The Last Summer
by Craig Higginson (Picador Africa)
This is a very pleasing novel; for all its apparent artlessness, conveyed mainly by the modest and self-effacing narrator, Thomas Firth, it remains in the mind long after one has put it down.
Thomas tells the story of the previous summer, which he spent in Stratford-upon-Avon as assistant director in a production of The Tempest. He has fallen in love with the actress, Lucy, who is in the role of Miranda. She, however, has various other entanglements that Thomas observes and even facilitates. He is sharing digs for the season with Lucy and two others in a cottage overlooking the chain ferry over the river and it is this river that somehow binds the novel in a subliminal way. It is beautiful, gentle and ever-present, but also has many mysterious depths and solitary stretches, unknown to those who think they know it.
Thomas lets the reader know that the novel is really about the people who might be regarded as “someone”, that is to say, the theatre people. Looking around on the river bank for a person who might be a possible new lover of Lucy’s he says: “There was no one. Only the ferry operator ...” And, at another stage, he says of himself that, as he had only ever lived with his mother, he had no idea what it was like to share his life with someone.
Deliberate or inadvertent as this may be, the characters exist in a bubble of the narrator’s choosing, an island reflecting the one in The Tempest, or of the coterie of theatre people, or of Stratford itself. But novels do this: they create and define a world. What makes the reader here more aware of it is the remote tone of the narrator and the fact that this is a story alongside a play within the theatre world.
At times Thomas is very direct in ascribing roles, for example in the case of Harry Greenberg, who directs The Tempest. A doyen of the theatre, he is revered and loved by his actors and co-workers. His cottage is seen as Prospero’s cave and Harry as a “diminished” Prospero whose “powers, and indeed his health, were failing”. He is a South African who has lived 30 years in exile, but still has strong ties to his home country.
Questions of the immigrant life arise in connection with Harry, who is said to have “abandoned the path life that only he could have taken and taken someone else’s instead”. The real theatre people, of whom Higginson is one, will know to what extent this character is based on Barney Simon, to whom the novel is dedicated.
Central to the novel, much more so than the self-aware and self-mediating Lucy who makes Thomas’s heart flutter, is the “ferry operator” Kim. He brings himself noticeably into Lucy’s orbit (other than when he anonymously ferried her over the river) when he brings her a bucket of live fish as a present after her opening-night success.
Thomas says: “Kim was everything that someone like me is not. He had an animal innocence and a beauty as firm and blooming and rosy as oh—I don’t know—a peach.” Lucy, who at this stage has a problematic, insecure boyfriend whom she is about to ditch, finds Kim irresistible and “safe”, despite or because of his seeming simplicity.
The main thread of plot concerns this affair and my main criticism of the novel is that it does not go far enough along the road with them. But then, for the purposes of this novel, for this island of “reality”, perhaps it is sufficient.
Harry’s reconciliation with an old lover is the most important additional plot thread, while various other couplings adorn the fringes.
One of the five luminaries whose views appear as shouts on the cover is Leon de Kock, who says: ” ... the elegies of love are sung in measured and ironic tones.” Indeed they are and the point has been made elsewhere that South African writers can write, and are writing about, the everyday experience of people. What can be more common than affairs of the heart?
When it comes to actual body parts, a minor quibble with the novel is that it seems a bit dodgy on medical issues. Certainly heart bypass patients in South Africa cannot take baths shortly after their operation, neither are their wounds visible, being always lightly covered with sterile dressings till they heal. I mention this only to reassure those who might themselves have to have this procedure.
In episodes in the novel Thomas reflects, in somewhat Shakespearean mode, on things such as the nature of violence or foreseeing consequences of our actions. Sometimes these work and sometimes not, such as the comments that follow the death of one of the characters.
But this is a highly readable novel which will also be accessible to those not familiar with its theatrical references. And it is a wonderful evocation of an English summer.