            “Someone’s got to do it.”

            “But why do you have to do it? It just feels like sticking your nose in other people’s business to me. And your photos are always so depressing.”
            “It’s the news, Mum.”

            John walks back to the window and looks out to the boundary wall on the right. It had not been built yet, the day they arrived home to find Petrus standing in the neighbours’ driveway. Mr Botha, red in the face, was loudly berating him for intruding on his property. Petrus kept quiet, somehow stoic and defiant at the same time. Tabitha, the Bothas’ domestic worker, was standing on the porch, crying.

            “The garden needs some work.”

            “Seriously darling, when are you coming back?”

            Only half listening, John tries to find the connection between the house he grew up in, and this one with the shaggy garden and glossy living room. The link is flimsy, it keeps slipping out of his grasp, leaving him to feel detached, like an intruder.

            From his mother’s intonation, he recognises a question.

            “You remember Ina Meyer?”

            A pause as John registers what his mother is asking.

            “No.”

            “You know, Barbara Meyer’s mother, Barbara was a couple of years ahead of you at school.”

            “Don’t remember.”

            “Sure you do, you’ll know them when you see them. Ina’s brother has a game lodge near Sun City, beautiful place, five-star. Anyway, a couple of months ago all of his Land Cruisers, the ones they use for game drives, got stolen. Turns out that his workers were in on it. Most of them have worked there for years, he built houses for them and everything.”

            Shaking his head slightly and pursing his lips, John gazes out the window again. The three-tiered marble fountain in the middle of the garden is dry. There is a crack in the bottom with a clump of brown grass sticking through it. The fountain was bubbling away as always that day, but its reassuring murmur was no match for Mr Botha’s anger. With a stern voice, John’s father told him not to stare as he took his mother by the arm and firmly steered her towards the front door. Flustered, hurrying to keep up with his parents, John heard something like the crack of a whip. He looked around and saw Petrus bending down to pick up his cap. Petrus stood upright, turned around, and walked out through the gate, unhurriedly, his shoulders straight.  

            “You’ll have to do something about the garden.”

            Elize studies the man looking out the window, tries to see her son in him.

            “You really have to come home.”

            Bettie returns with the drinks, John hurries over to help.

            “That’s heavy, let me take it.”

            Bettie’s look of reproach stops him in his tracks. 

            “Let me decide what I can carry.”

            Deflated, John thanks, Bettie. She puts down the tray, turns around and walks towards the door. John wants to ask her to sit down, to have a cup of tea with them, but now he hesitates and she disappears down the hallway. He remembers the way Bettie looked at him on that day when Petrus walked down the street without looking back. Tabitha used to come over to visit Bettie most days, but she must have left on the same day as Petrus; he never saw either of them again. 

            “See what I have to put up with – you’d think it’s her house.”

            John busies himself with pouring water from the bottle of Evian into a glass. He pours a cup of Earl Grey tea, hands it to Elize.

            “Did you get good photos of the protest?”

            “Yeah, got a few shots I can use. I was hoping to get some of the cyclists going past, but the race was cancelled.”

            “I know, uncle Chris flew down from Jo’burg for it, had to pay to fly his bike down too. Don’t get me wrong, I feel sorry for those people, but getting the Argus cancelled, there has to be a better way to do these things.”

            “So you’re sympathetic as long as it doesn’t interfere with a recreational cycle race for middle-class white people wearing lycra.”

            Elize is hurt by the quick hostility in his reply. John notices, regrets his reaction, but it is too late to take it back.

            “That’s not what I mean. Don’t put words in my mouth.”

            John looks around the room, something to do in the uneasy silence, notices the family portrait again. A beautiful painting that covers over the barbed wire and the burglar bars, like all of his mother’s paintings.

            “I like the family portrait, is it new?”

 

            They fill the rest of the afternoon with pleasantries, placid and oppressive, until it is time for John to get ready for his flight back to London. After taking a shower, he finds Elize in the study.   

            “I’ve got something for you — found some of your old photos clearing out the house, and thought you might want to keep them.”

