Anti-apartheid author Brink (Devil's Valley, 1999, etc.) has adapted to the new dispensation with stylistically experimental novels. But his latest, except for an awkward trace of magical realism, more conventionally details the painful lessons an old man learns when he falls in love.
Because South Africa is still evolving, current politics are as much a part of the story as ever, but the mood is more somber. Services are breaking down, corruption is rising, and violent crimes are commonplace. In this increasingly menacing situation, where things seems to be falling apart, the protagonist and narrator, 65-year-old widower Ruben Olivier, recounts how the young, beautiful, untrustworthy Tessa Butler comes to be his lodger. His home is built on the 18th-century foundations of a house where a Malay slave, Antje of Bengal, murdered her master's wife. Antje, who was executed thereafter, now roams the house meddling in matters of the heart, though her story, suggesting clumsy parallels to the past, is more intrusive than instructive. After a neighbor is brutally murdered and Ruben suffers a heart attack, his sons insist that he move. They're reassured, however, when Tessa joins him. Ruben, a reclusive librarian whose job was given to a hero of the Struggle, has been mourning his wife, the baby she miscarried, and their subsequent estrangement, but is immediately infatuated with Tessa. Fighting his desires and his jealousy—Tessa has multiple lovers and soon needs an abortion—he eventually helps the family's longtime housekeeper Magrieta find a house after a gang burns her old home down, witnesses thugs sexually assaulting Tessa, and learns more about himself. In time, Tessa, more cliché than character, helps Ruben understand how his reluctance to fight led to a breakdown in his marriage and shaped his past.
A readable but clumsy primer on desire's insistence on living fully, whatever the outcome.