EVERY now and then you develop a relationship with a novel that transports you so vividly to a specific place and time in history that whenever you look up from its pages you need to catch your breath to be reminded of the here and now.
This is one such work – an outstanding study of a deeply troubled family against the backdrop of political change, and one girl’s resilience in the face of ugly, sharp-edged obstacles.
The central character is Ella, who we first meet properly when she is very young. She is quiet, observant, has to wear a built-up shoe and is put in the remedial class at school. She lives in Durban, and then further inland, with her parents – usually referred to as “the father” and “the mother” to underline the stark absence of intimacy – a Dutch couple who have settled in South Africa.
It’s the tail end of the Cold War and the father, who had served with the Dutch navy and is clearly traumatised by his experiences in the Second World War, is boiling with hatred and resentment towards the West, by which he feels betrayed. He drinks heavily and sits out on the veranda at night, spewing out bitter rants about politics and war to an invisible audience – shouting in the dark. He supports the belief of white supremacy underpinning the new republic in which he has invested. Like most bullies, he is self-pitying and self-aggrandising, verbally abusing his wife and daughter, and occasionally erupting physically.
The mother is a weak, unhappy, neurotic insomniac who transfers many of her own disorders on to her daughter. In one particularly disturbing period, she feeds Ella tranquillisers to get her to sleep, effectively blunting the girl’s daytime consciousness.
Early on we learn that the father had been married before, and had come to South Africa with that wife, who was Ella’s mother’s sister. She had died from cancer and he’d ended up marrying Ella’s mother and having this unwanted child with her. The dead woman is a constant presence in their lives, a heavy symbol, the loss of her creating a forever gaping wound for both adults and pricking Ella’s curiosity.
Young Ella watches, listens and silently absorbs everything. There is no love in this house – just hatred, sorrow and the unbearable volume of his fury.
As we follow Ella’s development from quiet loner to someone who becomes socially and politically aware, and who eventually learns to shout back in more ways than one, geopolitical developments in Africa loom large. On her way back from one of her regular journeys with the mother to visit relatives in the Netherlands, they make airport stops in newly independent African republics where Ella is struck by the reversal of the racial power dynamic to which she is accustomed. “She has never seen black people looking this tall and big-chested in South Africa.”
To mark the passing of the years, there are references to the setting up of homelands like the Transkei, and in the background the rumbling of anti-Apartheid activism becomes larger and more relevant to this family. Ella and her father converge briefly when they realise they both have Communist sympathies, though in his case they’re more inspired by the hatred of the UK than anything resembling social justice.
In what may be a nod to Doris Lessing, Ella develops romantic feelings towards Phileas, their black gardener. The words he uses to respond to her love – “we submit or we fight” – inform the path she will take for the rest of her life, armed by everything that hasn’t destroyed her.
It’s hard not to view Ella as a symbol of South Africa in this dense, disturbing but ultimately optimistic book. n