            The heavy maroon velvet curtains in the study are drawn, the desk lamp providing the only light. Two of the walls are fitted with bookshelves, but they are mostly empty. There are a few books on one of the shelves near the door, a Bible, and some old Bible study books: “Feminine Appeal: the Seven Virtues of a Godly Wife and Mother,” and “Uninvited: Living Loved When You Feel Less Than, Left Out, and Lonely.”  Picking up a shoebox from the mahogany desk, Elize knocks over a stack of papers. John drops to his knees to pick them up—letters, handwritten on paper yellowed by age. Thick black lines block out sentences, sometimes whole paragraphs. A red stamp across the first page of each letter: OSHAKATI. He recognises his father’s handwriting, but it takes a moment for him to realise what they are. He looks up at his mother, but her face is outside the light, he can’t make out her expression. John gets up and hands the letters to his mother. He wants to say something, but Elize speaks before he can find the words.

            “Look at the time. Better get going if you want to catch your flight.”

            Out on the porch, John takes another look at the garden, this time without saying anything.

            “When are you coming home?”

            They hug goodbye

            “Well, at least don’t wait another year before you come and visit your mother.”

            “I won’t, Mum. Take care of yourself.”

            Driving through the gate, he glances up at the rear-view mirror. His mother is shielding her eyes with one arm, waving with the other. Her expression is inscrutable, her shoulders straight as she turns around and walks back into the house.

Love and Crime: in conversation with Consuelo Roland

FIONA ZERBST chats with Consuelo Roland author of The Good Cemetery Guide, Lady Limbo and Wolf Trap about sex, death, detective fiction, love, magic realism and what it means to write novels in the 21st century.

Consuelo Roland

Consuelo, let’s talk about how the importance of crime in Lady Limbo and Wolf Trap, the first two novels in your Limbo Trilogy. Daniel in Lady Limbo writes crime fiction and the books feature private investigators, detectives and criminal syndicates.

I remember going to the circus as a seven-year-old in a red-tartan-checked cape my mother made me (like Sherlock Holmes). I realise now that feeling like a detective (and a writer) makes me a detached observer of the antics of others. A writer is partly a detective, one who unearths and casts light on the hidden or secret worlds of others. Also, a detective starts from ‘point zero’ and works obsessively to reach the truth.

I like the fact that writing detective fiction becomes a trope in the novel.

I read a lot of French at one stage and French crime fiction is very popular. I like to play with some of the clichés of detective fiction. I think I like writing about crime because it illustrates very clearly the contradictions that form the basis of human life. Everything we do is based on the existence of conflicting forces inside us. Criminals live in a very clear world. For most of us, an act of crime would be immensely fracturing and harrowing, but it would be normal for a criminal. There’s juxtaposition between the criminal world and another world, a very ambiguous one.

Let’s talk about Paola’s transition from tough, organised career woman to impetuous, grieving sleuth in Lady Limbo.

One of the things I wanted to explore in Lady Limbo was the whole gender equality issue. I was that career woman for a very long time. I had power over others and I used it. I wasn’t a very likeable person because one is just so stressed, twelve to fourteen hours a day. You try to be the perfect woman in all ways. I used that experience to write Paola’s character.

It seems to me that Paola exemplifies moral ambiguity – she has doubts, she questions herself.

Paola likes to think that her life is rational – most of the time we fool ourselves about how clear everything is in our lives when it’s really not. A random encounter or choice made and everything can change. It sits somewhere between our normal lives and a life of crime. We like to think it’s a clear line, but is it? Paola has to navigate this territory from the moment she chooses to investigate Daniel’s disappearance.

Once she begins investigating, we find ourselves in a very dark world, one of sexual commerce, sex trafficking and so on…

The two worlds interest me – how we live our daily public lives pretending there is no sex, but we have rich sexual lives in private and in our thoughts. When you’re a novelist, you’re constantly observing how people relate to other people, often in a very sexual way. I think it’s easier to stylise sex in literary fiction where your readers give you quite a bit of leeway − I’m thinking of Lady Chatterley’s Lover or Atonement − or within a specific genre where sex scenes are expected. It’s tricky writing about sex because there’s often a mix of readers across the spectrum. I’ve had readers ask me why I write about sex and comment on how sexual the characters are. I don’t find them that sexual at all, by the way! It’s part of the story. Someone said the other day that I write about good sex and bad sex. I thought that was an interesting comment.

Yes, you skirt the Mills & Boon clichés.

But our lives are very much clichés. Marriage is a cliché. Parenthood is a cliché. Being a modern career woman is a total cliché! I think I write about the hidden so much because we deny it a lot of the time. It’s not to say I’m not terrified of that – I am – but I do feel we’re constantly on that edge. I am very drawn to writers like Atwood, Murakami and Irving because they explore the sexual relations of human beings. I don’t know how it can be left out of books!

