Gazing into SA’s gloomy past

2011-11-16 00:00

THINK back to the sixties in suburban South Africa. The walls were lower, there was no razor wire or burglar alarms and car theft was less of a problem, partly because there weren’t nearly so many cars. But society was even more compartmentalised than it is now, and tragedy was waiting in the wings for many.

Denis Hirson captures time and place evocatively in this novel. In Lemon Street in a Johannesburg suburb, people go about their lives. Like most of us, few of them are either all good or all bad: idealists may be philanderers; good neighbours may treat their servants horribly or just thoughtlessly; caring parents still have little or no idea what is going on in their children’s minds, or lives. The wider world intrudes on different lives in different ways — the Clydesdale mine disaster, Sharpeville, the attempted assassination of Dr Hendrik Verwoerd.

The minutiae of life is beautifully captured. A lonely widow makes a play for a reclusive single man along the street; an adolescent is upset by his parents’ quarrels and daydreams about a neighbour’s daughter; the black servants live their lives below the white radar, but have the same ultimate concerns — health, money, love. Hirson slowly builds up the tension. Small events create ripples that can grow to the size of a tsunami.

Hirson writes beautifully, and the story sweeps the reader along. But not into nostalgia for a happier past. There is a bleakness that resonates through the novel and into the present. More of a sour ­lemon-tinged microscope than rose-tinted spectacles. And all the better for it.

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