Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Tenderly distilling time's essence

Homing: Short Stories Henrietta Rose-Innes (Umuzi: R170) Henrietta Rose-Innes's debut collection of short fiction spans stories written from the mid- 1990s to the present day, and is a welcome addition to her work. She has also written two novels, with a third forthcoming next year. There are several moving and memorable stories, distilled essences of a particular time in the characters' lives, highlighting a pivotal point upon which a realisation is made and a life turns, for better or worse. Many of the stories take place in Rose-Innes's home town, Cape Town, or in locales near the city, and the city becomes a subtle background to the themes explored. Rose-Innes's work is highly visual and when I recall the first story in this powerful collection, 'Homing', I immediately think in terms of the pictures painted by this writer. Homing is a strange, haunting story about retired couple, Nona and Ray, who happen to live a few doors away from a face-brick retirement home, a home both suppose they will eventually move into. But then the home closes and in its place "reared the pink backside of a new hotel". The building wreaks all sorts of changes, including altering the play of light during the day, inverting the normal order of things. Then Nona decides to spend a night in the hotel, telling Ray she is going away. She secretly strolls down the road to stay in this new monstrosity, from where she will be able to view their humble home from the vantage point of this new swish place. Enter a flock of homing pigeons who surreally surround Nona in her hotel room. Home is indeed altered when you look at it from afar. All sorts of faults become evident and you yourself are changed by the experience. 'The Leopard Trap' is another strangely disaffecting story which revolves around Daniela who's "taken to leaving town when things got bad", escaping from the violent, unexplainable rages of her husband Thom. While away, staying at a bed and breakfast near Sutherland, she chances on a leopard trap and her fear is visceral, animal-like: "Her cheek touched stone. And all at once it grasped her: the horror of the trapped creature, of the trap, this box precisely measured out for her own length and breadth?" The fear dissolves and she stares coolly at the trap within the landscape. Daniela returns to her husband, as she must, as she always does, in this story in which a trap to "take a living cat and turn it into bones and pelt" becomes a startling metaphor for a marriage trapped within itself. 'Burning Buildings' is another story which examines the bounds of a relationship, this time between Hein and Anna. Hein is into matchstick building, constructing elaborate buildings and castles, which are then burnt outdoors, the couple watching the towers of destruction, bound by their mutual fascination, Hein's streak of destruction uniting them and yet also tearing a rift through their lives. This is a story in which the props do not trap the lovers, but instead, ultimately set them free. 'Tremble' takes place within the confines of a singles weekend. Erin is only on this cheesy, getting-to-know-you jaunt because her friend Alice persuades her to accompany her. The place is luxurious, safe, framed by mountainside vineyards, "and everyone was white, middle class, of an age. That was, she supposed, what she had requested. She'd known these people all her life". The past collides with the present as Erin finds herself reaching across the age gap that separates her from a teenage boy. This is a story about a certain age - that gap between youth and before the onset of middle age, when time may be running out, and people are burdened with "excess weight, the first strands of grey" and "caution and worldliness". And yet, time to try again: a story that probes the spaces between wanting and not having. There is again an element of the surreal, which nevertheless edges back into reality, in 'Bad Places'. Three young people have attended a party dressed as mermaids. Elly wakes up on the beach, her friends asleep, the blue pigment having seeped into the sand, cobalt skin bleeding into beige. Leaving her friends sleeping, she encounters a "bergie" in his makeshift beach hut - and the few moments of that encounter will shape and alter her forever. The final story in the collection is the tour de force and the Caine Prize-winning 'Poison'. In this excellent apocalyptic story, Lynn finds herself fleeing Cape Town after a mysterious disaster has resulted in the city becoming contaminated, with residents fleeing in panic as fast and as far as they can. Lynn lands up at a near-deserted petrol station and finds herself stranded in this empty world which is "poison violet and puce". Sometimes there really is nothing left to do but to abandon yourself to the violent, apocalyptic worlds you find yourself stranded in. A mere telling of the events doesn't do justice to a story that is haunting in its simplicity and continues to resonate. It's a story of extraordinary power: a description that fits much of Rose-Innes's short fiction in this excellent volume. Published in The Star Tonight, October 28 2010

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