Elliptical stories about the complexities of race, class, gender, generation and geography.
A native South African who now lives and teaches in Scotland, Wicomb (Playing in the Light, 2006, etc.) employs both Cape Town and Glasgow as settings, most often both in the same tale. She opens with “Boy in a jute-sack hood,” a short but densely packed stream-of-consciousness narrative by an academic who has transplanted himself from his native Scotland to South Africa. Having just finished a book after his wife (or lover) has left him, he seems to live mainly inside his head, until a chance encounter with a worker’s son renews a spark of social engagement. “Disgrace” depicts the awkward relationship between Grace, a 74-year-old South African cleaning woman, and a visiting Scottish poet and anti-apartheid activist. The collection takes a metafictional turn with “The one that got away,” about a Scottish-born conceptual artist and his no-nonsense South African bride on what passes for a honeymoon in Glasgow; ultimately, Wicomb has her male protagonist commenting on his portrayal in the fiction. The same couple returns in “There’s the bird that never flew,” in which the artist offers his wife some advice that might provide a key to appreciating these stories: “There is nothing to it, nothing arcane about looking at art. It’s just about giving it time, attention, looking carefully, because if you can describe a work accurately, you’re more than halfway towards understanding what’s going on.” Most of the stories find a character translating experience from one culture to another, both cultures likely foreign to the reader, who must decipher patois such as dronklap, bredie and verskrik from context. The author plunges the reader into the middle of each, letting the stories and characters reveal themselves as they proceed.
Writing fiction connecting Scotland and South Africa presents a challenge, but Wicomb makes both worlds her own.