This book is an example of why we should be reading South African authors; and why Exclusive Books should put local books upfront in the store and not hidden away in an obscure bookshelf under “African Literature“.
Finuala Dowling has written a book that mixes sensitivity with humour, depth with lightness, and poetry with prose. I think it is a great skill to be able to achieve this mix in writing and Finuala Dowling has done this in all her novels so far. Because she is also a poet, her writing is finely crafted and no spare words clutter the sentences.
The novel is set in Cape Town, in Kalk Bay, which makes the book all the more readable for us South Africans. The main character, Margot, is a late-night talk radio host whose house is full of people waking up when she gets home. Her teenage daughter, Pia, is a late developer who still plays detective games at the age of 13. Her boyfriend, Curtis, gets up early to go running and her mother, Zoe, is in the late stages of dementia. I think I read somewhere that Finuala’s mother had dementia/Alzheimer’s, which would make sense because she depicts Zoe’s unravelling mind so well. “I thought I had a daughter,” Zoe says to Margot at one stage in the book. “I thought I had a little girl called Margot.”
Zoe was the author of the offbeat self-help book, “Homemaking for the Down-at-Heart”, of which there are quotes scattered throughout the novel. (It sounds like just the kind of book I could have done with when my children were younger.) For example, “The secret to every happy home is squalor. Any child or dog can tell you that. Only an emperor with blood on his walls needs a decorator.”
Living in the house with them is Mr Morland, a strange family hanger-on-er, who is a kindly psychic and who often looks after Zoe as she drifts around the house, getting confused and lost. Pia’s father, Leroy, who is a failed stand-up comic, comes in and out of the house at random, making Pia anxious with his unreliability. Even Curtis is unreliable, as he yearns for the open spaces of the family farm and Margot knows she can’t tie him down to her.
This is not a dramatic or fantastical book – it is a story about people in ordinary family life with all its quirks and weirdness. In some ways it is sad, in others it is funny but it is a novel to which many of us could relate, particularly mothers faced with the seemingly endless demands of family members.
It is not a heavy read, however, and I think would be a perfect book to put at the bottom of the Christmas tree. I would recommend it for anyone anywhere in the world – it does not address a specifically South African situation; all of us belong to a family and we all know how hard it can be at times, and how wonderful at others.