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Telling strokes

Lally, a young South African woman, called Laetitia in London, gets in touch with an old childhood friend, Pim (now called Edgar). At roughly the same time she is contacted by a Xhosa woman and the truth commission in South Africa. Penny lays the images of her unease in London in telling strokes: for example, their old names are no longer the names they use, and the magnolia trees have “indelicate” petals. Cacti in a tiny front garden are “adapting reluctantly to their waterlogged conditions”; Pim’s house is in an area considered fashionable by people who do not use the word “fashionable,” and his front door opens with difficulty over a “resistant tongue of carpet.” And so it goes on. Lally is constantly aware of being other, isolated, which is pretty much what she chooses to be.

Swinging between her childhood in the Eastern Cape (Xhosa/ 1820 Settler country), the narrative shows us Lally sent to boarding school at a tender age, growing up in an institution that she examines in some detail, and a regular visitor on Pim’s family farm because her family are too remote to reach for short holidays. Estranged from her parents, she goes to London after matric, and her mother sadly notes that “the time for mothering is past without having been comprehensively entered into”.

The damage done by boarding schools has been examined by other novelists, such as Marguerite Poland in Iron Love and Mark Behr in Embrace, but Penny shows in chilling detail how the dominant political and social ethos of the 1970s and 1980s was manifested in such schools, especially through the prefect system and cadets.

Lally, who resists the straitjacketing of her thinking, becomes pathologically isolated and withdrawn as well as anorexic. She is rescued from suicidal depression by inadvertently witnessing someone worse off than herself — Sipho, teenage son of one of the cleaning “siesies” at the school, is hiding out on the school grounds from the security police. The letters she receives in London years later are from his mother and the truth commission concerning what happened to him at the hands of some of the prefects and the police.

The significance of the title is not as simple as it seems; at first glance it would seem that clearly the “beneficiaries” are all those white South Africans who benefited directly or indirectly from the apartheid system. Penny certainly trashes them pretty thoroughly — in fact a little too enthusiastically for those of us who are concerned that the creation and perpetuation of this new scapegoat-stereotype is both damaging to a more subtle perception of reality in South Africa, and nauseatingly opportunistic (it sells). (Not only are there no apartheid supporters to be found nowadays in South Africa, but every British citizen was an anti-apartheid activist).

Although she does balance this view of South Africans in London with some amusing portraits of the bona fide English — she describes a Londoner’s walk as a “confined Northern trot” — she also makes it pretty clear that many so-called beneficiaries are both uprooted and “blighted”, a term Lally uses to describe herself, not with self-pity but with cold, clear honesty.

Many South Africans who have been through the boarding school mill may question Penny’s provocative version of it, especially as the uncompromisingly straight Lally is not that easy to identify with, and pretty hard on herself too. Ultimately she finds a way to resolve her anger and the ending is unexpected and hopeful, as well as deeply thought-provoking for those engaged in another theme of this book, the to-emigrate-or-not question.

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