Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A lengthy pursuit of redemption

My Brother's Book by Jo-Anne Richards
Picador Africa R158

This book contains the most original line of a novel I have ever read: "I was born on page 23 of my brother's book. On page 52, before the whole world, I betrayed him. There was so much in between though. So many days plumped by doves roasted on fires, and fruit straight off the tree ... How could you have crushed all that into fewer than thirty pages?"

So begins a well researched novel that moves between the 1960s and 2004. It's told largely through the viewpoint of Lily, sister to the brother of the title, Tom. Their complex relationship is laid bare in a betrayal that will alter their lives and ruin the ties between them. Tom has now written a book, hence the title, and Lily takes issue with the way he has recalled the past.
The story not only weaves between the present of 2004, but also leaps around in time in the scenes set in their childhood in the 1960s. Lily and her Tom are being raised by their father, referred to as "Pop", in the American tradition, which didn't make sense for me. The mother disappeared years before, a constant absence in their lives. Pop ekes out a living with Tom and Lily following him as he moves them between towns such as Fort Beaufort, Cathcart and Bedford. Lily and Tom grow up haphazardly ? Pop is loving and kind, a maverick kind of soul, but a beacon of security and stability he isn't.

The siblings are forced to make new friends over and over again. Sometimes shunned by the white kids, they fall in with coloured kids, but this is apartheid South Africa, and at the first sign of acceptance by the white kids, allegiances, understandably, shift. Time shifts often, and sometimes Lily, the main narrator, is referring to life in another small town, in the past, so to speak, and I found these passages jolting me right out of the story.

Richards is adept at exploring the long-ago world of childhood, reaching right into the heart of childhood that is a novelist's gift. Speaking about the moon landing, Lily recalls that "The astronauts said the moon made them feel like people who are all excited to go on holiday, but find when they get there that it looked a hell of a lot better in the pictures. The moon was just grey, they said. Kind of like plaster of Paris." Meanwhile, "Captain Borman had a beautiful view of Earth. He was floating in front of the camera for the Americans. But we could still hear his voice on the A Programme, even if we didn't have TV in South Africa."

Richards is equally adept at describing the landscapes, evoking the beauty of the eastern Cape with sentences such as: "The morning lay motionless across the village. Everything held its breath as though, by its stillness, it could hang on to some vestige of early freshness."
Richards' dialogue is also spot on, she has an ear for the SA patois and idiom, sprinkling her sentences with South Africanisms as "Afrikaner-vrot-Bananas", or "safe like a kuif" and that old word for the movies, bioscope, lives again. But the Afrikanerisms get a bit much: English speakers don't pepper their language with that many words from the other taal.

This not quite idyllic childhood is nevertheless recalled with warmth and nostalgia by the adult Lily. Understandably, of course, a time when she could still look up to the adored Tom and have that love returned. Contrast that with the scenes set in 2004 in which Tom's book appears, and the cracks in their relationship, hammered solidly in by Lily's betrayal, are obvious and ugly. Lily would dearly like to repair the damage and the pain this rupture has caused.

The present slowly comes into focus: letters are exchanged between Lily and Miranda, an old lover of Tom's. It's some time before we discover who Lily is writing to, until finally the signature is revealed, but I found this device annoyingly twee.

Eventually the story unravels, but it takes too long to get there. Richards' strengths are also the weaknesses of the novel; while the dialogue is authentic and delightful, there's simply too much of it. Her research is thorough, and this shows in the many authentic details in which life in a small town is detailed, but again, there's too much of it, and less detail would've allowed a fine story to flow more effortlessly.

First published in The Star, Tonight supplement June 26 2008

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