Beautiful, wonderfully complex
NOTES FROM THE LOST PROPERTY DEPARTMENT Bridget Pitt, R169
Umuzi IRIS LANGLEY is 11 years old when she goes with her mother Grace, father George and sister Jess for what is a regular holiday to the Royal Natal National Park Hotel. This is the holiday where she is finally going to do the big climb up the dangerous chain ladders to the top of the mountain. But, it is also the place where the trajectory of her life is going to be changed forever in a terrible accident.
Bridget Pitt has taken on a daunting task in Notes from the Lost Property Department and succeeded with great flair in creating a wonderfully complex book about memory and forgetting, healing and remembering.
The story moves through the voices of Iris as a girl and an older woman who has to face her mother having a stroke while her competent sister Jess is overseas on an important training course; and the voice of Grace as a young mother and an old woman remembering the past as she waits out old age in an oldage home.
The young Iris has her holiday spoilt somewhat when the Pendeltons arrive at the hotel. She feels belittled by the daughter Phoebe and slightly in awe of her brother Sebast- ian, and exceedingly concerned about their father Jeremy, who is newly divorced and a lecturer in England. Because it soon becomes apparent that Grace and Jeremy have met before he left South Africa and Iris can’t work out what the relationship between them is.
She is certainly very unhappy when her father invites Jeremy to join them on what is meant to be her special climb up to the top of the mountain. Pitt has a fine eye for capturing detail and she weaves a rite of passage into the day before the trip when Iris starts menstruating for the first time. Not only does she have an interloper on the trip, but she has the added horror of having to wear a sanitary pad on their climb. It’s a small thing unless you put yourself back in the shoes of a young girl, and the author shows a remarkable ability to inhabit her characters and bring them to life throughout the novel.
Iris comes down the mountain alive, but her brain has been damaged after an incident on the mountain, and her mother Grace makes it her life’s mission to make sure that Iris recovers to become as functional as she can be – and she succeeds against the odds. Iris is different but she can live her own life, fall in love and have a beautiful daughter and a satisfying relationship with a good man. But all of this is fragile and Iris has to take a huge leap of faith when her mother has a stroke and she must travel to Johannesburg.
Grace has spent her life harbouring a massive secret, guilt so painful that she can never share it with her daughter, but she knows that she needs to before she dies. The question hovers over the story like the mist on the mountain where Iris’s Drakens live, as to whether she will ever be able to tell her daughter the truth or whether it is too late for both of them.
Interwoven into this powerful and beautifully written novel are the stories of Gideon the gardener at the home that Grace lives in, who is the only person she can talk to. He is a Zimbabwean refugee, a teacher, a man of poetry like Jeremy Pendleton, who cannot teach because he is a refugee. He becomes Grace’s only companion at the home.
Pitt unravels the life of a refugee and the terrible secret pain that he bears without once referring to the clichéd version of refugees that we often see depicted in print. She realises Gideon with dignity and is not afraid to show him as a man who lives with pain, a man who gets angry when Grace pushes him too far. A man with a secret about a child he has loved and lost.
Like the song of a bird, Pitt weaves her narrative around the story of the broken and the fragile, and shows with an illuminating lightness of touch how hard it is to parent a child with a damaged brain. How hard it is to be the child of a mother with a damaged heart. About love and sacrifice, lies told to protect and truth that will set people free.
With beautiful poetry quoted throughout the book, Pitt brings to life the lives of Grace and Iris at different ages and stages of their lives. She does this with a fluid charm that makes Notes from the Lost Property Department one of the most beautiful and moving books I have read in many years.
The climax of the book is a perfect ending to an imperfect life, the lesson being that when we find out what we want to know, need to know, it may well not make us happy, but it will release old ghosts.
A book that at times has a brutality lying cunningly beneath the beauty, it is a true treasure and proof that Pitt is indeed one of South Africa’s best writers at the moment.