Review: Kayang Gagiano
Jo-Anne Richards’ novels have a distinctive narrative pattern to them: readers invariably find themselves introduced to a cagey female protagonist originally hailing from the Eastern Cape. These prickly heroines have fraught, problematic relationships with their lovers or spouses, close female friends and/or children, and a tendency to refuse to open up. They harbour shameful secrets and traumatic pasts (often linked to the politics of the time) which must (we, as clever, more emotionally grounded readers naturally realise) be confronted. And then there’s ‘the big reveal’ towards the end of each book, some long repressed demon or skeleton-in-closet exposed, followed by a contrived, over hasty resolution. Richards’ latest endeavour, The Imagined Child, though less overtly political, gentler in tone and more humorous than some of her previous works, is not very different in this regard.
However, to reduce Richards’ impressive oeuvre to a mere formula would be churlish; she is a fine writer with a particular gift for evoking a sense of place through lyrical prose and astutely-observed descriptions. Whether she is conjuring the rugged beauty of an Eastern Cape farm (as in her bestselling debut, The Innocence of Roast Chicken), the vibrancy of (newly) post apartheid Jozi (in Sad at the Edges), or the insularity of a small Free State dorp (as in this latest novel), Richards’ writing is at its most powerful when sketching vivid, atmospheric backdrops to her angst-heavy human dramas. And somehow, however irritating I find her insecure, sometimes abrasive heroines, their compelling histories do inevitably lure me in.
The Imagined Child is about the pitfalls of keeping secrets and the burdens of motherhood. Odette is a divorcee in her early forties who writes story outlines for a local soapie. Seeking a fresh start, she has recently relocated from crime-ridden, smog-heavy Jozi to the (fictional) Free State farming hamlet of Nagelaten. (And indeed the name, which translates as “left behind” is no coincidence, we shall discover). After experiencing a big romantic disappointment and surviving a frightening burglary – and perhaps most significantly, having sent her slightly learning impaired daughter off to London to au pair – Odette is ready to embrace bucolic bliss. She has purchased a quaint house on the proverbial wrong side of the tracks (because it has a great river view and a fruit orchard and because she is an enlightened type who fantasizes about befriending her squatter neighbours) and plans to open a coffee shop serving pukka cups of joe.
Describing herself as ‘guarded with her own innards,’ Odette has few friends. Every week she travels to Johannesburg to meet with her therapist (these are painfully frustrating sessions in which she prides herself on disclosing absolutely nothing of emotional value) and to attend meetings with her fellow soap hacks (caricatured secondary characters who offer some amusement, but mostly raised my hackles).
Though Odette yearns for an uncomplicated existence, one senses that she is ambivalent about both her move and her daughter’s life abroad. There is something not quite right about young Mandy; her condition is alluded to in cryptic terms by her defensive mother. As the plot unfolds, we discover that both the town and our protagonist harbour dark, guilty secrets.
Nagelaten is not panning out to be the great escape Odette had envisaged. Its parochial white populace, consisting primarily of conservative Afrikaners trapped in a cultural time warp, tend to frustrate and her attempts at inter-racial friendship largely fall flat, or remain superficial. She develops a more acute sense of the town’s potential menace when she hears of a gruesome farm slaying and is robbed of most of her domestic possessions. Then there are the veiled hints about a salacious scandal involving the local dominee and the mystery surrounding strange young indigent, Wolfie, who slopes around town and whom few will acknowledge. Life is further complicated when she begins a relationship with the murder victim’s widower, Adriaan, an engineer turned farmer who has a more cosmopolitan background than the town’s average inhabitant, but who remains strangely tight lipped about his wife’s untimely demise. When her daughter is implicated in the death of the baby in her charge, Odette’s life is thrown into further turmoil.
The elements of mystery and suspense, which Richards introduces to her tale, first subtly and then more overtly, make for an absorbing read. Her ‘small town with big secrets theme’ also reminded me to some extent of Michiel Heyns’ award winning Lost Ground. Like Heyns, Richards uses South Africa’s still-brittle cultural, class and race relations to great effect. While the sarcastic Odette, who is more saturated with unacknowledged guilt than a deep sea sponge is with salt water is perhaps not the most likeable of characters, she is fully realised and interesting. Richards’ usual habit of rushing her dénouement did not overly detract from my overall enjoyment of this flawed but intriguing novel. – Gagiano is a freelance writer and reviewer.
- This review first in the Cape Times in 2013