Joking apart

ME, THE MOON AND ELVIS PRESLEY by Christopher Hope, Macmillan pounds 15.99
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Christopher Hope goes in, all guns blazing, on his favourite subject, South Africa, only this time it's post-apartheid South Africa. The result makes gripping, uncomfortable reading. Me, the Moon and Elvis lures us into a remote part of the Veldt's "lunar plain", to a town with two names and two pivotal years. Hope juggles time and his huge cast expertly, judging the speed to keep the narrative flow strong and still allow each character and period to breathe.

The first pivotal year is 1949. The town of Buckingham has reclaimed its Boer name, Lutherberg, to commemorate the overthrow of British rule and the establishment of South Africa's whites-only National Party. The second pivotal year is 1994, the end of apartheid. To mark the occasion, Lutherberg has reclaimed its previous name, Buckingham.

Hope, still appalled by the way language can be used to conceal truths, now also sees comedy, particularly in political correctness. A significant minor player in the town's `94 drama is a budgerigar called Roy, who can, miraculously, count, except, he says "coolies" and "Coloureds" instead of "Asians" and "Mixed Race persons", and when he's shown a picture of a Gay Pride Parade, he declares, "Twenty bloody pooftahs!" The ensuing farce includes the new Council gathering to commute the death sentence on the bird.

However, Hope's word games can get in the way. It's a struggle to remember who's who when three characters turn out to be the same person: a "Coloured" who has three names, My Eyes, Me and finally Mimi (because now "there's more of me"). We're meant to be confused - in empathy - but perhaps not this confused. She is the most important character after the town itself.

As much as its structure will allow, the novel charts her life chronologically. Her mother's a drunk who loans her in the 1940s to a bigoted farmer, Bananas Basson. Next, straight-talking, gun-toting Aunt Betsy buys the girl for a bargain six stones of soap, out of pity and because she needs help in her dung-floored cottage with her work as a herbalist. Aunt Betsy goes out of her way to treat the girl well, flouting segregation laws to get her onto public transport and giving her increasingly generous Christmas presents. But ultimately, as a white woman, she's an oppressor. After an horrific rape, murder and suicide, the girl Me realises that she must re-invent herself as Mimi, and, in the new South Africa, she's promoted meteorically to Deputy Mayor of Buckingham.

The end of apartheid is a challenge for South Africa's white writers. How do you change? Christopher Hope hasn't. He is relentlessly hard-eyed. In the book, he has the modern-day Mimi so used to being the underdog that power incapacitates her. The rest of the Council members are shackled by political correctness. All that's different, says Hope, are "the words for not saying what you mean". "The privileged minority, alias white folks, still lived in the town proper and the traditionally deprived majority, aka brown folks, were stuck out in Golden Meadow."

The character with the most positive outlook, the red-faced, white-suited Pascal le Gros, is an exploitative pragmatist who organises an Elvis Presley competition to celebrate the first year of democracy. His competing look-alikes provide an absurdly kitsch finale, which should be funny: a dead pop star is all the town can unite over. Considering the number of jokes in Me, the Moon and Elvis Presley, there aren't many laughs.