South-African born novelist Cartwright (Lion Heart, 2014, etc.) casts a sardonic eye on a London expat who’s trying to uncover, if not openly parade, his Afrikaner heritage.
For most of his adult life, Frank McAllister, Oxford-educated child of a liberal South African journalist, has succeeded wonderfully in keeping apartheid’s history at bay by adopting an English identity. A canny investor, he’s acquired an art collection and horses and a few good friends who are gamely paddling against the “onrushing middle years.” His one foothold in South Africa is a beach house nestled on the Cape Town coast where he can escape dreary London winters and his ex-wife’s bizarre demands. He’s relishing the chance to share this paradise with his new love, Nellie—a Scandinavian domestic goddess—and her mildly miscreant teenage son. Warming to the role of Kaapstad Prospero, Frank has planned nifty diversions for his guests. All the while, he strives to minimize their exposure to his not-distant-enough Afrikaner cousin, Jaco Retief. A once-promising snorkeler with extortionist tendencies, Jaco’s status dive in the “new” South Africa pricks at Frank’s conscience. Jaco’s presumption that “oom” (uncle) Frank and he are holdouts “up against” the current regime baffles and unnerves him. (At several points in the story, Jaco’s unfiltered rants whiz by—fast, highly comedic, loaded to kill like a psychopathic scuba fisherman’s spear gun—giving some urgency to Frank’s quandary over how to banish this badass kinsman for good.) Frank also wants to get on a fresh footing with his 21-year-old daughter, Lucinda, just out of rehab, who arrives on scene with a small black child whose parents’ whereabouts she promises to explain. Frank hopes she’ll open up on their planned trek to a few historical sites tied to his pioneering Boer ancestor Piet Retief. Retief’s infamous murder by a Zulu chief (re-created for Veldt tourists by live actors) doesn’t entirely match up with contemporary accounts, and Frank feels compelled to sort it all out. Shockingly, his born-again curiosity and engagement with a country and people he’s stood back from for so long expose him to a new “custom” he doesn’t see coming.
Evoking Coetzee’s Disgrace and Gordimer’s The House Gun, Cartwright brings new twists and a sure touch to his tragicomedy about a decent man’s rude awakening to shared history's capricious side. Caveat emptor, Ancestry.com.