Racial fault lines

2011-04-20 00:00

AFTER his novels about Henry James and the Pankhursts, The Typewriter’s Tale (until now, my favourite among Michiel Heyns’s works) and Bodies Politic , Heyns returns to a South African setting with Lost Ground . And while the author has been here all along, his main character, Peter Jacobs, is indeed returning.

Peter has been living in London, working as a freelance journalist and, until just before the novel starts, sharing his life with James, a black actor who has just been chosen to play Iago in a production of Othello where Othello will be played as the only white in the cast: racial stereotyping, whites’ expectations of blacks and vice versa are among the threads that run through the novel.

The sudden hiatus in his private life caused by his break-up with James propels Peter back to his home village of Alfredville, a Karoo dorp. He left, on the advice of his father, when he left school so that he would avoid conscription and make a life outside apartheid South Africa. But now, his cousin Desiree has been murdered, apparently by her coloured police officer husband, Hector Williams. Peter sees the prospect of a good story in this, a chance to investigate racial fault lines in small-town South Africa and maybe a piece to sell to the New Yorker.

But Peter finds himself being drawn into the action of the story, a player rather than a chronicler. His carefully built carapace of distance begins to crack as he encounters characters from his past, as well as some surprising ones from contemporary Alfredville. He slowly comes to suspect that Hector Williams may not after all be the killer. His former best friend from schooldays, Bennie Nienaber, is now the acting commander of the local police station, and there is complex unfinished business between the two of them which Peter has hardly acknowledged but now has to face.

Heyns is an ironic writer, and many of the scenes in Lost Ground are cleverly nuanced, and often funny, although never without a powerful underlying tension. Whether you read this novel as a detective story, a meditation on the state of the nation, or as one man’s confrontation with his demons — and it works brilliantly on all three levels — it is excellent.

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