Concise and compelling

2011-09-28 00:00

IN Henrietta Rose-Innes’ new novel, Nineveh, pests abound — both of the multi-legged and bipedal variety; shifting populations of creepy-crawlies, shifty human beings.

There are two methods of attempting to deal with them — extermination or relocation. And it is the issue of relocation — of both creatures and characters — that is central to this imaginative and cleverly contrived work, set in Cape Town.

Martin Brand, a suave property developer, has an ­elegant home and manicured garden, marred by the eyesore of a tree whose trunk is alive with writhing caterpillars.

More seriously, his ­expensive housing project, dubbed Nineveh, and appropriately consisting of a series of ziggurats, complete with Mesopotamian-style hanging gardens, is uninhabitable owing to a recurrent plague of iridescent beetles. The project, erected on reclaimed ground, is also surrounded by potentially invasive wetlands and shack­dwellers.

Having witnessed the success of the unfortunately named Katya Grubbs, of Painless Pest Relocations, with the caterpillar problem, Brand employs her to assess the beetle one. It transpires that the failed former employee, Len Grubbs, is Katya’s renegade father, with whom she has had no contact for some seven years.

In the business of extermination, Len Grubbs is a rough individual, capable of violence, vengeful and devious. He is not pleased with his dismissal from the project and his reappearance on the site and in his daughter’s life disrupts the present and dredges up the past.

It is a past characterised for Katya and her sister by a nomadic existence and dysfunctional family life with an absentee mother and the presence of the unpredictable Len Grubbs. Nevertheless, it is a past that directs Katya’s interests, influences her career choice and instils in her some of the Grubbsian trademark deceit.

The novel is peopled with a high-powered businessman, with entrepreneurs, shackdwellers, street vendors and tramps; it is mobile with crawlers and creepers. Buildings rise and fall. “Everything,’ writes Rose-Innes, ‘is in motion ...”

A little disturbing, sometimes tipping into the bizarre, the work is concise and compelling. Rose-Innes writes fresh, invigorating prose, vividly creating character and evoking the spirit of place.

BOOK REVIEW

Nineveh

Henrietta Rose-Innes

Umuzi

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