Divisions and links…
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When 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.
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.
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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.