Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Debut effort heralds greater things to come

Whiplash by Tracey Farren
Modjaji Books R150

The cover of this debut novel leads you in. If covers sell books and attract readers, then designer Natascha Griessel has done her job. The simple, yet effective, predominantly blue-hued cover with the elongated shadow of a woman on the road sets the scene.

This ground-breaking novel centres on a year in the life of a white prostitute in Cape Town. It's set in Muizenberg, when the suburb was still sleazy. Tess, 26 years old and addicted to painkillers, turns tricks to make a living. Fifty bucks will generally do it. Getting into strangers' cars, or lying beside freeways, she takes her life in her hands every time she accepts a new client. She has no pimp and works only by day. Yet the ever-present danger of her line of work is presented again and again: one woman is fatally slit from throat to stomach, another takes a beating.

The topic of Whiplash is unusual, uncomfortable and daring. Prostitutes are so far out of sight in our polite society. We don't think about them or accord the anonymous women on the side of the road names or lives. Yet in Whiplash, Farren has done the seemingly impossible: she has created, in the fun and spunky Tess, a likeable character. In part this is due to the humour that runs through the narrative.

These may be desperate times, and Tess is down on her luck, an addict, a prostitute, living from one day to the next, but she is no desperado, no wanna-be suicide.

There is, always, a sense that this is just for now. As she lies in her bath, she dreams of a life that could be: "I'll live with a big man. Maybe a body builder ? I'll have sculptures put up at my heated pool? I'll float round on a big, puffy lilo. When he gets home from work he'll kiss me on the forehead."

Farren, an ex-journalist, gleaned a lot of her information from talking to prostitutes and her astute observation shows in the details of this book. The language is earthy and real, fast-paced and breathless, yet underscored with wit: "The sun is flippin' desperate, thinks it's gonna die young or something. It stings my cheeks, makes wet patches under my arms." Or this: "The flat's still full of the shock of the blast. The air's still scared. ? I gobble two Adcodol, lock the last two back in my boot. God, I want more."

This almost light-hearted tone informs the novel, which tends to liven the mood of what could have been a depressing read.

Tess lives in False Bay Holiday, with the missing word, Flats, nailed onto a fence at a tyre repair shop. That's the kind of place it is. And peopled by Madeleine, sewing to make a living, and mourning her missing husband. Tess has friends like Annie, soon to follow her boyfriend to Joburg, or Princess with a broken face. In-between there are the clients such as a cop who gets freebies in exchange for his silence, or the man in a marriage made tight by the fact that he and his wife can't have children, a man whom she soon is befriending.

This is a book begun as an address to her mother back in Durban, a mother whose influence has shaped Tess, and also shapes the story, as absent as she may be. There's also the ghost of her stepfather Graham, still alive, but you can barely call him that, felled by a stroke, impassive, silent in his wheelchair. The past weaves into the present, and as the story progresses, we learn why Tess remains haunted by these two people who shaped her, and why she drifted into the life of a prostitute.

But something's got to break and this comes in the form of a broken condom. Before long, Tess realises that her sudden craving for fish points to a larger problem.

What happens after becomes a turning point for Tess, and the story pivots on this decision. It remains a roller-coaster of a journey and as readers we are led through by Farren's confident, jazzy prose.

Some of the novel could have been cut in order to get to the heart of the story. However, this is an assured book and marks the debut of a startling new voice on the South African literary scene.

Published in The Star Tonight September 4 2008

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