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REVIEW: Home Remedies by Diane Awerbuck

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Home Remedies

Diane Awerbuck

Umuzi

REVIEW BY: Karen Jeynes

There are books you fall in love with from the first word, and others which seduce you slowly. Home Remedies draws you in, slowly, almost unwillingly at times, until you are held captive by its spell.

In the first few chapters of flashbacks and reflections it feels as though very little has happened, and yet also as though we have come to understand a lot. We have begun to feel the weight of what matters. Joanna, our heroine, is not the most easily lovable of characters – and yet she is very human, very funny, and very intriguing. The beginning of the book is a tension between the chick lit-like cover, title and tone, and some very complex and intricate themes. It’s a hard time for Joanna, who has lost her job, has a small child, feels out of place in Fish Hoek, and is experiencing a lot of conflict in her marriage. Yet beneath all these surface concerns are the shadows of deeper troubles, of violence, and darkness.

A lot of history is interwoven with Joanna’s story, tales of the Fish Hoek man, of Piers’ Cave, of human relics forgotten or else used as pawns in political games, and the ever present echo of Saartjie Baartman, a woman objectified, a woman made to symbolise so much to so many. There is a real life of the history which surrounds all of us on a daily basis and yet is continually ignored. That we never look up, and see beyond our immediate worries. Complicated concerns about bodies, remains, and belonging all surface, and Joanna’s preoccupation with the Fish Hoek man reveals much of her own psychology. Awerbuck cleverly pokes fun at the media frenzy around Saartjie Baartman, at the desire everyone has to be a part of a story. And through all these twists and variations, Awerbuck guides us gently.

Awerbuck is a magnificent writer, and her skill is evident here. She sketches life in Fish Hoek in delightful detail, bringing to life a suburb unknown to most. She gives Joanna a light humorous flair in her dialogue, inner thoughts, and tone, but also a starkness and a directness which is at times unnerving. Joanna talks freely about her insomnia, her fears, how her husband has only dated black women before her, and about her conflicted relationship with her now ex-employer.

Readers should be aware that the book becomes increasingly darker, and two tragedies befall Joanna. Her preoccupation with violence turns into a reality. They are – and are intended to be – harsh and jarring, but perhaps are a little too much, a little excessive, in that they make Joanna increasingly hard to relate to and understand. But these things are never clear cut, and no one’s responses to horrifying events should be easily judged.

Home Remedies is a bold novel about individuals scarred by history, and once you have been seduced you will not be disappointed.

This review first appeared in the Cape Times in November 2012.