Book review – The dazzling whiteness of Cape Town

2015-04-13 11:50

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Close to Home by Cayleigh Bright

Jacana Media

212 pages

R175 from

Cayleigh Bright’s debut novel Close to Home is a book that must be read.Especially now, when the issue of institutional white privilege and its accompanying colonial statues is at the heart of the #RhodesMustFall conversation.

Bright’s characters might be fictional, but if you take a quick stroll through any of South Africa’s high-priced universities, you will see them in person, walking the lawns in designer jeans, picking at sushi in exclusive cafés and laughing with brilliantly white teeth.

They traverse the campus in groups, leaving tasteful whiffs of expensive perfume and a glittering trail of warmth and privilege.

If you look closer, you might also see the rot. That’s where this book gets interesting.

If I were to place Bright’s characters somewhere in the #RhodesMustFall furore, they would probably be those on the periphery – the lucky few who couldn’t care less either way.

They might have seen the hashtag on Twitter or noted the protest in front of the statue, but they probably only gave it a passing glance.

In Bright’s group of politically disinterested youngsters, Faye is the bravest and most beautiful of them all: “You can hate Faye as much as you like, but you’ll still want to do just what she suggests. She is across the table from me right now, appreciating someone who was once a mutual friend of ours?...?Faye looks bored as he talks, and I see him growing more and more desperate for her blonde-haired, blue-eyed approval,” writes Bright.

The book opens with a murder. And of course, true to the context, it is the maid who sees it first.

“It was my job not to be noticed, and unnoticed I went ...?I never lurked in doorways or behind walls?... but conversations were simply carried on in front of me with no concern about whether I heard or not.”

The maid is never given a name – a testament to how completely anonymous she is to the white people she serves. She appears once, then disappears. Her testimony is never required. She comes in to clean and leaves without a trace.

When the murderer is finally revealed, the protagonists in the novel close around the person and the reader is assured that, no matter what, the secret will never be betrayed.

Like a group out of a novel by Donna Tartt, this is a closed, insular subset of people, fiercely protective and reliant on each other.

Bright penned her novel during her master’s in creative writing degree at the University of Cape Town. It reads like the fluid, soft weather of Cape Town.

It is all gold and breathy and beautiful. And beneath it is the dark undertow of a murder and the knowledge that society is decomposing rapidly beneath a shiny surface.

Bright might be the head copywriter for online shopping portal Superbalist and a books editor for GQ, but we hope she spares time in her schedule to put pen to paper again.

She has captured a Cape Town we are increasingly getting to speak about openly, even if we’ve always known about it.

A sparkling city by the sea – divided between white and black, the haves and have-nots, the glamorous and the subaltern.

It’s the kind of metacritical writing we need more of in South Africa, especially from white writers.

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