Unfinished business

2008-07-02 00:00

The Rowing Lesson

by Anne Landsman

Kwela Books

BACK in 1997 when Anne Landsman’s The Devil’s Chimney was published, it was hailed, quite rightly, as the work of a welcome and major new talent on the South African literary scene. But since then — nothing. Landsman seemed to have dropped off the radar. So the appearance of The Rowing Lesson is more than welcome. And it is an impressive novel, a reminder of why The Devil’s Chimney met with such enthusiasm.

At first glance, the book is deceptively simple. Betsy Klein arrives from New York to be at the bedside of her dying father who has spent his working life as a doctor in a small country town in South Africa. But now, he has slipped into a coma and it can only be a short time until the last, faint hope of what Betsy longs for — one last conversation — has gone for good.

But in her mind, Betsy has that conversation. She has her own memories of growing up in the shadow of her father’s personality. He was not always likeable, or even kind, but he was compellingly there. And from her own recollections and snippets of what he told her of his past, she reconstructs a life for him.

It was not an easy one. The son of a Jewish shopkeeper, he was expected to do better and to make his mark on the world. And he always felt himself under pressure to be bigger, stronger, more successful, more determined. Slowly the picture builds up of a man who is a product of his background and times. And as Harold Klein is brought vividly to life, the question is being asked — how much are we a product of our upbringing and how much of us is innate, the indefinable something that is born in us?

The novel is also an elegy; Betsy is mourning the father she both loved and hated. Another strand in Landsman’s writing is asking the question of how well we can ever know our parents, and can there ever not be unfinished business between parent and child. It is a profound, complex and satisfying novel.

Margaret von Klemperer

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