The dark side of the Cape in the fifties

2009-06-17 00:00

DAWN Garisch has created in Phyllis, the central character of her novel, a deeply disturbed and disturbing figure.

We meet her when, after the death of her elderly mother, she applies for a matron’s job at an upmarket boys’ school in Cape Town. The year is 1955, and the country’s politics are in turmoil as the National Party sets out to remove coloured voters from the roll. But this is not an issue that impinges on Phyllis’s life. All her energies are occupied in keeping going in a hostile world. In an effort to give sense to her existence, she keeps a diary, and through it, her past is revealed, illuminating her present. It is not a comforting picture.

An indiscretion in her teens, which led to her becoming pregnant by her cousin, has haunted and blighted the rest of her life. She can deal with neither hostility nor overtures of friendship, which she regularly misunderstands. All her interactions with the wider world are doomed through her own failures of comprehension.

And then a new boy arrives at the school. He is unhappy. His mother neglects him and he is being bullied. Disastrously, Phyllis feels a special bond with the child, and her precarious grip on reality is loosened.

Trespass is not without its moments of humour, but it is not a happy book. The writing is elegant and nuanced, with not a word wasted. And it will leave the reader with a haunting picture of a fragile life. Phyllis needs our sympathy, but it is often tinged with exasperation. This is powerful, high-quality writing, building a most uncomfortable reality where the reader has to examine his or her own responses.

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