Start at the end: Wicomb uses the metaphor of leaping salmon returning to their spawning grounds
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Homing instinct: October by Zoë Wicomb

Wicomb was born in South Africa but has lived in Britain since the 1970s. Like previous work, her latest book revisits themes of homemaking, exile, return and race.

October: a Novel
Zoë Wicomb
New Press, 256pp, £17.99

Last year the South African writer Zoë Wicomb won the inaugural Windham Campbell Prize for fiction, along with James Salter and Tom McCarthy, leaving her $150,000 better off – and confirming her status as a major, if often overlooked, pillar of international writing.

Wicomb, who is in her sixties, was born in Namaqualand (the erstwhile Cape Province) but has lived in the UK since the 1970s. She is the author of two crucial post-colonial novels, David’s Story (2000) and Playing in the Light (2006), that look at apartheid and its legacies and at racial identity in complex, rigorous, profound and unexpected ways. Her very position as a “coloured” (mixed-race) writer, inhabiting the middle rung of South Africa’s racial hierarchy of whites-coloureds-blacks, brings a welcome complication and truthfulness to a problem usually seen simplistically as black-and-white. October, her latest book, revisits similar themes of homemaking, exile, return and race with the kind of consistency and unity of vision that one finds in, say, the films of Eric Rohmer or Theo Angelopoulos – it is a vertical inquiry, exploring depths, rather than a horizontal spread of variety.

The story of October is slender but to venture into it for story would be a misreading: Wicomb has never written the kind of plot-driven storybook that seems to hold such sway in the anglophone world. Mercia Murray, a coloured South African academic in her fifties, living in Glasgow, is left by her Scottish partner, Craig, for a much younger woman. Partly in response to a despairing letter from her brother, Jake, and partly in an attempt to heal the wound of abandonment, Mercia returns to her childhood home in Kliprand in the Western Cape. She discovers Jake sunk deep in alcoholism, possibly beyond all help. He has a son, Nicky, who is five years old, with Sylvie, a young woman who is an intriguing combination of strength and subservience.

Mercia seems to think that she has been summoned by Jake to adopt the child and take him away to Glasgow, but days go by and Jake lies in a stupor in his dark, fetid room, refusing to emerge or talk. Mercia, alienated from the culture and people of her native country, her first home, makes strenuous efforts to build a bridge with the long-suffering Sylvie – class complicates matters here, because Sylvie is far down the social ladder from the Murrays – and, more easily and beguilingly, with the little boy.

In the sutures of the days (and of the narrative), Wicomb deftly inserts the past: the childhood of Mercia and Jake; of Sylvie; and the history of Nicholas Murray, Mercia and Jake’s martinet father. It is a feat of compression and layering. We learn of the physical abuse to which Jake was subjected by his father, a pastor-turned-schoolteacher, who cultivated a “necessary distance” from the “pitch-black Africans”, so that “the distant memory of European blood could be kept alive”. Jake is a man broken by childhood abuse and, in later life, by an even more heinous act on the part of his father.

The US Immigrant Experience, which dominates the anglophone literary world, seems to have marginalised all other kinds of stories of exile and homemaking. So it is cunning of Wicomb to deploy an American writer to open up a conversation about the concept and experience of home; the writer in question being Marilynne Robinson and the novel Home (2008), about siblings returning to the place of their birth. The use of Robinson is overt – Wicomb quotes a passage as an epigraph; Mercia reads Home, and meditates on the book, throughout this novel – but it also has another, perhaps unintended, consequence. By locating her inquiry on authenticity and belonging on a different continent, Wicomb makes readers confront much more complex and intran­sigent questions of home and alienation than offered by the American model.

To read October is to realise that novels can cohere through a set of glittering metaphorical underpinnings. The title provides a binding metaphor: a month of new beginnings and renewal in Mercia’s native South Africa, but one that spells a shutting down in her adoptive, exilic country. There is a brilliant section in which Mercia and Craig travel to the Pots of Gartness on the Endrick Water, north of Glasgow, to see salmon leaping, “a journey that must end where it started”. Another theme of nature v nurture/culture is woven through the beautifully evoked pastoral sections that intermittently mark the novel.

