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

Donmar Warehouse
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Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution