In the twenty years since democracy, there has been a groundswell of South African literature. Once two behemoths – Gordimer and Coetzee – strode the land, but the freedom of the new South Africa has brought a freedom of creative thought and a wave of writing. Now we have South African crime fiction (rivaling that of the Scandis, so I hear from reliable sources), South African romance and young adult fiction, South African distopian fiction and even South African chick lit. Margie Orford, Deon Meyer and Lauren Beukes are household names to book lovers.
I have recently read two South African debut novels that are worth mentioning in their similarity of purpose. Both are novelisations of true events. In both books, the writer is both narrator and character, writing fiction out of fact.
The first is called False River and it is written in English by Dominique Botha, whose mother tongue is Afrikaans. False River tells the achingly tragic story of her older brother Paul, a poet and renegade whose brilliance could not be contained by an ordinary life and who died of an overdose in London when he was 27. As the first two of five children, Dominique and Paul were allies. The novel charts both Paul’s trajectory and Dominique’s as she goes from being adoring little sister to anxious guardian to one of his mourners.
False River is beautifully written. It contains passages of such breathtaking poetry, so deeply anchored in the landscape I know and love, that it is worth reading for the language and imagery alone. If Paul was a poet, Dominique is one now.
However, she is also a storyteller, and this is a novel. For the reader, there is a layer of tension, a discomfort, in knowing that it tells a story that is real. When asked in a recent SATV interview why she chose not to write a memoir, Botha said that “… memory is incredibly fallible and we can’t rely on it, so when you go back and recreate something you either have to be incredibly factual or you have to acknowledge the fact that retrieving a memory is committing a first act of fiction.”
Asked why she took so long to write this first book, Botha said that at first she felt too much in his shadow to write. However, she realised many years after his death that his memory was fading and that she had a strong compulsion to put pen to paper and write it down. As someone who knew Paul and many of his friends loosely disguised in the novel, I am glad she did. Not only do we have a new voice on the South African literary scene and a story that is a gift to the reader, we also have a way to remember our friend. Here is a scene from the end of the book:
Time flies and time stands still. We pass through time. She is not swayed by us. The vlei spills into the pan. A moorhen glides. Willows drop braids into water. Buried flowers in the darkened garden strain against the soil.
By sunrise all the women from the stat were sweeping and cleaning around the house. They had come unbidden. Ma stood by the window watching them. Martha edged her upstairs to change.
The protocol of solace marked the hours.
The second novel from fact I have recently read is One Green Bottle by Debrah Anne Nixon. The narrator is a woman named Jennifer Hartley, whose idyllic life on a KwaZulu-Natal farm is marred by a series of panic attacks that eat away at her self-esteem and grip on reality. She is hospitalised in a local psychiatric ward. The novel charts her series of stays on the ward, the people she meets and endures there and, after losing her marriage and custody of her children, her eventual tentative recovery and release.
One Green Bottle is a searing account of mental illness and does a brilliant job of evoking the hopelessness of those caught in its coils. While it is less obvious than with False River that the narrator and the author are one, there are clues. The novel is dedicated to ‘fellow sufferers of mental ailments’, the main character writes pages of a novel while she is incarcerated and an afterword from a psychiatrist talks of Nixon’s struggle and catharsis.
However, for me it became evident in Nixon’s descriptions of ward life that this was no creative imagining of the despair, bleakness and grinding exhaustion that is long-term mental illness. I had to put the book down several times while reading, in order to regain the energy I needed to go back into the wards. Despite her simple sentence structure and compassionate and often loving descriptions of Jenny’s fellow inmates, Nixon pulls no punches. She is brutally honest and reveals a system that is failing its patients, both at a structural level and in the inability of psychiatry to do much more than throw experimental cocktails at their patients in the name of healing.
While two books don’t make a trend, it was interesting to read False River and One Green Bottle back-to-back. Both tell acutely personal stories cast as novels and, whether read as fact or fiction, both take the duty of care to show that while loss and tragedy are part of the human condition so too are hope and love. As Botha’s final poem says,
soil must subside
we may not