Books: Independent choice - South African fiction

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
The literature of white liberal South Africa has, for obvious reasons, been dominated by the dark matter of betrayal and guilt. Two of these three new novels deal with this joint theme. In the opening sequence of Jann Turner's sprawling, cross-racial love story, Heartland (Oriel, pounds 6.99), Elise, daughter of a brutal Afrikaner landowner, is caught out in a childish misdemeanour. It is the act of a moment to lay the blame on her black playmate. Beaten bloody, Sandile "thought he would never understand the cruelty white people had in them". This betrayal becomes the foundation for an epic romantic novel with echoes of Romeo and Juliet and the returning Heathcliff. After long exile, Sandile appears at a party celebrating Elise's engagement. The scruffy boy is now a dignified man, apartheid has been swept away, and Sandile has a mission to win back the land Elise's ancestors stole. Perhaps it is cavalier to beef about the over-simplification of characters in a book of this kind, but two in particular niggle: the matriarch Mama Mashiya, so filled with stoicism and wisdom she's merely a symbol, and Elise herself. Raised with racism as the norm, not a trace of it seems to have entered her psyche. But Heartland is a fairytale, carefully plotted and confidently written, as Elise and Sandile's triumphant love points to a new dawn.

Betrayal in Jo-Anne Turner's Touching the Lighthouse (Review, pounds 16.99) is the consequence of carelessness. Jennifer, now middle-aged, looks back over a life clouded with guilt to her youth in Cape Town in the period preceding the 1970s state of emergency. She and her friend Susan had comprised "the Sisterhood of Women", a snobbish club of two whose wildness consists of smoking, drinking, a bit of skinny-dipping and one inebriated lesbian display. Meanwhile both hold down respectable jobs and feel superior to "ordinary people".

Things come to a head when Jennifer and Susan are asked to provide a safe house for a young activist wanted by the police. This they do, with staggering insouciance, and the result is tragedy. Guilt aside, this is primarily a female buddy book. When the two come together again in middle age, they still play the same game, "blowing our rebellious smoke over the disapproving tables" in the Ritz. A dollop of irony would have redeemed this book.

Simpler, subtler and more moving than either of these novels is Pamela Jooste's Dance With A Poor Man's Daughter (Doubleday, pounds 15.99). It concentrates on everyday experience for a child of the Cape Coloured community as the Group Areas Act forcibly removes people from their homes to make way for white housing. Eleven-year-old Lily Daniels lives with her grandmother and aunt, having been abandoned as a baby by the beautiful runaway Gloria who, it is rumoured, "took a little trip on the Kimberley train". This is a euphemism for the "try-for-Whites", who leave their families in search of a new life on the other side of the divide.

Lily's clear narration chronicles the mundanity of school and home, the backdrop of gangster violence, the coming of the bulldozers and the return of her prodigal mother. Her innocence and homespun wisdom can be irritatingly Forrest Gumpish. However, she is tough, smart and vulnerable in the face of overwhelming forces, and as such becomes emblematic of an entire people.

Comments