Back on form

Pamela Jooste’s first novel, Dance with a Poor Man’s Daughter (1997), dealt tellingly with the tribulations and resilience of a Cape coloured community. This award-winning novel was followed by Frieda and Min (1998) and Like Water in Wild Places (2000), both of which were well received but somehow failed to touch the heights achieved by Dance with a Poor Man’s Daughter.With People Like Ourselves (Doubleday), however, Jooste is back on top form and deals with a subject she knows and articulates well. This is the tenor of post-apartheid South Africa — the “New South Africa” some years into the fledgling democracy.Central to the novel is Julia Merchant, an apparently spoilt white woman whose privileges are narrowing as her marriage unravels.
But though Julia has all the faults and self-delusions of her class, Jooste succeeds in eliciting our sympathy for this woman whose daughter has rejected her (and we can see why) and whose husband’s young mistress “is trying on Julia’s life for size”.Writing entirely in the present tense, a risky device, Jooste gives great immediacy to the action that, though it involves a limited cast of characters, becomes emblematic of many aspects of the South African present. The portrait of Douglas Merchant’s ex-wife Rosalie, for instance, exiled in London and suffering a terrible mental breakdown, is a powerful achievement. It is only gradually that we come to realise what has led to Rosalie’s lonely disintegration all these years later.In ways like this — but never directly or diagrammatically — Jooste sketches in the drama of the past whose legacy is far from extinct. This is evident particularly in the persons of the Merchants’ servants and their families. Adelaide is the housemaid whose granddaughter, Tula (a particularly well-drawn and poignant portrayal of childhood longing), is allowed to stay in her room on sufferance. Gladstone, Mr Merchant’s retainer, is old now and lives with his daughter in Soweto where he “has a Wendy house of his own”. The daughters of Adelaide and Gladstone bitterly resent their parent’s subservient attitudes, which neither can shake off.Around these characters Jooste builds two subplots, both of which lend considerable tension to the narrative. In counterpoint is Julia’s rich and devoted friend Caroline, whose comfortable life has lost all purpose since her husband’s accident has reduced him to a vegetative state. Jooste winds all these and other strands into a compelling whole informed by moments of humour and great compassion.Dealing as she does with a world she knows and understands, her insights are often sharp, amusing and vividly expressed. A bad marriage, for instance, is likened to “sitting in a bath waiting while the water gets cooler and cooler, but sitting there anyway because you know how cold it’s going to be when you eventually decide it’s time to get out”. A mother “keeps her mouth shut but even so has no trouble at all making her opinions known”; an “exclamation mark of a woman” watches “to see where the next kilojoule might be coming from”, and cats perch “like tea-cosies on windowsills”.This is a colourful, knowing and accomplished work with some penetrating observations about “the way we live now”.

This is an edited version of Shirley Kossick’s address at the Cape Town launch of People Like Ourselves.

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