South Africa, 1987. As the country is in the death throes of Apartheid, defiantly buckling under the weight of an international boycott, a Jewish woman named Rachel Swart, mother of three and wife to farmer Herman ‘Manie’ Swart, dies of an unnamed disease. She makes her husband promise to gift the little shack on the back of her property to Salome, their maid. Amor, their youngest daughter, overhears them. After Rachel’s death the promise seems all too soon forgotten; they seem surprised whenever Amor brings it up, then irritated. Finally, Amor’s older brother Anton points out that they could not have given her the house if they’d wanted to; black people cannot own property.
It’s a bleak start to a fairly bleak novel. Serious literature has the propensity to occasionally assume that the more depressing a book is, the better it will be. Fortunately, this excellent novel has Amor as the heart of the story. Galgut manages to make her morally superior without being annoying.
Not all characters are equally subtle, and they’re not intended to be. There is a sardonic and satirical streak throughout this novel, from Anton pestering his father to do the right thing simply because it’ll annoy the old man, to insufferable aunt Marina finding the whole concept of black people being liberated outrageous and nonsensical. It’s both painful and funny. Middle child Astrid teeters on the verge of caricature, though never goes quite too far.
The narrative in this novel, too, is something to behold; it tends to meander and never focuses on one single person. We see things through the eyes of the three Swart siblings and their direct relatives, but also through peripheral characters; Anton’s psychotherapist (who cannot stand him; he’s forever trying to impress her) to a schizophrenic homeless man just passing by, to a pair of jackals roaming the farm. I can see why people might find it annoying and it’s a tricky thing to pull off, but it never confused me. Instead, it enriches the story in a way that no straight narrative would have done.
Aside from the narrative, quite a bit of the negative criticism that this novel received seems to focus on the fact that the Booker committee chose two white South Africans for their shortlist. Politically awkward as that may be, it shouldn’t take away from the value of this novel. Galgut pulls no punches when it comes to white South Africans, whereas he doesn’t make the mistake of trying to walk in the shoes of the black community. He portrays South Africa as both beautiful and deeply corrupted. Yes, the characters could have been more subtle and some parts of the plot don’t really seem to fit, but that’s the point: the characters – Amor excepted – are fiercely ridiculous, self-involved and symbolic for the last vestiges of Apartheid, even if it no longer exists on paper. All in all I was very much impressed by this novel.