Novel on life as a Cape Town sex worker

2008-11-19 00:00

Whiplash could easily give the reader the wrong impression in the first 100 pages, as is evident from a reviewer’s muddled take on it on 702 Radio recently. But I would urge the reader to press on past the initial pages.

The opening chapters deal with Tess who is earning her living as a prostitute on the streets of Cape Town. She lives in a run-down part of the city and survives her harsh daily existence by taking a steady diet of Syndol. She takes five “Syns” three times a day. She drifts in a drugged haze performing her unpleasant job, as well as doing free tricks for the local constabulary in exchange for them leaving her alone. She encounters her fair share of problem “jumps” too.

The brutal realities of Tess’s and her friends’ lives are described in the first person, written in Tess’s vernacular as a letter to her mother. Words, such as “tryna”, are spelt as they’d be spoken. This incorrect spelling might jar at first but once again it’s worth reading on.

A series of events spark a change in Tess’s daily routine. An abused woman and her children shack up with her in her tiny flat and she finds out that a burst condom has consequences which are not useful for a girl earning her living on the street. Tess tries to go for an abortion but the baby in her womb awakens unwelcome memories. Somehow she can’t carry out the termination. As she comes to terms with the previously suppressed truth of being sexual abused as a little girl, she finds redemption of sorts in the class of an ex-nun turned belly- dancing teacher.

Whiplash is a charming novel even though its subject matter is not. This harsh portrayal of the lives of women at the base end of society never forgets their longing for beauty just under the surface. For example, Tess performs a few “jumps” just to buy a cement statue of an angel which she keeps in her flat. She calls her the “princess”. Tracey Farren has written a brave novel and its very well worth reading.

Janet van Eeden

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