Daniel’s a mysterious guy – it’s difficult to figure out his motives or get inside his head. How do you write a character like him, knowing that you can’t give the reader too much?

Daniel first came to me as a voice and I tried to write the book in his voice. He came as the instigator of the story, so to speak. I thought, “If he’s the one who wants me to tell this story, why am I not telling it in his voice?” It seemed that he wanted me to tell the story from Paola’s perspective, however; he was an enigma and he remains one to me. I do think living a double life makes an enigma of people. Daniel may not be at the forefront of the story, but he has huge power within it.

One never gets a sense that the characters will be completely immersed in darkness – there’s always a sense that good will prevail and there will be redemption?

Well, we know that, in general, readers want a drop of hope. We’re brought up knowing that books without hope, entirely bleak, are a shock to the system. It would be an interesting experiment to try a hopeless version! But I do think you need playfulness to come out of that darkness and write the next book. You can get lost!

Let’s go back to your first novel, The Good Cemetery Guide. To my mind, there’s a strong element of magic realism in the novel, which makes for much levity in the fact of death and decay. Was that a conscious choice? There really was something of Love in the Time of Cholera about the novel…

There is a magical and mythical element to the novel – the semi-magical world of a fictional Kalk Bay where a lonely man had been born into a funeral parlour. Anthony the boy likes to fall asleep in coffins. I think in magic realism you have to be able to let yourself go, be ridiculous and just go for it; it’s an exaggerated, augmented reality but it’s all possible; it’s not a fairy tale. Rushdie speaks about magical realism as an enrichment of reality rather than an escape. Kalk Bay, this place in the fictional ether of The Good Cemetery Guide with a railway line going through it, is like García Márquez’s Macondo or Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. The idea is to capture real people in a real place and evoke something of their distilled particularity.

I’d like to ask you about your writing process and where it starts. Where does a book begin for you?

It’s different every time. Ursula Le Guin said something about a story being like trying on a role… one puts on a whole play of possibilities, to see what characters will do. For me it’s very much like that; it’s mostly impromptu. Writing is never easy for me. It’s like pulling teeth. I have to rewrite and rewrite until the writing has its own sound like a poem. Every word has to be right and in the right place. It takes me forever. I can rewrite a chapter hundreds of times.

Can we call your Limbo Trilogy books postmodern? You play with the idea of writing about writing and the reader is very much conscious of your writing process and how you construct your characters.

It all depends how you define ‘postmodern’ but it’s true that if you look at Irving, Murakami and Atwood, my guiding lights as a writer, certain attributes stand out. The divide between the fantastic and the real is permeable in their writing, even if as Marukami claims, it is very natural in Japan. In the Limbo Trilogy, characters have to constantly figure out what’s real and what’s not real, because of the blurring of truth and lies. Other postmodern touchpoints are the stories within stories, the existential leanings as characters try and find meaning, and the absence of a clear resolution or consistent universe. Ultimately I’d hope that the Limbo Trilogy is a riveting saga that opens up its own space for the reader’s enjoyment and interpretation.

The final novel in the Limbo Trilogy will be published by Jacana Media in 2019.

WORK/LIFE: Paul Mendelson

The British author of four crime novels chats to us about his writing life.

What does “writing” mean?

For me, writing is the brushstrokes of a piece of art. I am trying to create something which will transport my audience into a different world for a period of time, hopefully entertain and absorb them, perhaps excite, frighten or stimulate them.

If you meet me, you might well say that I am outgoing, gregarious and self-confident, but this is only half of my character. Writing allows the introverted, privacy-seeking, introspective side of me to tell stories.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m working on a psychological crime novel set in the UK, having spent the last few years solely writing about South Africa. It features a new set of characters and a brand-new protagonist which, having written four books in a series (to which I will return) is liberating and exciting, if somewhat daunting.

After focussing on intense heat, water shortage, political turmoil and blinding sun, it is strange to be back in the dark, damp, dank world of England in the winter. South Africans love cloud, precipitation, dark – I hate all those things. However, the English countryside is an interesting setting and my characters also spend time in London around Christmas, with all its desperate attempts to look festive and bright. I find it all dismal, and therefore an ideal world for my disparate collection of witnesses, suspects and villains to inhabit.

