Tri­umph of a book holds its own against best of se­ri­ous literature

Cape Times - - BOOKS - RE­VIEW: Jen­nifer Crocker

BOY ON THE WIRE Alastair Bruce

Umuzi BOY on the Wire, by Alastair Bruce, might be one of the most im­por­tant literary works to come from the pen of a South African au­thor (even if he now lives in the UK) in a num­ber of years. His el­e­gance of style and the econ­omy of his lan­guage re­mind me of early JM Coet­zee books.

Although this is a grim tale about loss and iden­tity, it is not a mean-spir­ited book. Rather it is about the wounds we can heal and those we can’t and the jour­ney we must un­der­take if we want to “fix” the past.

When we meet John Hyde his life is pretty sorted. He has a good city job in Lon­don; a lovely wife Rachel, com­fort­able flat, and enough se­crets to fill sev­eral large suit­cases – be­cause John has had a trau­matic life in, of all places, Port El­iz­a­beth, where he spent the first 18 years of his life.

The youngest of three boys, John has man­aged to prac­ti­cally dis­so­ci­ate him­self from his child­hood and teenage years. His mid­dle brother Paul has died trag­i­cally and there is an al­most im­me­di­ate dis­con­nect be­tween his older brother Peter and him­self.

The de­scrip­tion of the death of his brother is breath­tak­ing in its sim­plic­ity; Bruce does not blud­geon his reader with cheap tragic words, but rather al­lows the scene to play out in all the com­plex sim­plic­ity that tragedy so of­ten ap­pears as. The hor­ror, the lonely trip home, all these are in­fused with a re­straint that makes the writ­ing that much more pow­er­ful.

Boy on the Wire is not an in­tensely plot-driven story and it is not about grow­ing up in Port El­iz­a­beth, in fact the au­thor sets the fam­ily home out­side of the city it­self. By plac­ing the home John grew up in out­side of the town, the au­thor places the story in a place which could be any­where or nowhere, and this is im­por­tant. It’s im­por­tant be­cause the story is about skirt­ing the outer edges of re­al­ity and the mind.

John’s life starts to come un­done when he re­ceives a let­ter from home, a let­ter he doesn’t tell his wife about. He chooses to ig­nore it and to carry on liv­ing the new life he has cre­ated for him­self.

Alastair Bruce sets up his main char­ac­ter when he has John start­ing to see his older brother Peter in Lon­don. His in­con­sis­tent and odd be­hav­iour be­gins to sever his re­la­tion­ship with his wife; she knows some­thing is go­ing on but she can’t work out what it is. Then the au­thor forces his main char­ac­ter’s hand by cre­at­ing a nar­ra­tive ten­sion that forces him to re­turn to the home and the fam­ily tragedy that led him to recre­ate him­self in or­der to for­get.

But, as Boy on the Wire posits, we can es­cape a mul­ti­tude of ghosts, but not those that dwell within us. John re­turns to the fam­ily home, but there is no fam­ily there. In­stead there are ghosts and a se­ries of odd events that he must try to puz­zle out.

Hav­ing said that he needs to puz­zle them out does not mean that this is a thriller or a mys­tery. It is a work of true lit­era- ture where the reader must travel through lan­guage that is at once sim­ple and beau­ti­fully crafted to dis­cover whose truth is the real truth.

Bruce has writ­ten a literary novel that is en­tirely read­able and in­can­des­cent with tal­ent. Boy on the Wire does what se­ri­ous literature should do: it both en­ter­tains and makes the reader ques­tion, along with the au­thor, the mean­ing be­hind the story. The evo­ca­tion of the Ka­roo, of the tedium of a rather bor­ing city are all brought alive, but in the most dis­ci­plined of styles.

We are led to be­lieve at times that John is go­ing mad, at times that he is not who he seems to be, and in fact what we are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing through the book is what is hap­pen­ing to the char­ac­ter. There is not a word in the wrong place in Boy on the Wire. There is a mys­tery to be solved but to solve it we are asked to sus­pend what we ac­cept to be re­al­ity, and so must John.

Boy on the Wire takes its place among some of the finest writ­ing to come from a South African writer. It holds its own against the best of se­ri­ous works of literature. A tri­umph of a book that is lo­cal only in so far as it is set in South Africa, but I pre­dict it will take its place as a ma­jor and im­por­tant book in the wider world.

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