In this debut memoir, South African-born White condenses her story of marital strife in the book’s subtitle—“Holding Fast, Letting Go, and Then There’s the Dog.”
White was born and spent her childhood in Southern Africa during apartheid. As the eldest child of English parents, she lived in countries now known as Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa. She contrasts the English with Afrikaaners, who spoke Afrikaans and were adherents of the restrictive Calvinist Dutch Reformed Church. Her parents were more open-minded, however, and while living in homes supplied by the mining company who employed her father, she spent happy times as an only child in the care of servants while eating fried worms and playing alongside baboons. When her brother was born with severe disabilities, the family dynamics deteriorated through her mother’s alcoholism and undiagnosed emotional problems along with her carefree father’s infidelities. Although eager to leave Africa as a young bride and mother, she always felt residual guilt about shirking her responsibilities as her brother’s protector. His declining health was the main impetus for her to visit Africa on one of her rare trips. But these facts are not laid out chronologically. The memoir is also an account of the dissolution of her second marriage, a 25-year adventure with Larry, an emotionally stunted surfer with a cruel streak. He periodically vanishes and had long before abdicated his responsibilities as a parent to his three daughters from his first marriage. White’s and his primary connection is their mutual adoration of their two Staffordshire Bull Terriers, one of whom suffers from a serious kidney disease requiring constant care. The strength of the book is the author’s insight about life in Africa. She describes how the American nuns in her primary school played softball and told their “colonial” students that “we were worse than the natives in the villages; they were to be pitied, whereas we were a bunch of ignorant white interlopers.” These scenes are vivid and engaging, as contrasted with too much information about the intimate activities of a couple clearly headed for divorce.
Peeking through a mundane portrait of an ill-suited couple is a fascinating story about a childhood spent in an exotic land and a family life full of secrets.