Describe your workspace.

In London, a tiny spare-room study at the back of my house; in Cape Town the sofa in a beautiful little house, half way up the slopes of Table Mountain, with views for miles. Perhaps you can guess which I find the more inspiring place to work? However, for non-fiction writing which, for me, is just a matter of getting my head down and putting in the hours, London works really well. For creative writing, there are just too many distractions, as well as being under the flight path into Heathrow, surrounded by traffic, and coping with dusk at 3.30pm.

What’s your most productive time of day?

I don’t have a particular time of day although, in the past, it has certainly been after 9pm and into the early hours. If I have prepared myself the day before, I can sit down after a hurried breakfast and the words come. Again, there is a big difference between non-fiction – which just requires discipline and application – and creative writing for which I have to be in the right mood, with my ideas in order, my mind undisturbed by the pressures of the real word, and wholly absorbed in the world I am trying to create.

What do you do when you’re stuck, or not feeling creative?

I try to work on non-fiction instead, or do something practical or physical. I have suffered from chronic depression my entire life and, for me, even tiny incremental achievements, which I can mark off in my mind, help to dissolve the threatening black wave that is rolling towards me. I treat being stuck with my writing in the same way. I try to achieve something, anything, and build from there.

I used to be very rigid when writing, and not allow myself to jump ahead or re-visit work until I had completed a draft. I find that a more relaxed approach seems to be working better now, so if I can’t move forward, I might review scenes I have written earlier and try to enrich the start of the novel with the legend of the character as he, or she, has developed in my mind throughout the process.

How do you relax?

With great difficulty. Half my brain is creative; half logical, deductive and never resting. So, I rarely relax, but instead seek to distract myself as much as possible. I love reading, movies, theatre, playing golf, dog-walking, even driving. In South Africa, I treat myself to a weekly massage. Even then, my body may be de-stressing, but my mind is racing

With so many non-fiction books under your belt, what inspired the move into crime fiction? 

I have always loved crime fiction, especially that of James Elroy, Michael Connelly, Robert Crais; Mark Billingham, David Peace, Val McDermid, so I have been inspired by reading them. The playwright, Sir David Hare, wrote that the form of a crime novel is a reassuring one: both author and reader know what, ultimately, they are going to get. Simply, however, I write books that I think I would enjoy to read, and I hope that others enjoy them too.

What has inspired you to set your novels in South Africa?

South Africa is an amazing setting for a crime novel because of its turbulent political past, and present, it’s recent history, the underlying crime rate, the proximity of rich and very poor. It also helps enormously to love the place you are writing about – it certainly makes it a hugely pleasurable experience for me – so there is the contrast between the Cape Town which visitors see, and some residents inhabit, and the dark underbelly which every city hides. Here, in Cape Town, however, the contrast is so great, because the city is so beautiful, the people so friendly and warm, to stay there so uplifting and inspiring. To contract with this, just read Jacques Pauw’s ‘The President’s Keepers’ to see the depths to which certain echelons of society have sunk.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

William Goldman writes in his seminal work, ‘Adventures in the Screen Trade’ that no matter how diamond-bright your ideas may be in your head, when you try to put them on the page they become earthbound. This may not be advice, but it is a warning, and it is a battle which, I guess, all writers face.

My ‘literary’ editor, Martin Fletcher, advised me with my first novel – and I have tried to remember this advice from then on – that characters must live not simply within the confines of the novel, but have lives before it, and at least a hint of how their lives might be afterwards. For characters to be believable, to absorb and engage the reader, we have to try to make these two-dimensional beings seem truly alive, and that is what I strive to do.

Actually, I have thought of the best piece of advice: Never tell anyone the story you are writing. Once you do that, the urge to tell it on the page dissipates. Keep it to yourself, and reveal only when you are ready.

What’s the hardest thing about writing?

I am sure that authors all have different aspects of the craft which they find hard. For me, it is maintaining interest in the story once I have written it, re-written it, honed it and submitted it. I react to the comments and observations my editors give me. This is all fine. Then, proof readers and copy editors ask me questions. At this point, I’m thinking about the next story, full of excitement and optimism, and I just wish they’d leave me alone. However, I am lucky to have very patient proof and copy editors, and eventually they get out of me what they need to do their jobs.

What advice would you give to people starting out in a writing career?

