Home and away

2008-09-10 00:00

ZoË Wicomb, currently Professor of English at the University of Strathclyde, Scotland, was born and brought up in Namaqualand. Her début collection of interlinked stories, You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town, first aired by Virago Press in 1987, has recently been republished in South Africa by Umuzi, along with a new collection, The One That Got Away, which features a further 12 more recent short stories.

While the stories in the initial publication might be read individually, it is clear that the 10 pieces make up a whole, in which

the Namaqua protagonist, Frieda Shenton, born into a coloured community and educated in Cape Town in the sixties, becomes increasingly aware of the constrictions of family and the constraints of apartheid. Electing exile abroad, she pursues her interest in literature and her potential as a writer and allows her hair to manifest its natural frizz. After a decade, she returns on a visit, recreated, uncomfortable among former friends and family and confronted by a mother critical of her departure, her looks and her commitment to producing fiction so transparently rooted in fact.

In Wicomb’s new collection, The One That Got Away, the stories are more obviously discrete entities, though the first three have tenuous links and a couple honeymooning in Glasgow are the subject of two pieces. Zoë Wicomb herself might well be described as “the one who got away”, seeking self-exile and self-expression. However, the title story of this collection focuses on a Scottish mystery novel which is disconcertingly discovered in a Cape Town library, among books on gold mining. It has “got away” from its home library, Dennistoun, in Glasgow, and is eventually returned to its original shelf by an inventive prankster, who carries out the injunction on the novel’s lending sheet: “A book must be returned to the library from which it was borrowed.”

While many of Wicomb’s stories focus on relationships, notably between servants and their employers, she also explores the often painful process of adjustment and redefinition that accompanies emigration/exile and highlights the value of the imagination and the writing (and reading) of fiction.

Insightful and intelligent, mesmerising to read, Zoë Wicomb’s stories are an important contribution to South African fiction.

Moira Lovell

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