Head of Zeus
REVIEW: Karin Schimke
For an author to step into the arena of farm murders in literature could be construed as a fool rushing in where angels fear to tread. It is, as we all know, a highly politicised, deeply painful and painfully divisive topic in South Africa.
Perhaps the reason Sherry manages to tread like an angel, rather than a galumphing, rallying apocalyptic horseman, is because the family affected by the murder central to this story is not Afrikaans. Had it been, the stuff of this story might have become stuck inside the Gordian knot of our violent history and our violent present.
As an English-speaking South African the choice of an English-speaking murdered woman as the narrator was probably natural for Sherry, but it was also beneficial. Because for this story to be understood, it needs to be as clear as it can be of politics. Sherry’s aim is not to dissect motives or analyse context, but merely to reflect on the fact of violent death and what it leaves in its wake.
Not that the story of Bryony and Gigi is coy, naive or purposefully obtuse. It’s just that the intricacies of the setting of this story – Limpopo and Joburg – are the background noise to the real drama: the way people make sense of that which cannot be apprehended by any amount of reasonable thought.
Gigi’s murdered mother Sally – finds that “something went wrong with [her] dying” and that she is able, unemotionally, almost coldly, to gather story threads from those she left behind.
I’m not a fan of dead narrators, but found the narrator’s “not-aliveness” far less disturbing and intrusive than I expected. That she “steps in” towards the end was not, I’ll admit, my favourite part of the story. The denouement would have worked fine without this other worldly intrusion. However, on the whole, and considering the other magical elements in the story (a sangoma features prominently); Sherry keeps her narrator on a fairly short leash.
After Sally dies, the highly traumatised Gigi is taken in by her cousin Bryony’s family. The family’s psyche has already been brutalised by an unspeakable crime, affecting each in a different way, now they must find a way to accommodate this newly parentless teenager who is, in fact, a stranger to them. For eleven-year old Bryony, this intrusion is hardest, because she must share her room with her stunned “zombie” cousin.
The “dead” narrator can be forgiven ten times over for this one immense gift that Sherry gives the reader: the delicate and utterly believable creation of child characters. Not once, as the story gathers tension and gallops towards a really unexpected and riveting last quarter, does she impinge on their dignity as humans, belittle their confusions and fantasies, or patronise them for their responses.
Black Dog Summer is tightly woven and richly rewarding. It is not flaccid or overwritten, never overwrought nor mawkish. It is simply a sterling story, well told, by an author who, I hope, will produce another novel very soon.
- This review first appeared in the Cape Times in September 2014.
- The painting of the dog on the featured image is by Rachel Howard.