Stirring up the past

2010-01-20 00:00

BOOK REVIEW

Kings of the Water

Marc Behr

Abacus

MARC Behr’s first novel, The Smell of Apples, was the ­excellent coming-of-age story, which drew on his own South African childhood. But it was followed by Embrace, of which the politest thing I can think to say is that it was a self-pitying, self-indulgent whinge. So when Kings of the Water arrived for review, I was wary.

However, this is an elegant, moving book, set in the period before the ­September 11 bombings in the United States. Behr is obviously an author who draws heavily on his own experience, and here his hero, Michiel, has returned from his ­Californian exile for the funeral of his mother at the family’s platteland home. One recent visit from her to him and his HIV-positive Palestinian/Jewish partner is the only contact he has had with his family since he left.

He had left because of tragedy, on two levels. On the one hand was the death of his eldest brother, and Michiel knows a secret about that. On the other was his own disgrace, being caught in flagrante delicto with ­another sailor during his military service and going AWOL, shaking the dust of his homeland from his feet, forever, as he then thought.

Things have changed in South Africa, but perhaps not as much as some of those still there think they have. And Michiel’s family and circle have demons to face, demons that are raised by his return as well as many that have been there all along.

Michiel brings an outsider’s perspective to much of the South African reality but he, self-absorbed but ­intelligent enough to understand the dynamics around him, has to struggle to achieve any kind of distance from his own past. He comes to realise that the settling of scores is neither a possible nor a desirable outcome. The realities of life, both on a personal and on a wider level, need a more creative ­approach.

Kings of the Water is a fine novel that shows a world captured at a particular, and significant, moment in time. Behr seems to have put the ­aberration of Embrace behind him, and shown that he has the ability to be a significant commentator.

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