A heartsick academic heads from Scotland to her native South Africa to help repair her brother’s broken family—and somberly, slowly muse on her past.
As in her previous novels and stories (The One That Got Away, 2009, etc.), this novel reflects Wicomb’s interest in bridging Europe and post-apartheid South Africa—or, more precisely, showing the extent of the gap. Mercia’s thoughts of home are already intense after her longtime partner leaves her, and they deepen once she receives a letter from her brother, Jake, suggesting that she needs to return to South Africa to take care of his young son. When she arrives after 26 years away, it’s clear that his life is in chaos: He’s sunk deep into alcoholism, and his wife is at loose ends at the impending foreclosure of their home. Though the setup is dramatic, Wicomb’s writing is patient and meditative; early in the novel, Mercia reads Marilynne Robinson’s novel Home, which seems to serve as a thematic and tonal model here. Mercia’s visit inevitably sends her into the past, thinking of her mother, who died young, and her domineering father, who sent both of them fleeing on different paths. We also learn more about Mercia’s relationship with a poet and the woman he left her for. Wicomb touches on South African politics and racial divides (Mercia’s family is black), but the novel stresses a more interior story, which turns on a harrowing revelation about Mercia’s father. At times, this story feels wan and undramatic, as Mercia continuously muses over the question of whether her true home is in Glasgow, Kliprand or Macau, where there is a potential new teaching gig. But its closing pages are genuinely affecting, intensifying the overall mood of heartbreak.
A carefully crafted, if at times overly austere, study of home and loss.