Two unequal islands

2008-02-01 00:00

Loosely based on Shakespeare's The Tempest, this book shares many of the Bard's preoccupations with universal themes. By universal, I suppose I mean “large and enduring”, the kinds of themes that can be transported without much fuss across time and geographical borders. The book has a mystical quality, hinting at a world of spiritual connection with ancestors and the Earth itself (the latter reminiscent of that other great piece of literature Wuthering Heights). But at the same time, it is a story of our time, capturing the frustrations and prejudices that come with change and cultural transition. It's about the vexations of youth, the intensity of love - in all its guises - the gusto of ideals and the sad shutting down of options that comes with ageing.

As the title suggests, the book - South African writer Dawn Garish's first adult novel - is about two unequal islands, Ergo and Impossible, relatively insulated from the world, but connected in a complex way to each other.

Ergo is the site of the birth of the female protagonist Gulai (or Gail, as her father insists), with whom the fate of the islands becomes intertwined. When her mother dies shortly after childbirth, despite the attentions of the baby's father Dr Orion Prosper, Gulai's aunt is forced to seek the help of the mysterious Sophia to placate the crying baby. In contrast to the top academic qualifications of Prosper, Sophia is a healer without formal qualifications who serves as a constant reminder to the island's inhabitants of the “old ways”. She is a voice that not everyone, for various reasons, is open to hearing. But it is a voice to which Gulai is increasingly drawn as she grows older.

This is a gripping and elegant book which doesn't try to flog the traditional themes of South African life, both past and present. The simplicity of its prose belies an intensity of emotion which sweeps the reader along with barely a breath from start to finish.

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