REVIEW BY: Aly Verbaan
“She was dead when I woke up beside her the next morning.”
Writing courses always say “hooking” the reader within the first page is crucial, and Erasmus has certainly delivered a definitive thunderbolt of an opening line. Perhaps her three-year stint as editor of Crime Beat lent some of that urgency and pace that had me reading Below Luck Level in one sitting. But this isn’t krimi, and Erasmus’s versatility is remarkable as she braids in various strands of family life, relationships and careers — and how Hannah’s mother’s Alzheimer’s takes over Hannah’s already fraying life.
Chloe Cartwright has had a stellar career as a celebrated writer in Cape Town, while daughter Hannah hasn’t been much good at anything except shoplifting. One could speculate that Chloe’s borderline neglect of her children — “‘What’s for supper?’ we’d whine. Have a piece of bread! she’d cry as she rushed to meet her deadline.” — precipitated Hannah’s attempts to get attention. Or maybe it was just living in Bo-Kaap, colourful, eccentric if you’re white, and a whole lot of fun.
Chloe is outré, to be sure, with joie de vivre in spades, and to hell with convention. On a particular bunking expedition to the theatre with Hannah and her brother Karl, they have the misfortune of running into one Mrs Holmes, Hannah’s homeroom teacher. “‘They’re feeling sick,’ said my mother blandly, looking Mrs Holmes brazenly in the eye. ‘I’m trying to cheer them up. You know how much they hate to miss a day at school.’”
It’s curious how the gravity of serious subjects can be best expressed through humour. Comedy humanises: the light touch gives weight. Erasmus has used it to great effect in this tragic story of her family’s battle to come to terms with her mother’s early-onset, and ultimately fatal, Alzheimer’s.
Hannah recalls that she was embarrassed to have a “mad” mother when she was at school. “I adopted alternative mothers like other kids collected stamps,” she writes. But perhaps that prevised what was to become of Chloe — not eccentricity, but dementia.
Hannah, who is rather in need of direction herself, now finds herself alone (her brother Karl lives overseas) as a parent to her parent.
As Chloe’s memory corrodes, Hannah’s is illuminated with memories of growing up in Cape Town, and Erasmus puts to good use the artifice of a secret drawer in which Hannah has cached her shoplifted keepsakes to elicit these memories.
Now, although Chloe’s life wanes, it must inexorably proceed for Hannah, and, just in the nick of time, a relative of Luck has come to stay. His name is Daniel — a nice enough chap to be sure — but I’m not convinced it was entirely necessary to introduce a knight on a steed for Hannah at this point. He’s the story-book man to stand by a damsel in distress, but, admittedly, he does add texture, and Erasmus sagely works in the weft and woof of Hannah’s other life — the one in which she is not just a caring daughter, but a woman who must make something of herself, her shoplifting repertoire notwithstanding.
Erasmus has achieved something remarkable: she has said in interviews that she never bases her characters on real life or people, and it is perhaps this stratagem that elevates Below Luck Level to something more than what, in lesser hands, could easily have slipped into a touching, yes, but mundane memoir of a mother with a terminal illness.
This review first appeared in the Cape Times in August 2012.