First and foremost: Write. All the time. Don’t agonise, or procrastinate, or make excuses, just write. One line, one paragraph, a scene, a chapter. It doesn’t matter whether it’s rubbish or genius, one way or another, it will help you to develop as a writer. You may want to forget it, or you may use as the first line of your masterpiece. Just write.

Next, read. It doesn’t matter what, although I think it should be writing of the genre that you want to inhabit. Learn what you enjoy and try to analyse how your favourite authors achieve that effect. Then, try to emulate them.

Don’t fixate on others reading what you’ve written. If you like it, if you think it has merit, that’s wonderful. However, maybe wait six months or a year after finishing it before deciding your opinion on it.

Finally, don’t expect to make much money: do it because you love it.

Mendelson’s latest book, Apostle Lodge, is published by Constable.

EXTRACT: Outsiders

LYNDALL GORDON reflects on the five extraordinary women writers whose lives she explores in Outsiders.

Lyndall Godon

All five of my choices were motherless. With no female model at hand, they learnt from books; if lucky, from an enlightened man. Common to all five was the danger of staying at home, the risk of an unlived life. But if there was danger at home, there was often worse danger in leaving: the loss of protection; estrangement from family; exploitation; a wandering existence, shifting from place to place; and worst of all, exposure to the kind of predator who appeared to offer Olive Schreiner a life – marriage – when she went to work as a governess at the age of seventeen.

In a period when a woman’s reputation was her treasured security, each of these five lost it. Each endured the darkness of social exclusion. How far was it willed – how far, for instance, did Emily Brontë will her unpopularity at a Brussels school, or was it involuntary? Were the acts of divergence necessary if each woman was to follow the bent of her nature? Mary Ann Evans fled a provincial home where a brainy girl was regarded as odd. In London, she called herself an ‘outlaw’ before she became one by living with a partner outside the legality of marriage. Yet it was during her years outside society in the late 1850s that George Eliot came into being. Virginia Stephen (later Virginia Woolf) settled in Bloomsbury as part of a group. Her brothers, sister, and their mostly homosexual friends, E. M. Forster, Lytton Strachey and Maynard Keynes, provided a shield. In such stimulating company, Virginia and her sister turned themselves into unchaperoned young women, flaunting words like ‘semen’ and ‘copulation’ in mixed company until all hours of the night. It was scandalous, but not dangerous. Danger, for Woolf, was the threat of insanity, bound up with what Henry James called ‘the madness of art’.
No one, of course, can explain genius. Women are especially hard to discern outside the performing spheres assigned to them in the past, the thin character of angels in the house. In contrast, Virginia Woolf explores the secret thing: women’s enduring creativity as it takes its way in shadow; in her generation and before, it did not proclaim itself.

What we now know is that after these writers’ lifetimes, families concocted myths, playing down the radical nature of these women. George Eliot’s widower presented a flawless angel; at the opposite extreme, Schreiner’s estranged widower branded her with his annoyance. The devoted son and daughter-in-law of Mary Shelley cast her in the Victorian mould of timid maiden and mourner. But voices sing out past the tombstones of reputation. The words of these five altered our world; certainly they changed the face of literature. We do more than read them; we listen and live with them.

To say I chose these writers was actually wrong; they chose themselves. For each had the compulsion Jane Eyre expressed when she said, ‘Speak I must’.

Outsiders is published by Virago. Read our review of the novel here.

BOOK CLUB: Outsiders

FINUALA DOWLING reviews Outsiders: Five Women Writers Who Changed the World by Lyndall Gordon and wonders what has changed.

Outsiders by Lyndall Gordon

How does a woman writer become an outsider? Let me count the ways.

Her mental solitude begins in childhood, when she cannot even jump over a puddle without thinking: ‘How strange – what am I?’ In having a voice at all she ‘veers from the path laid out by custom’, and the very sound of that emergent voice may cause her mother to beat her with a switch made of twigs. Her arrival at maturity is a mystery; she is ‘like a thorn-tree, which grows up very quietly, without any one’s caring for it, and one day suddenly breaks out into yellow blossoms’.

She thinks differently from everyone else, perhaps especially other women who have been trained to ‘seem’ rather than to ‘be’.  Knowing that what she needs is to be found in books of great complexity, she grabs an education where she can –a lecture on electricity or private lessons in Greek.  She dares to know what men know. She devours her father’s library, even though it contains not a single book by a woman. Lost in the world of books and thought, she is absent-minded or careless of her own appearance. As a result of this radical combination of thought and thoughtlessness she looks odd: people mock her when she appears in public.

