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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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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