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