It is hard for her to find a sympathetic life partner, and sometimes she goes without. Or she takes a risk – loves a married man, perhaps – and is duly ostracised, especially by respectable women. She is called names: ‘slut’ and ‘stinkpot of humanity’. She is disowned or slighted by her father and her brother whose ideas of a woman’s limits cannot be stretched to include a daughter or sister who chooses writing over marriage, who openly follows her passions.

She puts into her fiction creatures like herself, shunned, unforgiven, unforgettable. Fearing that the book she has written will be turned down because she is a woman, she hides beneath a male pseudonym. When her book is published, reviewers find fault with it: ‘coarse in language and coarse in conception’. The passion in her writing is misread as the spinster’s hunger for a man; her public speaking, ‘a molten torrent of white rage’, is declared ‘unwomanly’.

Her happiest moments are spent in the company of the select few who recognise her genius, and in reading the books of her predecessors, fellow pioneers in the creation of a new model of womanhood. Like them, she is against arms, patriotism, violence.  ‘As a woman, I have no country,’ she announces.  Her opinions and actions infuriate powerful men.

If she is to get on in the world she must have a male champion or mentor.  In this she may choose well or ill.  Even if she finds a champion, she must guard her writing time jealously – turning away distressed relatives seeking succour – or pay the consequences.  Above all, she must avoid falling pregnant, or she will be slowed, even stopped, by the burden of repeated pregnancies and childcare.

Poverty consolidates her outsider status.  Rarely successful in her own lifetime, she scrapes by with bits and pieces of editing and translating or, worst of all,  the skivvy work of being a governess.

Abandoning and abandoned by the ordinary world, she spends more and more time alone, in self-imposed exile, thinking and writing.  She makes a virtue of necessity, proclaiming herself ‘an outlaw’, positioning herself ‘at the outposts of existence where the clamour will not reach’.  She writes: ‘it is a curious solitary life I live here, seldom speaking to or seeing a human being’.  Inevitably she suffers from an isolating depression, perhaps brought on by expecting something when the world has told her to expect nothing.

Long after she is dead, her life is celebrated. Long after she has any need for it, her books become bestsellers and money pours in.

The women writers whose lives underpin these paragraphs are Mary Shelley, Emily Brontë, George Eliot, Olive Schreiner and Virginia Woolf – the five subjects of biographer Lyndall Gordon’s latest book, Outsiders. The sting of being slighted; the pressure of unexpressed passion; enforced loneliness: Gordon lays bare the afflictions that have, ironically, produced some of the world’s most sublime writing.

It was a relief,  really exhilarating to read Outsiders.  Gordon’s composite biography brings to light the overlaps between the lives of five visionary women  who went willingly to the margins, risking the opprobrium of family and society, in their quest to give expression to truths that their original natures allowed them to perceive. Shunned, undervalued or misunderstood in their own time, they continue to speak to one another, and to us, long after their critics’ voices have died.

The lives of Mary Shelley, Emily Brontë, George Eliot, Olive Schreiner and Virginia Woolf  are not historical curiosities.  When I finished reading Outsiders, I picked up a wonderful ‘Diary’ piece by Anne Enright in the London Review of Books showing that the ‘outsider’ status of women writers persists to this day.

Enright begins with the story of a writer who two years ago submitted the opening pages of a new novel under both her real name, Catherine Nichols, and a psedonym, George Nichols, only to discover from the responses that George was ‘eight and a half times better than me at writing the same book.’ Next, Enright analyses possible gendered readings of the sentence, ‘The cat sat on the mat’.  If authored by a man, the sentence might be judged to be tough, precise, percussive, allusive, symbolic: ‘it somehow says it ALL.’  If authored by a woman, the sentence is judged domestic and banal, limited.

Enright’s statistics reveal the inequality of column inches devoted to reviews of books by men as opposed to books by women, the literary prize that is handed to one male writer after another over a decade-long period, and the paucity of reviews by men of books by women.  It was painful to read about the condescension or disregard with which a woman writer of Enright’s stature is treated. Yet there was a feeling of relief, too, that she had laid this down, had spoken up, had risked being dismissed as a bad sport for telling the truth.

