REVIEW: Ruth Browne
In Patricia Ferguson’s latest novel, one of the first and most pervasive images evoked is that of the mirror.
Each of her complex, sensitive characters is made to see herself through the mirrors of other people, revealing the hidden concerns and judgements of the private mind. Ferguson is a searching writer. She wants to know her cast better than they know themselves, to follow and understand them even in their moments of deepest distress and unreason.
Setting her story near the start of the twentieth century, in a seaside village in Cornwall, the writer studies a close-knit, conservative community confronted with change. With WWI only a few years into the future, Silkhampton clings to its old ways – and no one remembers those ways like Mrs Violet Dimond, the village midwife. Waiting at home by the fire with her special bag ready, Mrs Dimond’s services are essential. She is respected and valued in the village as a good churchgoing woman with standards. Then, in the course of a morning, her excellent reputation is demolished when she brings home the first child of colour Silkhampton has ever seen.
If a comparison must be made, Patricia Ferguson’s writing shares many parallels with stories by Toni Morrison: intense familial relationships, vivid characterisations, and themes of trauma and renewal. Violet Dimond and her identical twin sister, Bea, look so alike that as children they could effortlessly impersonate each other, but they’ve led very different lives: Violet the traditional, respectable daughter and Bea the wanderer and self-made woman. But it’s at Bea’s Children’s Home that Violet finds the nameless child, strange to her eyes and yet very like her own lost daughter, who will change the course of her life. Adoption is another key chord in Ferguson’s composition. Of course, the colour of the child’s skin at this point in history makes Violet’s task as mother and defender that much harder.
Despite Violet’s attempts to shield her, little Gracie Dimond grows up with a clear sense of her own difference. Ferguson tells Grace’s side of the story with tenderness and great empathy, reshaping the experience of exclusion without the over-familiarity inspired by many similar narratives already written. Thus her terrible anxiety, her prayers to be “turned white” overnight, the exhaustion of being constantly looked at: all of the pressures of being seen as different in a small community are made fresh again, and all of Grace’s accomplishments and humiliations are felt sharply.
What brings this story to life are the author’s clever and incisive insights into the emotions and intents of the citizens of Silkhampton. When Violet takes Grace out to the market for the first time, some of the passers-by “petted her in a sort of luxurious sorrow, as if saddened by the thought that there was nothing to be done about so much unwonted darkness”. One morning, out in the garden with Grace, Violet is paid a visit by the Reverend Mr Goldolphin of St George’s, whose parishioners have pressured him into trying to keep “the negro child” out of church. Understanding his purpose, Violet’s heart gives “a zestful thump of anticipatory anger” as she recognises her opportunity to rebuke him. Then there’s Grace’s uncomfortably acute awareness of how she is perceived wherever she goes. Sitting in a tearoom with two working-class white friends, almost as unwelcome as herself, Grace pities the proprietress. Though her discomfort in Grace’s presence is unwarranted and ugly, the pain is “still real, the dismay still genuine, and if hardly intended still all down to Grace: her fault.” So the author tallies up the layers of Grace’s exclusion, refreshingly contradicted in some cases, as at Mrs Ticknell’s wool and embroidery shop, and harrowingly reinforced in others.
Violet Dimond’s adopted daughter becomes a mirror for the people of Silkhampton, reflecting their fear and hatred back at them. Grace is a symbol of change. When she steps into Violet’s life, Mrs Dimond the fearsome midwife learns what it means to lose respect and peace of mind, even to the point of losing her profession when a new class of medical professionals deems her work backward, even dangerous. Then, before long, the war invades peace and privacy, and Violet must watch as all the boys she delivered into the world are enlisted and shipped off to leave it forever.
In this new world, birthed as bloodily as any newborn child, it is fitting that Grace begins to write. Calling herself “the Silkhampton Darkie”, she tries to reflect her pain back at the society that exiled her. And this, finally, is what we are left with: with the power of writing as a method of personal exorcism.
With a convincing eye for dialect, era and the broken glass of hidden pain, the author lovingly brings these characters and their stories to life.
- This review first appeared in the Cape Times in March 2013