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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.

Start at the end: Wicomb uses the metaphor of leaping salmon returning to their spawning grounds
Start at the end: Wicomb uses the metaphor of leaping salmon returning to their spawning grounds

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)