Because the truth is that to be a woman writer is to live inside Emily Dickinson’s lines: ‘I’m Nobody! Who are you?/ Are you – Nobody – too?’ I was once introduced at a literary festival by a staff member who declined to study my CV or read my books but said she’d get to know me over a cup of coffee and then extemporise.  Unfortunately, she spent our coffee date talking about herself.  Not to worry, what is there to know about a woman writer anyway?  ‘Finuala is a very quiet person who loves her daughter,’  she said when we came onto the stage for my reading. I set the record straight with my loudest, least maternal poem.

I have sat on my fair share of ‘women writer’ panels, so I feel entitled to wonder why an event consisting of four male writers around a table is billed not ‘Male writers in conversation’ but ‘South Africa’s literary lions’. Though the word ‘lion’ is a clue.  I suspect there is something sexually alluring about a male writer of literary fiction.  Do the male writer’s novels, with their combination of sensitive mind-reading and ‘the cat sat on the mat’ toughness, hold an erotic charm for his mostly straight and female audience?   After all, his book is capable of going to bed with a woman, staying the night beside her. I once heard a woman sigh orgasmically as she told me how much she was looking forward to the next novel by one of the lions. I admit that I experienced a bit of a twinge.

A day or two later I was standing in the queue at Woolworths and the young woman in front of me turned around and began to speak to me as if we were old friends, without preamble. She remembered something from my first novel; something she’d really liked.  We spoke directly, easily, as though we were continuing a conversation we’d started sometime earlier.  I am grateful that it did not cross her mind to shun me because I have occasionally been disgraceful, because I refer to sex, use unladylike language, say what I think or have dared to write at all, and under my own name.

I have had other encounters with readers, but in this case memory’s flashbulb went off. Even though we were women holding baskets, I was a writer, she was a reader. It was the kind of come-in-from-the-cold moment one would have wished for Mary Shelley; a moment that Emily Brontë, being exceptional, never wanted. George Eliot, Olive Schreiner and Virginia Woolf sometimes had it: not a magazine cover, prize, platform, or laudatory review, but one voice saying to another voice: ‘You’re not alone. Thank you for writing this’.

Outsiders is published by Virago. Read an extract from the book here. Dowling is AERODROME’s poetry editor; her most recently published novel is The Fetch (Kwela).

FICTION: Amnesia

BY JO-ANN BEKKER

She loses the words she writes down. They travel from head to hand and fall from her fingers. She is a gardener sweeping up the words that mouths release, raking up the sentences collected on pages by lawyers and academics. She sweeps the words and sentences into a pile, then chooses just a few to display. Once they have been planted in print they leave her.

When she reads her words in the newspaper she cringes at their inadequacy. At all she could have written, but didn’t. Errors of grammar and style scream out at her. But if she returns to the reports a few weeks later, she thinks perhaps she did the best she could, considering the pressure of time, considering the restriction of word limits.

Decades later she finds her reports on a civil conflict, reads them as if for the first time.

We were in our yard when we saw the group coming. We went inside but they broke the windows and climbed inside. They stabbed me three times, on my back, then they threw stones at my wife. They chopped our hands with a bush knife.

Later that night our five-roomed house was burnt down. Our younger sons took the dogs but we don’t know what happened to our pigeons.

This is what we lost in the fire or have left behind:
A truckload of sand and 12 bags of cement to plaster the house
Furniture.
A fridge.
A hi-fi.
An orchard which produced oranges, naartjies, peaches, pears, loquats, grapes, lemons, apples and sugar cane.
A vegetable patch which yielded mealies, potatoes, sweet potatoes and pumpkins.

She remembers her week in that small city. She stayed in a hotel at one end of the street. The Supreme Court was at the other end.

The conflict was between an ethnic political party and the new civic front. The front claimed the ethnic party had the tacit or even active support of the state: their warlords were known to the police but remained free. The civic front brought interdict after interdict against the warlords. But no one was arrested. The warlords remained at large. The conflict raged on.

We had two rondavels and a seven-roomed house of concrete bricks. It was not yet completed. We were just about to put the roof on. The children ask about our three cows, 28 chickens and three dogs. More than anything the older ones want to go back to their school.

She has a vague memory of interviewing refugees in suburban servants’ quarters. Her report says she also interviewed a woman hiding in a church room:

My 70-year-old father was murdered. This happened after he brought an application against warlords who threatened him because my brother supported the civic front. My father’s murderers were the same men he named in his affidavit. They stabbed him to death. They stabbed me twice. The police have arrested no one.

