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Shirley Eskapa: Author whose book on extramarital affairs provoked wide debate

Shirley Eskapa was a novelist whose fiction ranged from short stories and novellas to full-blooded sagas with international settings. The subject matter often mirrored the concerns of her non-fiction work Woman Versus Woman (1984), which examined the strategies adopted by women over a husband’s extramarital affair. She interviewed several hundred divorced husbands, wives and former mistresses, and concluded that men had a built-in propensity to stray whether the marriage was happy or not. She counselled wives not to blame themselves, but to wait for the “crisis of ecstasy” to burn itself out or to mount a subtle campaign aimed at diminishing the Other Woman.

The book sparked off a debate which led to her appearing twice on The Oprah Winfrey Show. For someone who had an essentially happy marriage, Eskapa brought a forensic psychological skill to the themes of love, deception and betrayal.

To the inevitable question as to whether she thought her husband had cheated on her, she said, “No, our marriage has endured because we do not take each other for granted. We have been through terrible tragedies, and grief has welded us together.”

Born Shirley Joan Barnett in Johannesburg, the daughter of South African businessman Henry John Barnett and his wife Lea Frieda, she grew up in comfortable surroundings and gained top grades at school. Her first short story was accepted for publication in a literary magazine when she was 16. She met her husband, Raymond Eskapa, when she was 14 and he was 18, and they married on 15 March1954 when she was 19.

She went on to gain two degrees at the University of the Witwatersrand, a BA in psychology and sociology and an MA honours in international relations and strategic studies. Her conscience on apartheid had been awakened as a child by her father, who told her that apartheid was not a “natural” state and only existed in South Africa. Eskapa became a member of the Black Sash, the white women’s resistance organisation that staged silent protests against apartheid, and came under threat from the South African secret police.

While living in South Africa, she suffered the tragedy that overshadowed her life, and that she kept secret for 30 years from even her closest friends. In 1963 her second daughter, Rosemarie, choked to death, aged three, when eating a lychee. As Eskapa wrote in her revelatory seventh and last novel, In a Naked Place (2008), about the loss of a child, “Grief twists us in many ways, but a mother’s grief is unquenchable.”

In1969, the Eskapas decided to leave South Africa. Raymond, who had become ill with a heart condition, sold his business and they settled in Geneva with their three children, Roy, Linda and Robert. Eskapa renewed her writing with short stories for The Cornhill Magazine. She published her first novel, Blood Fugue(1981), set in South Africa, which centred on an inter-racial love affair and was banned by the apartheid regime.

The Eskapas moved to London in 1980, though they spent time during winters at a holiday home in Palm Beach. Eskapa’s second novel, The Secret Keeper (1983), the story of a 13-year-old boy who plots with his mother to break up the affair between his father and another woman, brought an accolade from the novelist John Braine, who hailed it as “delicate, subtle, deft and exact… a major novel.” She moved on to large canvas novels of which Scales of Passion (1991), set in England, Paris and South Africa was praised as “a powerful, engrossing and moving saga” by Barbara Taylor Bradford.

She was deeply supportive towards family or friends. When Raymond became ill and finally gave up his beloved golf, she would turn down invitations to go out because he would be alone. She researched every aspect of his treatment, and her family joked that many a doctor would wilt under her close interrogation. Any family illness engaged Eskapa’s wholehearted concern, even though her own health was poor. She had in 1983 been diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, which troubled her throughout the rest of her life.

The literary lunches she gave at the Eskapas’ Chelsea apartment drew women from publishing, journalism and the arts to sit down at table in the book-lined dining room for a delicious meal, with wine from the South African estate of her winegrower brother-in-law, Graham Beck. Talk would range from high literature to the most recent indiscretions of one politician or another. Throughout, Eskapa would shine with innocent enthusiasm. Even during her worsening ill health, she never lost her eagerness and love for life.

Shirley Eskapa is survived by her husband, Raymond, two sons Roy and Robert, daughter Linda Grosse, sister Rhona Beck and three grandchildren.

Clare Colvin

Shirley Eskapa, novelist: born Johannesburg, South Africa 30 July 1934; married 1954 Raymond Jack Eskapa (two sons, one daughter, one daughter deceased); died London 16 August 2011.