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.