In the court of history

Can this ambitious novel of memory and justice in South Africa succeed as fiction as well as fact?
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The Independent Culture

A woman living in exile is summoned back to her home country by an elderly man, the lawyer to whom she owes everything. He has one last case for her, which he is too ill to fight alone, and she answers his call with trepidation. In that sense, the set-up of Gillian Slovo's new novel follows a familiar pattern, hinting at conflicts between generations, mentor and pupil. What gives it a contemporary twist is that the book is set in South Africa, during the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and deals with wounds which have not yet been healed.

A woman living in exile is summoned back to her home country by an elderly man, the lawyer to whom she owes everything. He has one last case for her, which he is too ill to fight alone, and she answers his call with trepidation. In that sense, the set-up of Gillian Slovo's new novel follows a familiar pattern, hinting at conflicts between generations, mentor and pupil. What gives it a contemporary twist is that the book is set in South Africa, during the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and deals with wounds which have not yet been healed.

This is, in some senses, what genre fiction is very good at, engaging with troubling issues within a supportive framework. But this is not a detective story, although Slovo has written those in the past. It is an ambitious piece of fiction which attempts to understand the tensions in South Africa today from several points of view, including those of people who supported apartheid by the most vicious means.

Her plot brings together torturers and the tortured, grieving relatives and men who are trying to limit their punishment as agents of the old regime. Set in Smitsrivier, a provincial town where the Truth Commission is about to hold a hearing, it grapples with questions of knowledge, belief and moral responsibility as a former policeman, Dirk Hendricks, applies for amnesty for torturing a black man, Alex Mpondo, who has since become a national politician.

The outsider is a local woman, Sarah Barcant, who left Smitsrivier to become a lawyer in the US. She is drawn into the case by Ben Hoffman, who is too sick to represent Alex. That is the ostensible reason for his phone call to New York, but there are other issues on both sides: Ben's conviction that Sarah has run away from her past versus her determination that it was the right thing to do.

For the reader, Sarah's presence acts as a reliable pair of eyes, someone who knew Smitsrivier under apartheid and can document the changes. She gives the novel context, providing a more detached view than the immediately involved protagonists: Alex, who is physically sick with fear at the thought of facing his torturer; Dirk's old friend and colleague Pieter Muller, waiting to see if his own crimes are to be exposed; James Sizela, the local headmaster, who has never discovered what happened to his son, an ANC activist.

Sarah has to feel her way among these warring protagonists. She is surprised by the complex and unexpected relationships between them, and the way in which her sharp prosecutor's instinct offends the people she is trying to help. Above all, she is troubled by her relationship with Ben, whose anger towards her - for leaving South Africa, for her insensitivity - never abates. And it is here that the novel's faultlines begin to appear, for Ben is a stock character, not so much majestic as a grumpy old man.

This is not true of all the characters, and Slovo is most convincing in her portrayal of Muller, the clever, brutal policeman who has chosen to stay in the community he terrorised. Yet there is a sense throughout that the novel is imagined rather than felt, confirmed by the over-abundance of plot. As well as the courtroom confrontation, we get the conflict between Ben and Sarah, the latter's attraction to Alex, and a stagey confrontation between Muller and Sizela.

It is this dependence on sensational events, rather than character, which recalls Slovo's previous incarnation as a crime writer. She tries to leave lots of loose ends, reminding us that real life is messy and resonates with unfinished business. Yet even that feels like a deliberate decision, like so much else in a novel whose ambitions are honourable but whose overall impact is curiously flat.

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