Memory and loss

Red Dust by Gillian Slovo (Virago)

What was it about South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that so captured collective imaginations far beyond South Africa?

Previous similar exercises, in Uganda and Argentina, for instance, produced no such worldwide echo. But South Africa’s transformation at the end of apartheid became everyone’s favourite fairy tale, with Nelson Mandela as the fairy godfather and the TRC as the magic wand that could right the wrongs of the past.

Close up, the TRC was less a fairy tale than a nightmare, as Gillian Slovo’s Red Dust memorably reveals.
The truth is elusive, reconciliation rare, and the natural hunger for justice unassuaged. Only fiction could tell this story in all its ambiguity. This is a beautifully written novel, with the pace and twists of a thriller and the atmosphere, scents and space of Africa.

Slovo explores her themes of betrayal, collusion, the settling of scores and the elusiveness of memory through the eyes of five characters; the result is a constant shift in the reader’s perception of both character and truth. Slovo uses the device of the outsider returning to a small world left long ago for the opportunity and anonymity of the United States.

Sarah Barcant is a successful New York prosecutor; Smitsrivier is provincial South Africa in microcosm. She comes back at the request of her one-time mentor, Ben Hoffman, the town’s flamboyant liberal lawyer. Ben is slowly dying and needs her help with one last case finding the body of Steve Sizela, son of the town’s respected headmaster.

Steve’s friend Alex Mpondo also comes back for the TRC; like Sarah, he is tugged by a web of obligation from the past. Now an MP, he is to be the key witness at a TRC hearing. But Alex has survived by forgetting, and, like his old enemies, does not want to change.

At the heart of this compelling novel is the painful revelation that there is never going to be a truth that these contradictory, fascinating characters can all recognise. Unspoken, ambiguous ties of loyalty and betrayal stain each one of them.

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