My Mother's Lovers By Christopher Hope

An aerial view of Africa's white tribe
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If this novel had been written 40 years ago, which in style if not in politics it might well have been, then the film version would certainly have starred Katharine Hepburn. Perhaps Christopher Hope had her in mind, since even the initials of his presiding character are the same. She would have been portraying Kathleen Healey, aviatrix, colonial hostess, mistress of many, and probably - though not irrefutably - mother to one. Though she dies halfway through, her eccentric genius for exotic relationships with men and animals pervades every page. Rampantly sexual, loftily independent (she flies herself over the remotest parts of Africa), casually caring of blacks and wildlife in equal measure, she is a combination of the Flying Duchess of Bedford and Aunt Augusta in Travels with My Aunt.

I was present on a platform with Nadine Gordimer when she said, in answer to a questioner who wanted to know what the white South African liberal could write about in a post-apartheid society, "we have all been beached by history". My Mother's Lovers bears this out. When the younger Kathleen spins over Africa, in the days of white supremacy, she is like a disconnected bird. As an old lady she brings people together only by dying, her son, the narrator Alexander, returning from Malaysia in response to a telephone call chilling in its lack of specificity or poignancy.

Kathleen is the most unmotherly of mums, sometimes pursuing her son like a harpy, at others almost wooing him like a lover. Her bizarre will provides the personal drama of a novel in which the playing out of history is the real subject. Alexander's two marriages, his affair with his mother's "coloured" friend Cindy, and Kathleen's parade of lovers dart in and out of the narrative, without providing its main thrust. What Hope has attempted is little short of a précis of white history in South Africa, from the building of Jan van Riebeeck's fort when Cape Town began to the distress of modern Johannesburg. It is astonishing how expertly he unfolds this story without being doctrinaire.

If in the process the lives of the black majority seem at times peripheral, this is only to reflect how for centuries the British and the Boers regarded them. There are black and mixed-race characters- the Rain Queen, Koosie (Nkosi) who moves from patronised childhood friend to distant official - and a surrounding life of the whole African continent, but these seldom move to centre stage.

"White", Alexander tells us, "wasn't a colour, it was a destiny." Koosie adds that the smell of defeat hangs over the white population. Hope works his way through these epic strata to present a portrait of a society down, but never quite out, impressive in its resilience. Alexander ends the book cultivating his garden, inspired by the beauty of his flowers and a gorilla in the zoo.

This novel has an epic ebb and flow. If you want to understand where white South Africa is now, and where it has come from, there is no better fiction to tell you. Whether it will encourage you to take your next holiday there is a different matter. "You bolted the doors, paid the guards, unleashed the dogs and called it heaven." Kathleen's escape route is in her aeroplane and with her lovers, but that was in another age and almost, it seems, another country.

Alastair Niven is Principal of Cumberland Lodge, Windsor