REVIEW: Lost Ground by Michiel Heyns


Michiel Heyns

Jonathan Ball

REVIEW: Karin Schimke

There is the story of the story, and then there is the writer’s story, of which the reader is often not aware. Sometimes, the writer too, remains ignorant of how his or her story underpins and overlaps journalistic observations; moves and feints around the building blocks of the narrative they are constructing.

Peter Jacobs, the narrator of Lost Ground is a writer who trips over his own story in an attempt to write a long feature article for an international newspaper. Of course, the elements for involvement are already there: he is a man returning to the Little Karoo town he grew up in because his enchanting cousin  Desirée has been murdered.

The richness of the material for a piece that would interest an international audience is easy to spot: Desiree comes from a conservative white Afrikaners family, her father a former mayor of the tiny town of Alfredville. Desirée’s husband is the coloured police chief of the town and former ANC activist Hector Williams. He is also the suspect in the murder and has been arrested, leaving the town’s law in the hands of his deputy Bennie Nienaber.

Explaining his writerly interest in the story, Peter tells his new friend in town – a psychologist called Nonyameko – that the press covered the events of the murder but “I want to find out what the facts mean, what they tell us about the possibilities or impossibilities of a non-racial South Africa”. He believes that the murder is more than just a “bad marriage” gone wrong, but that there was also some “significant confluence of events”.

There was indeed a significant confluence of events that lead to Desirée’s skull being bashed in by a small household statue: Peter’s involvement with the ‘characters’ in his story is not merely as the inquisitive eye of social analyst, but he finds that, in spite of his twenty year absence from South Africa and the fact that he has not had contact with his cousin or other family, nor with his school best friend Bennie, he is central to – even it seems implicated in – Desirée’s death.

It all sounds very heavy, doesn’t it? Where history and politics of a country crash into the history and politics of the individual, the consequences are seldom gentle sentimental waves, but devastating emotional tsunamis. And yet, Ground Work doesn’t give off any of the airs one sometimes expects from novels that deal with Important Topics. It grows lushly, in fact, out of the simplest elements of successful story-making: interesting basic  “facts”, believable and entertaining dialogue, well-paced information release, a gentle tension that builds gradually, an acute sense of time, place and character and, most triumphantly, humour.

It is, however, Heyns’ style – his dry, funny scrutiny of his characters, his narrator’s self-effacing and slightly self-mocking personal insights, his ability to convey the grainy texture of even the simplest emotion – that makes Ground Work  an unmitigated novelistic happiness to stumble into. Not that one stumbles into Heyns – not, in any case if one is an avid reader of South African literature. That he is enormously and impressively awarded for both his novel writing and his translation of major Afrikaans novels into English is no secret.

Readers who may “stumble” into him by way of alluring book displays in airport books shops or in mall shop windows are likely to buy the book because of its – richly fulfilled – promise of a mystery/murder story, but will be pleasantly surprised by the multi-facetted, diamond-like quality of this wonderful work of fiction.


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