This review was written for and first published by Berfrois.
“And then the officer said, be grateful we keep you safe in your house, meneer, don’t worry about the other people. You said she’s a young lady, this Black? She probably ran off with someone, what d’you expect. Probably doing something she shouldn’t be”
South Africa in the 1970s was a country moving towards change. Those in power were fiercely opposing this through intimidation and with outright violence. The black population was required to live and work as their white overlords permitted. Although many of the privileged settlers felt disquiet at the situation, few would risk their lifestyle to make waves. Those who did so were punished severely.
Wan is narrated by Jacqueline Kline, a talented artist married to Howard, a corporate lawyer. The couple have two children, Helena and Stephen. When the story opens, Jacqueline is living in New York, recalling an interview she once had with a journalist who failed to capture anything of depth. Jacqueline has a story to tell, one she has never shared with anyone. What follows is her attempt to get across the nuances and fallout of a life altering mistake.
In 1972, the Kline family were living in the suburbs of Johannesburg. They owned a comfortable house with a large garden containing several separately built stone rooms. Some were used by the black servants, routinely employed to help with domestic chores and general upkeep. In a more secluded spot was Jacqueline’s studio where she painted. Near to this was a room used for storage that would be cleared at Howard’s behest to house a white activist, Joseph, whose presence upended Jacqueline’s calm and careful routine.
Jacqueline was born and raised in Villiers, a small town situated on the banks of the Vaal River in the Orange Free State. Her parents continued to live there until their deaths. The wider family were close at this time, exchanging regular phone calls and visits. The necessary secrecy surrounding the housing of Joseph added a stressful dimension to the relationship.
Although enjoying the benefits of her position, Jacqueline is aware of South Africa’s history – although the schools did not teach this to the children. She dislikes gold and diamonds, repelled by their connotations. She reads of the regular deaths of black miners – numbers rather than names. She still resents Joseph’s presence due to the potential dangers it brings. Her gradually changing feelings towards him cause a further unsettling.
The evocation of time and place is exquisite. Dawn Promislow’s story is told in spare, yet layered, prose that while precise is also sensuous. Unfolding events are recounted with care, the narrator seeking honesty in her mining of memories. Tension is built through a moving timeline – the now and the then – readers made aware of changes before key details are shared. Although a common frame around which an author may build, here it works seamlessly, adding a further dimension.
Side threads offer a wider perspective of life in 1970s South Africa, for both the black and white populations. A new maid causes concern when she is beaten by her boyfriend and then disappears. Another maid has a ‘drink problem’ and the reader learns she imbibes methylated spirits – cheap and easily obtainable. There are regular police raids on servants’ quarters as workers without the correct passes are sought for persecution. White residents may share their homes with black servants, entrusting them with the care of their children, but pay little heed to their wider needs or concerns.
In amongst the growing turmoil, Jacqueline seeks peace in her painting, something that stalled when Joseph moved into their garden room. Prior to this her days had been carefully structured, with periods of rest and creativity – obviously easier when others do the work. She comes across as insipid on the surface, yet with barely acknowledged depth of feeling that she keeps carefully in check. As on the Vaal River, avoiding dangerous currents could be lifesaving, for her family at least.
What emerges is a tapestry depicting the complex ripples created by small acts and omissions. However sympathetic she may have been, Jacqueline was still complicit. Eventually she had the choice to leave South Africa, but not the effects of her behaviour.
The author may be commended for her incisive acuity, offered without sacrificing detail. The history, character development and shades of familial relationships are skilfully rendered, but it is the subtle artistry in the use of language that makes this book such a joy to read.
An impressively compelling, sensitively contoured and beautifully told tale.