The Savage Hour by Elaine Proctor

Divisions and links…

😀 😀 😀 😀

the savage hourWhen the body of elderly Ouma is found drowned in the dam on her property, everyone assumes that she slipped. Everyone except her young granddaughter, Delilah, that is, who is convinced that there is more to it than that. But who would have killed Ouma – and why? Even in the apartheid years, she treated everyone in the community, black or white, with the same respect and used her skills as a doctor to help those in need. Despite the lack of motivation, Delilah persuades a young policeman, Jannie, to investigate her death.

Sometimes crime is only included in a novel, it seems to me, as a hook on which to hang a wider story, and that’s the case in this one. Proctor uses the story of Ouma’s relationships with her family and the community to paint a picture of rural life in post-apartheid South Africa, showing a society struggling to overcome the racial divisions that have scarred it. Still divided, with Ouma’s white family as landowners and the black characters as employees, we also see the links that go back often to childhood, links of love and loyalty that cross racial lines. But this is a deeply troubled society, and Proctor touches on many of the strands that make it so – gang and random violence, police corruption, prostitution, AIDS, old tribal hatreds still surviving. Add in dementia, assisted suicide and homophobia and I couldn’t help but feel at points that the book is trying to do too much.

We soon learn that Ouma had been suffering from the early stages of dementia and, as a doctor, was well aware of how the disease would progress. She had been asking all of those near to her to help her to die. Since the book opens with Ouma’s death, her scenes are given to us in flashback, and it’s partly through these that we get to know the other characters and see how they relate to each other. There’s a fairly wide cast of characters – Ouma’s family, her black housekeeper who is also a loyal friend, the farmworkers, Klein Samuel and Cheetah, and the policeman, Jannie, who each in different ways feel an intense love and loyalty to Ouma for having helped them at some crucial point in their lives.

There is an emotionalism in all of these linked stories that builds to something uncomfortably close to bathos at times. But the quality of the writing just about pulls it back from the brink, and I found the storytelling element compelling, though I did find that I could only read it in quite small chunks. Proctor is particularly strong at creating a sense of place, both of the struggling, drought-ridden farm and of the town, when we follow Jannie there. She gives a real feel for the harshness of lives lived on the edge of poverty and the sometimes cruel decisions people must make to ensure their survival.

Elaine Proctor
Elaine Proctor

I have mixed emotions about the book. I felt that there were too many points being made, too many strands being forced in. I’ve made this criticism of other books too – sometimes an author seems to want to cram every aspect of a complex society into her story and it becomes unreal that all these things would happen to such a small group of people in a short time, and that unreality tends in the end to lessen the effect. It’s the old ‘less is more’ thing – in this one, I felt several strands, not least the ‘murder mystery’ itself, were unnecessary and in fact detracted from the overall impact. Nonetheless I enjoyed Proctor’s writing style and for the most part she made the characters feel real, so that I cared about what happened to them. And I found her depiction of this struggling society a convincing one – bleak, certainly, but not devoid of hope. She subtly makes the point that whatever the difficulties of the present they pale in comparison to the apartheid past, and she shows the beginnings of a gradual realignment of the relationships between black and white South Africans, shifting slowly towards a more equal footing as time passes. A thought-provoking read and I would certainly be interested to read more of her work in the future.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus.

* * * * * * *

Some information from the publicists, for anyone in the London area who may be interested…

Award-winning film maker and writer, Elaine Proctor, will be doing a talk at her local library, Central Kensington Library, on Tuesday 28th July.

On 28th July Elaine Proctor will be discussing her latest novel The Savage Hour which has recently been short-listed for South Africa’s 2015 Sunday Times Barry Ronge Fiction Prize. Set in rural South Africa, Elaine’s second novel begins when the matriarchal doctor of a small village is found dead in a shallow river. Her death was not an accident. A young detective, a close friend of the doctor’s, is determined to discover the truth. Elaine initially wrote the character of the doctor as a way of exploring her own emotional responses to her mother’s long battle with Alzheimer’s. The novel deals with provincialism, homophobia and redefining the language of Afrikaan.

Elaine Proctor is the niece of the famous South African poet Elisabeth Eybers (1917 – 2007). She grew up in Johannesburg and attended the first illegal non-racial school in South Africa. At 17 she was one of the first people to make true life documentaries about apartheid. Elaine has since moved to London and studied film under Mike Leigh. She is on the board of BAFTA and has directed several critically acclaimed feature films and documentaries, including Friends which won Mention Speciale – Prix de Camera D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

Tickets for Elaine’s event at Central Kensington Library are free and can be booked here.

You can see Elaine’s TED Talk about why we tell stories here.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

35 thoughts on “The Savage Hour by Elaine Proctor

  1. Oh, the book does sound interesting, FictionFan. I always respect it when authors can take the larger issues (like race relations) and bring it to the individual, human level. It sounds like that’s what’s happened here. And South Africa is such a fascinating place on a lot of levels. I know what you mean about a few too many threads in a story, actually – read some of those, myself. But it sounds like there’s much more to like than not here.

