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Book of a lifetime: In the Heart of the Country, by JM Coetzee


A good book must have a certain aroma. That is what a lifetime of reading library books has taught me. Some reek too much of tobacco, others have a musty odour that seems to choke the very text, but the books that chime with me just smell right. I find them by accident; hiding behind frayed plastic jackets in the book sales of the local libraries. I peel away their protective wrapping and then sniff. In the Heart of the Country by JM Coetzee had hints of apple, sandalwood and charcoal between its pages; surprising, for such a lean and austere book, but  also promising.

Magda, the spinster of the tale, lives with her father and their black servants on an isolated farm in the Karoo desert and is slowly going mad. The startlingly short, numbered paragraphs help to order her increasingly disordered thoughts. She is a wholly unreliable narrator and horribly self-pitying but rendered so clearly that I heard her footsteps and felt the grit of the desert between my own toes while reading the novel. I don’t know if it was the fact that I was isolated at the time, writing or trying to write my second novel, but Magda was a very familiar character; a woman turned in on herself.

An ability to sit with nothing but your own thoughts for hours or days is something that a writer needs and Magda has a limitless capacity to do just that. She threads incident after incident from her life into something approaching meaning, all the while removing those details she finds uncomfortable. She kills her father, returns him to life and then kills him again. The near-silent servants blend into the impassive sprawl of the Karoo, Hendrik’s plaintive guitar the only soundtrack to her descent, his body the only thing solid and sensual in her life.

In the Heart of the Country changed the way I saw my work and changed the way I did work. I would read it every day, almost superstitiously, before writing and it gave me easier entry to that dark place where nebulous ideas fuse into something intelligible, where creativity sits and madness lurks. Like Magda I have always pressed my knuckles to my eyes to see what galaxies I might find there, and in that simple shared action I find a sense of how we are all childlike and fragile, overawed by the sheer scale and inscrutability of life.

Nadifa Mohamed’s novel ‘The Orchard of Lost Souls’ is published by Simon & Schuster