Uninvited but unavoidable, the ghosts of politics past haunt the living in this deep and subtle novel about the wary interracial relationship of two Capetown women.
A “decent” Afrikaner, Marion Campbell tries her hardest to play it safe. But safety isn’t really an option in post-apartheid South Africa, argues Wicomb (David’s Story, 2001, etc.). Proud proprietor of a mid-sized agency dubbed MCTravel, Marion confines her own journeying to a restricted circuit of sites. Sparing herself the “dubious hygiene of hotels” and the intrusiveness of strangers, she prizes routine: visiting her aging father, a former traffic cop now well “past the fury of manhood,” and lolling on the balcony of her tasteful beachfront apartment. It’s on that balcony that a bird suffers a heart attack, dying among the pricey scatter cushions: The accident presages drastic change, soon brought about by young Brenda McKay. MCTravel’s first black employee, Brenda treads “a delicate boundary between respect and mockery” before erupting over the staff’s myopia regarding the country’s troubled history: “You couldn’t imagine yourself then as one of the underdogs.” Shortly thereafter, Marion manages a fender-bender with a brand-new BMW; her date with a new easygoing boyfriend turns rocky as he begins to realize that she’s “difficult”; and she’s flooded with disturbing memories of Helen, her disapproving mother who’d recently died of cancer, and fond reminiscences of Tokkie, the black woman who tended her as a child. In time, as her world unravels, Marion comes to discover that she’s unwanted in both the familial and political senses. Revelations from the government’s aptly named Truth and Reconciliation Commission set off a series of painful epiphanies by means of which Marion learns hard lessons about her father, South Africa, Brenda and herself.
Stylistically nuanced and psychologically astute, this tight, dense novel gives complex history a human face.