    • I think it’s a temptation for newish writers to try to cram everything in – bet they regret it when they can’t think of what to write about in their next book! 😉 But seriously, she handled all the various threads well and I enjoyed her writing style – literary without being too much so. I’ll be interested to see what she does in the future.

  2. This sounds like an ambitious and intelligent book, but probably a bit too much like hard work for my personal taste! I am sure Proctor is brilliant, she sounds like a fascinating lady.

  3. These kinds of books make me want to wail. All of the years of human suffering and yet we persist. How many millennia will it take to see not just color but a human being. In the end, the bell tolls for us all.

    • I know – it’s hard to believe we’re still going through the same old stuff. But there was a sense of optimism in this – that things are changing in South Africa even if they still have massive problems to contend with. And I enjoyed watching Obama’s visit to Kenya over the weekend – another bit of Africa that seems to be beginning to turn itself around…

        • It’s always difficult to judge whether any progress is being made when you’re actually living through it, but I reckon overall the trend for the last couple of centuries has been heading in roughly the right direction…

  4. Alas, I think even I would be unable to apply for a book , get approval, down load and read mark learn and inwardly digest it enough to go to the talk. It certainly sounds as if there would be an interesting discussion to be had.

    Now I’m really looking forward to your take on Go Set A Watchman. I’ve kind of side-stepped this one, for several reasons (not least because some of the reviews seem to suggest poorer quality writing) and probably more, because I don’t want to sully the memory of something rather wonderful. It’s probably fascinating for literary critics and academics in terms of doing a comparison/development. But I’m keen to get a vicarious understanding

    • I keep trying to tell the publicity people that most people who read my blog are American but hey! They give me free books so the least I can do is cut and paste the publicity blurb…

      Well, I’m not doing very well with it, to be honest. It’s not the book – it’s the narration by Reece Witherspoon. The accent she’s using might be totally authentic but I keep missing bits and I find that tedious. I think I might abandon the audiobook and try the written word – though it’s one (the audiobook) that I was specifically given for review, so I’d feel a bit bad about that. I’ll struggle on for a while yet…

  5. I’m glad to hear this author’s storytelling and characterization save the work from being a drudgery to read, FF. She’s tackled a tough subject here, one that could come off as depressing; I suppose it helps for us to stick our heads in the sand and be glad we don’t live in those times. I might want to check this one out further!

    • I liked her writing style a lot – literary without being too affected, if you know what I mean. And the characterisation was very good too – I got quite absorbed in wanting to know what happened to them all. Yes, she did manage to keep a little sense of optimism in there, which I always prefer to totally bleak accounts of difficult circumstances. I’m not convinced any situation is ever completely hopeless…

      • I’m an eternal optimist, too! Very few problems can’t be solved with a bit of chocolate. Perhaps that’s why I love fiction so — it only feels real, and things often are nicely tied up at the end!

        • I know! I never understand why they don’t eat more chocolate in books! 😉 Yes, I always think one of the purposes of fiction is to look for possible answers to the questions of life, so I get fed up with the really bleak ones that make it all seem so pointless…

  6. I so agree about books that cram too much in – I always get the feeling that the author wants to use up all her knowledge of a subject. It’s like an essay I once wrote on the fall of Constantinople in 1453 which began “In 850 AD …………” ! I’ve tended to avoid books on post apartheid S.A., since I spend so much time demonstrating, etc. in apartheid days – maybe this is the one to break the ice with. Your review makes it sound interesting.
    On another topic, a new biography of Hamish Henderson has been published today – at £70. Oh, well, I’ll get my money’s worth out of my council tax by getting it from the library.

    • Yes, I think it’s a fault of newish authors particularly. Haha! And yes, one I share too! My essays tended to range widely through space and time too – mind you, that was often because I knew nothing about the actual subject matter! A little misdirection always helped… 😉 This is a good one about post-apartheid and very unpolitical. Patrick Flanery’s Absolution is great too – it looks at the end days of apartheid from the white side – which I felt I would hate, but he managed to shift my preconceptions a little. Not that he was whitewashing (no pun intended) the facts at all…

      I fear I don’t know Hamish Henderson at all, but wikipedia informs me he is the composer of that timeless classic – Aunty Mary Had a Canary – so he’s all right with me! 😉

  7. Great review. I know what you mean about a book having too many points. I really want a mystery to read, but one without so much baggage. I think I’ll look elsewhere.

  8. My first thought is that I’ve heard versions of this storyline so often in SA lit already but if you thought her writing was worth it I might have to take a closer look! The dementia element is a bit interesting…

    • Interesting! I haven’t seen so many of them published over here, so it felt quite fresh to me. I’d be intrigued to know what you think of it, if you ever get time to read it – it felt authentic to me, but then I really wouldn’t know…

  9. I could see, though, where it would be tempting to cram everything in. You know, like eating too many M&M’s or something like that.

    That’s probably what she’s looking at, too: M&M’s.

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