Voice from beyond the grave

2009-01-07 00:00

TILL We Can Keep an Animal is the fourth annual winner of the European Union Literary Award for Best South African first novel. Part of the prize is that Jacana agrees to publish the book, but this seems unlikely to be as successful as some of the earlier winners. The novel is narrated by Sarah, and when the book opens she is already dead, brutally raped and murdered in an attack in her home in Cape Town. The voice from beyond the grave is not a literary device I am drawn to, although I enjoyed Alice Sebbold’s The Lovely Bones, but it is very hard to make it seem anything other than contrived and unconvincing.

Anyway, Sarah is still around, in a kind of limbo. She is unable to communicate in any way with those who are living — her mother, husband and daughter in particular — but she seems unable to leave them, even though she can make choices about where she goes. Inevitably, she is faced with regrets for things unsaid and for the hurt she has caused to people while she was alive. But she is helpless to have any impact on the world that is going on without her.

However, she can watch and listen. In a genuinely horrific scene, she sees her young drug-addicted killer, one of a group of Cape flats no-hopers, being interviewed by her daughter Imogen who is doing research for an academic paper. And she can watch and listen as her mother tells Imogen some of the family history.

Violence runs through the story, from the horrors of the British concentration camps in the Anglo-Boer war to the present. It is not a happy or hopeful book, but it is an angry one, angry at the mess South Africans are making of their lives and their country. Anger is fine, but some kind of resolution or way forward would be good. At times the writing is crafted and appealing, but at others it is self-consciously “literary”.

Voysey-Braig is certainly a talent to watch, but Till We Can Keep an Animal is a slightly unconvincing start. And Jacana should be ashamed of its proof-reading. One particularly glaring error had someone slackening “the reigns”! That does the author no favours either.

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