She cannot recall the face of this woman.

She remembers driving out of town. The hills green and dotted with homesteads. Her report has a photograph of a warlord she interviewed. He denied calling for violence at a public meeting. He said members of the civic front had attacked leaders of his ethnic party first. But he added: The police were, however, able to protect us and we reached home safely.

She remembers spending days sifting through affidavits collected by religious groups and human rights lawyers. Her reports contain the names of the priests and attorneys she interviewed. She can’t recall their faces. She can’t remember writing the words she wrote.

She remembers what she didn’t write down.

Her first night in the city. She phones the older brother of a childhood friend. A tall measured man. They speak haltingly over dinner about their jobs and relationships. They sit side by side in a movie theatre while an actress boils her married lover’s pet rabbit in a pot. They part quickly afterwards.

Her last night in the city. Her hot humid hotel room. A ringing phone. A human rights lawyer saying come for supper. She has already eaten. A ringing phone. A lawyer listing the reasons why she should join him and another journalist and another lawyer. A restaurant in an old colonial building. The lawyers are hilarious.

REVIEW: Asylum

GARETH LANGDON reviews Marcus Low’s quietly devastating debut novel.

Asylum

Post apocalyptic motifs are overdone. Between The Walking Dead and The Hunger Games, contemporary media seems to scream the need for us all to be prepared for the worst – for the coming of the end. Whether or not this is a universal set of fears, or something unique to Hollywood is not much of a question. What matters is that it is a tired trope, and that anyone hoping to tackle the genre is going to have an uphill battle.

Marcus Low makes light work of this challenge in his debut novel, Asylum. The novel follows, through a series of eloquent and detailed journal entries, the plight of James Barry. Barry has been diagnosed with a fatal lung disease – likely tuberculosis – and finds himself incarcerated in a treatment facility or modern day sanitorium, in the middle of the Karoo. His days drag on at a snail’s pace as he gazes out of the window at the dry bones of the earth, watching nothing happen, and writing regularly in his notebooks. He has made some friends though, and as inmates are want to do, they begin planning their escape. The novel traces Barry’s internal struggles as well as the planning and execution of their proposed escape. Composed of notebook fragments and interjected with editor’s notes, written from what is ostensibly the point of view of whoever discovered the notebooks, the novel has an intensely personal feel.

Asylum is at once apocalyptic rendering, and psychological exploration. Barry is a sensitive character, with a painful yet mysteriously unsubstantiated past. His voice reads as hurt rather than angry, as resigned rather than determined. The notebooks function as both a solace for him, and as a way of leaving a legacy – one which is, at times, deliberately skewed. The choice of setting in the Karroo works well for this genre as the vast expanse of the landscape, as well as its dry, dusty harshness, create an atmosphere that lends itself to a story of loneliness, longing and resignation.

The plague in Asylum is more insidious however. Rather than go the obvious route of monsters or Orwellian dictatorship, the author has chosen a silent killer – a lung disease, airborne – that slowly causes deterioration in its hosts, presenting as coughing up of blood, tiredness, and the odd hallucination. Low seems far more interested in the interior conflict of Barry however, and the lung disease serves more as a measure of time, counting down the days to his death as it progresses, and as a parallel to his mental deterioration.

Like the disease that afflicts Barry, the sense of this novel overall is also insidious. The reader has the sense all along that something is very wrong, but that what’s wrong is less important than the characters’ experience of it. What matters to Low is what is going on in their heads – the humanness of it all – which explains the use of journals as the primary medium in the novel. Cleverly, by focusing on a single point of view, Low avoids many of the traps of modern end-of-the world fiction, the distractions of monsters and dictators. Instead, we are presented with a very human experience in an inhumane world, and are made to appreciate the moments of light that make our own experience bearable, even if for Barry as for some of is, these come in the form of dreams and hallucinations rather than genuine human experience.

Rather than offering escapism, Low is brave enough to dig deeper. He explores humanity without sacrificing the enticing nature of mystery that many apocalyptic-genre novels do well. The choice of the Karroo as a setting also eases the imaginative leap that a South African reader has to make, a feeling all too close to home running throughout the narrative.

As a debut, Asylum is cleverly crafted and engaging – an encouraging sign of things to come for an exciting South African talent.

Asylum is published by Picador Africa.