A descriptive study in bereavement

2009-07-22 00:00

IMRAAN Coovadia’s two previous novels, The Wedding and Green-Eyed Thieves, were insightful and sharp but also gloriously funny looks into the psyche of South Africa and in particular its Indian community.

High Low In-between marks a change of tone for one of South Africa’s most impressive voices. This is a much darker, more serious book.

Set in contemporary Durban and drawing on current and vexed local topics, including illegal organ transplants and the internal politics of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, the novel’s central character is Nafisa.

She is a doctor, and the wife of a biologist from the university whose career has been ruined by institutional infighting and who is also battling ill health. Their only child, Shakeer, is a globetrotting photographer and the novel opens on the day he arrives in his home town for a visit.

Returning from the airport, Nafisa and Shakeer find their husband and father dead on his bed, his gun beside him. He has apparently shot himself. The plot unfolds slowly as Coovadia draws his strands together, but for me, the strength of the novel is less in its plotting than in its characterisation and sense of place.

Nafisa is a superb study in bereavement. Coovadia, whose descriptive powers are as inventive as ever, shows how, as he says, the death of her husband is changing her from a molecule — atoms bonded together — into an atom, a unit on its own. Her relations with those around her, including family, friends, patients, colleagues and her domestic worker Estella change subtly as she begins to understand her altered status.

And in the world outside her, Nafisa is faced with the reality of a society gripped by the Aids pandemic and battling to find its feet after the heady moments of 1994. It is often a bleak picture, and Coovadia forces his reader to confront it head on. Unlike his earlier books, where, however serious the underlying topics, there was a joyfulness in his writing, in High Low In-between Coovadia’s vision is less comfortable, less lively.

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