Fried eggs and exodus

THE SMELL OF APPLES Mark Behr Abacus pounds 8.99 PUBLIC LIVES Melissa Benn Hamish Hamilton pounds 14.99
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Mark Behr has set himself a weighty task. Apartheid, child abuse and incest are emotional and demanding topics to cover individually. To link all three in a first novel is ambitious. It says something for Behr's skill that, where other novelists have needed an equivalent or greater space to express far tamer topics, he has convincingly packed his emotional punches into a tight 200 pages.

The novel is seen through the eyes of Marnus, who, at the age of 11, has no doubt about the superiority of his elite Afrikaner family. His grandparents' escape from Tanzania, after the black takeover in the early Sixties, has been transformed through family lore into a glamorised exodus, with the blacks as Philistines. A chosen people, the family reasserts itself in South Africa, where it demonstrates its mental, physical and moral pre-eminence to all - especially the blacks - who threaten its supremacy. In this world, God is an Afrikaner.

The tension in the book lies (not surprisingly for a story about growing up) between illusion and disillusion. Behr presents the reader with a boy so indoctrinated by his upbringing that most of his thoughts simply parrot his parents' puritanical edicts such as "Pop music can cause you to become a drug addict.'' Marnus's goal is to be his father, who in 1973 - the setting for the book's early passages - is the youngest major-general in the history of the South African Defence Force.

The secret visit of the shadowy "Mr Smith", a military friend of Marnus' father, is the catalyst for a shattering discovery about his father. And by making "Mr Smith" a general from Chile, Behr cleverly sets up a double awareness in the reader's mind; while witnessing the web of sexual tensions "Mr Smith" sets up in the household, the reader can also appreciate what his Pinochet links may prefigure. Fighting, 15 years later, for the whites against black communism in Angola, Marnus is filled with despair at what his father and "Mr Smith" represented. But paradoxically it is in the memory of his father that Marnus finds comfort.

The Smell of Apples is a skilfully worked novel, packed with political detail and offering devastating insights into the Afrikaner mentality. Behr concentrates perhaps too much on putting messages across rather than bringing his characters to life, but it's a thought-provoking debut.

In Melissa Benn's first novel, Public Lives, another child- narrator, 11-year-old Sarah, describes how her father, Tom Martin, has attracted many disciples since his "Open Letter to the President of the United States" protesting against the bombing of Hanoi. A respected academic, he keeps open house to those who wish to sit and debate politics into the small hours. It is only in 1970, when a disciple called Karen North arrives in, and eventually takes over, the household, that Sarah is forced to witness his personal and political downfall.

Skeletally, the book uncannily resembles The Smell of Apples but in detail and dynamic it is very different. Although Sarah and Karen are both unwittingly instrumental in Tom's downfall, both prove in later life to be strengthened, rather than torn apart, by the experience. Disillusion is a learning process here, not, as in Behr's novel, a destructive one.

Public Lives deals with interesting issues, but is often spoilt by pretentious writing. Not content with simply turning a phrase, Melissa Benn contorts the language until it cries out for mercy. Sometimes she is simply incomprehensible. In one scene she describes a man's socks as being "made of thin, black, shiny stuff'', then goes on, "The man came back with a breakfast to match his socks, fried eggs the yellow of rape seed, bacon, sausage, fried bread.'' Is the breakfast burnt? Benn does nothing else to enlilghten us. Having dealt so confidently with the novel's subject matter, perhaps she should stop trying so hard with the style.