Nat­u­ral-born sto­ry­teller

CityPress - - Voices - KATE TURK­ING­TON voices@city­

The Dream House by Craig Hig­gin­son Pic­a­dor Africa 256 pages R240

It’s here at last – the South African novel that throws off all the literary bag­gage of po­lit­i­cal cliché and pos­tur­ing, and gives us an hon­est ex­plo­ration of not only what it is to be hu­man, but what it is to be South African in the 21st cen­tury. So en­gross­ing is the story, so deeply are you pulled into the lives of the char­ac­ters, that it is only af­ter you turn the last page that you re­alise Hig­gin­son has sub­tly ex­plored themes of race and resti­tu­tion, win­ning and los­ing, sac­ri­fice and sur­vival.

Imag­ine an old farm­house in the green heart of the KwaZulu-Natal Mid­lands. The long­time res­i­dents are pack­ing up and mov­ing out. Around them, where once cat­tle grazed and wild­flow­ers grew, an up-mar­ket hous­ing es­tate is re­pro­duc­ing faux fac­sim­i­les of the orig­i­nal homestead. Neigh­bour­ing farms are be­ing turned into golf­ing es­tates or syn­di­cated trout farms. Pa­tri­cia, in­her­i­tor of the fam­ily farm, is con­fined to a wheel­chair and, over the years, has per­fected the tech­nique of sur­viv­ing her hus­band, Richard, “by notic­ing him as rarely as pos­si­ble”. He, in turn, hardly no­tices her be­cause his mind is go­ing. He wan­ders around the de­mol­ished farm build­ings and foun­da­tions of the new es­tate.

Beauty (“Beau-ty!” as she is al­ways sum­moned by “Ume­sis”) dwells in fear of Richard and has a dogged de­vo­tion to Pa­tri­cia. Bheki, the old driver, just gets on with his job and only speaks when “he has some im­pres­sive thing to say”. Which isn’t very of­ten. They cope with the only life they know as best as they know how. All this changes when a long sil­ver car draws up and an el­e­gant busi­ness­man steps out. They recog­nise Looks­mart, the clever lit­tle farm boy, taken up and ed­u­cated by Pa­tri­cia, now a grown man and bent on re­venge.

The story is told in the voices of Pa­tri­cia, Richard, Beauty, Bheki and Looks­mart (a de­vice first used so tellingly in South African literature by An­dré Brink in his game-chang­ing 1982 novel A Chain of Voices). It works won­der­fully well. At one mo­ment, we are drawn deep into Pa­tri­cia’s story – her dead ba­bies; her con­ve­nient, lack­lus­tre af­fair with the lo­cal head­mas­ter; her in­dif­fer­ence to her hus­band. The next mo­ment, we en­ter Richard’s poor, delu­sional half-world be­fore be­ing wrenched away by Beauty’s for­ti­tude and then plunged into Looks­mart’s con­fused re­al­ity of great power but frail self-con­fi­dence.

I was re­minded of the words of Ma Rose, the el­derly slave in Brink’s novel: “We go on talk­ing and talk­ing, an end­less chain of voices, all to­gether yet all apart, all dif­fer­ent yet all the same; and the sep­a­rate links might lie but the chain is the truth.”

Hig­gin­son is a born sto­ry­teller, and he cou­ples this nar­ra­tive gift with lyri­cism, ten­der­ness and an amaz­ing abil­ity to un­der­stand and com­mu­ni­cate, al­most si­mul­ta­ne­ously, South Africa’s past, present and fu­ture.

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