All these recurring metaphors deepen Wicomb’s great questions: where does anyone belong, the place where you started out, or a different one that you have chosen? What do you bequeath to the next generation? Reading this novel is an experience akin to listening to subtly and rigorously structured music. The book is dense with the details and textures of everyday life, not least in its attentiveness to nature and the seasons: Wicomb writes as stunningly about “the burnt-red summer bracken snuggling up to the purple haze of heather” in Scotland as she does about the purple explosion of vygies after the rains in the Western Cape. October confirms her as one of the most intelligent writers of our time.

Neel Mukherjee’s second novel, “The Lives of Others”, is newly published by Chatto & Windus (£16.99)

Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer writing in English. His book The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and he reviews fiction for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Islam tears itself apart

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Ukrainian cooking shakes off the old Soviet fur coat

Forget the stereotype: Ukranian cuisine is about more than just borscht, as a new cookbook shows.

“Potatoes,” Olia Hercules fumes. “Everyone thinks I’ve written a book about bloody potatoes.” It must be said that there is the odd spud in Mamushka (Mitchell Beazley), her surprisingly colourful celebration of Ukrainian food (after all, how could you have an eastern European cookbook without borscht?), but potatoes are far from the only thing to thrive in the country’s famously fertile black soil.

In fact, Hercules – young, slightly built and rarely seen without a slick of dangerously red lipstick – bears as much resemblance to the archetypal babushka as her homeland does to the bleak, grey landscape of the popular imagination. Born close to the Crimean border, she spent many holidays at the beach by the Sea of Azov, “the shallowest in the world”, where the kids ran around smothered in kefir to soothe their sunburn and everyone feasted on mountains of home-made apricot doughnuts.

Southern Ukraine, it turns out, is a land of plenty – during its long, hot summers anyway. There are prickly cucumbers picked straight from the vine, “aromatic and warm from the blistering sun”, sour cherries that “just drop off trees in the streets in June”, and the best watermelons you’ve ever tasted: “huge, firm, stripy beasts”, Hercules says.

What isn’t eaten straight from the garden will be preserved carefully to see the household through the region’s mild winters. The conserves include some rather intriguing fizzy fermented tomatoes that promise to blow your mind and your taste buds. In Ukraine, she says, “Tomatoes are king!” Fresh curd cheese and barbecued catfish, warm, flaky pumpkin bread and saffron-spiked rice all sound a blessedly long way from that old Soviet favourite, herring in a fur coat.

Nevertheless, this sunny childhood was still spent under the rule of Moscow, with its power cuts and queues, and Hercules retains to this day a nostalgic fondness for margarine, a legacy, she says, of the USSR’s “perpetual credit crunch”. A family favourite of slow-cooked goose brings back memories of bribes her surgeon uncle received to grease the creaking wheels of an ageing Soviet health system, while the home-made silky egg noodles underneath were a necessity, at a time when the local shop stocked only the occasional packet of grey macaroni.

The Soviet Union can also take some credit for the diversity of Hercules’s family, and hence the food on which she grew up. When you have a Siberian grandmother, aunts from Armenia, an Uzbek father and relatives in Azerbaijan, impossibly exotic asides such as “My grandmother picked this recipe up when she lived in Tashkent” just come naturally.

In answer to my geographic puzzling, Hercules snorts that “Ukraine basically is eastern Europe”, but the country’s culinary horizons stretch far further – there’s even a significant Korean population in the south, which, in the absence of Chinese cabbage for kimchi, has contributed a pickled carrot dish to her book.

For most of us, thanks to long memories for those tales of endless queues and dismal canteen cooking, the curtain is yet to rise on the culinary delights of the former Soviet bloc. The television producer Pat Llewellyn, the woman who discovered Jamie Oliver and was
food judge for the 2015 André Simon Awards, described it as “a much-underrated food culture” when praising the shortlisted Mamushka (the author’s childhood nickname for her mother, which has come to signify, she says, “strong women in general”).

It’s anyone’s guess whether that means we’ll get to see Hercules, resplendent in one of her signature knotted headscarves, showing off her Moldovan giant cheese twists on screen any time soon. But we’ll be seeing a lot more of her beloved “mamushka cooking”, one way or another. Just don’t mention the P word.

Next week: Richard Mabey on nature

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle