By Karin Schimke
Jobson drops her reader into the middle of a narrative and continues talking as though you’ve been privy to the story since its beginning.
It’s rather like being invited to step on to a treadmill with someone who has already achieved a certain pace and who is delighted to have you along but makes no concessions for your lateness in arriving. After a few pages, and almost without warning, the treadmill halts and you get off again.
The experience is bracing but oddly satisfying. In the space of 175 pages, the reader of Ride The Tortoise gets to ride the lives of over 15 South African characters.
Jobson has an uncanny ability to slip fluidly under the skin of such a variety of characters, it is sometimes hard to believe they all sprung from the pen of one author. Her modus operandi is to put readers inside their un-edited minds where they privy to their oddest and most embarrassing thoughts, their deepest longings, their guilt and their worries.
It is impossible not to overlay some of the self on these characters, whom Jobson presents without artifice or an attempt to pretty-up. The characters’ apparent lack of an inner editor is startling, funny and produces both discomfort and something akin to admiration.
The narrators are not always likable, but each evokes such empathy, that you feel protective towards him or her; that you rage for him or her against the manipulations and cruelties of their loved ones, but you also love alongside them their lovers’, parents’ and childrens’ quirks and failings.
Jobson has a sharp eye and a fine ear (each no doubt the result of her two other passions, photography and music), but what sets her apart from others is her great attraction to the verges of where mental illness dwells amongst us. Her characters are frightened, floundering, flawed and flayed. Sometimes the stories capture moments of madness in them, of un-grace, of slippage. Jobson has a familiarity with the stranger recesses of the human psyche, which she presents in a way that neither glamorises nor disdains oddness and eccentricity. It is her characters’ ordinariness that successfully conveys that peculiarness is pedestrian, even mainstream.
I interview Jobson at the launch of her book in Kalk Bay on Tuesday and asked whether she herself could find a common element in the mixed milieu and fractured, dissonant lives of her characters. She answered that they all shared some trauma.
And here is precisely where her work rises out of the personal and into the public domain: her characters are utterly, recognisably South African, finding ways to live in a country which is – to nick one of Jobson’s own recurring themes – an inconsistent, cruel, manipulative mother.
Jobson is a master storyteller. Readers with a curiosity or reluctance towards the short story form would do well to start with Ride The Tortoise to familiarise themselves with how – when it’s done well – a short story can be as satisfying and all encompassing as a novel.
- This review first appeared in the Cape Times in April 2013