The Curator by Jacques Strauss, book review: A deep look into dark places

 

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The Independent Culture

This new novel from the winner of the Commonwealth Prize in Africa places the reader in unsettling literary territory: somewhere between the socially committed novels of JM Coetzee and the vivid South African thrillers of Deon Meyer. But The Curator is delivered in a voice which is the author's alone. Rural South Africa. A black maid looks on in horror as the family of her employer is bloodily slaughtered – she is the only witness to the murders.

But a neighbour takes a very personal interest in these events. Hendrik Deyer runs a state-sponsored school camp and lives nearby with his wife and two sons, Werner and Marius. Hendrik becomes prey to a growing obsession: discovering what lies behind the gruesome murders –and this becomes a concern for his wife, who has something equally worrying to cope with.

Her son Werner (she is convinced) is falling under the malignant spell of local residents, an impoverished white family. She is sure that the family is behind her son's threatening and irrational behaviour. This situation finally explodes into another tragedy that changes the lives of every one involved.

It is no surprise that The Curator is an accomplished piece of work, given the author's earlier The Dubious Salvation of Jack V, which gleaned many plaudits. But that was a very different novel, despite its South African setting. Yes, the earlier book also dealt with racial conflict, queasy politicking and class, but its semi-comic central theme, the masturbatory preoccupations of a young boy, drew comparisons with Philip Roth's Portnoy; that curious strain marked the book out as poles apart from others set in South Africa.

That country, of course, is always a benighted one whenever it is used as the backdrop for a novel – as here. And the emphasis in the new book is darker and more disturbing than its predecessor; Strauss has acquired an even greater authority in marshalling his narrative – particularly in the later sections. Twenty years have passed, and the disturbed Werner is now living with his mother and disabled father in a pokey Pretoria apartment. South Africa itself is a much changed place from the country we saw earlier in the book, but the past hangs heavily over Werner – and although he's grimly aware that he can't change what happened back then, he begins to entertain thoughts of murder to change the course of the unhappy life of his family.

With its forcefully characterised anti-hero Werner, this is a book that will conjure favourable comparisons with other South African literary masters. After the squandering of Mandela's legacy, this is hardly a blessed country – but there is hope of a kind suggested in The Curator.

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