REVIEW: Ruth Browne
Dominique Botha’s dense, gorgeous novel-memoir, dedicated to her parents, tells of the growth and dissolution of her brother, Paul.
Raised together on Rietpan, the Free State farm owned and inhabited by the Botha family for generations, Dominique and Paul explore childhood and adolescence together on wide-open farmland in a country of closed minds. The oldest of five children, these two carry the family legacy and the expectations of their parents most heavily. For Paul, the road out of Rietpan led to a deep existential despair.
False River reads in part as a mapping of that trajectory, but it is also a portrait of the relationship between a sister and her older brother, complete with petty cruelties, love and infinite longing.
Botha portrays herself as a soft-hearted child, barefoot and sunburnt and easily swayed. Paul marches ahead of her, winning prizes for his poetry at the local school, reading everything that comes to hand, learning independence the hard way.
Soon Paul is sent off to a private English school in Natal, and Pa’s greatest concern is that his son will forget his Afrikaner heritage. When Dominique follows her brother to attend a nearby girls’ school, her loyalty to her ancestry is also tested, and the tension between English- and Afrikaans-speaking white South Africans is subtly disclosed through the snide comments of classmates.
But Rietpan is always on the horizon for Dominique and Paul both, as though each has an anchor sunk in the muddy pan that dries to a husk in summer, its floor covered in flopping fish. For Paul the farm has an earthy resonance that is at once of and beyond words: the ploughing of soil, the hard work of operating a tractor and caring for cattle. In some sense he is planted in Rietpan – it is the only solid ground he knows.
For Dominique, who exists in a state of constant, submerged anxiety, Rietpan is merely home. She writes the details of preserving fruit and meat, of cleaning and maintaining and preparing, with a thoughtless familiarity that shows just how deep her roots go. Ouma’s pantry shelves are “lined with aniseed rusks and preserved watermelon”, and at home, guinea fowl fillets are “cut with a thick seam of fat and laid head to toe in vats and layered in salt” for biltong. Even more telling is her encyclopaedic knowledge of the plants and animals that share her world, from English oaks, white stinkwoods and pepper trees to waterbuck hiding in the wag-‘n-bietjies, and doves “swirl[ing] above the chimneys before oncoming storms”. The barbels and leguaans in the water inspire chilling mythologies for the children, and the smells, sights and tastes of rural life are evoked with great care and poetry. History lies thick on Rietpan, and Botha knows exactly how to sample that rich atmosphere and display it in all its poignant delicacy.
Botha blurs the line between biography and fiction with refreshing honesty, rather than claiming total recall of long-gone thoughts and conversations. At the same time, she draws out the history of the Viljoenskroon district and its place in the national context, referencing her parents’ activism and the segregated categories of black and white still very much in force during her childhood. Young Dominique echoes her father’s educated turns of phrase and political sentiment, and also takes correction from his belt. Pa is a hard man struggling to be fair in a nation wracked with inequality, and his efforts to remain strong, honest and decent have mixed effects on his children. His wife is sharp-minded with a head for business, but leaves much of the angst and discipline to her husband.
As Dominique grows, her voice matures, and she retreats further and further into herself. She reads as a profoundly lonely narrator, following her brother’s wild spoor scattered across the wilderness and then the world, as he grows up and leaves the farm. Botha assaults the fraught ideals of rigid masculinity, but they nevertheless possess the power to hurt her brother and everyone around him.
Paul Botha is a poet, and in writing him his sister has revealed herself as a poet too. This is not a hagiography. In some ways Paul comes across as a character in a Julian Barnes novel, like Adrian Finn in The Sense of an Ending: at first a precocious schoolboy intellectual, then increasingly worldly and mournful.
But Botha has drawn him with scars and flaws intact, powerfully human. In that telling, she also embodies herself in fiction, telling the story again so that nothing may be forgotten.
Finally, with her eye for context, history and human interaction and emotion, she writes us too, as a nation, holding up all of our wounds and contradictions for everyone to see.
- This review first appeared in the Cape Times in 2013