The Tin Church
by Rosamund Haden
Rosamund Haden is another of the talented young South African writers who has emerged with flying colours from the University of Cape Town’s creative writing MA course. Though she has published several children’s books and short stories, The Tin Church is her first adult novel.
The church of the title refers to an old disused corrugated-iron structure on the farm Hebron, which belongs to the King family.
Haden succeeds admirably in conveying the mystical, almost magical aura surrounding the church that comes to mean so much to eight-year-old Catherine King and her close friend Maria Dlamini. It is here that the two girls exchange vows of eternal friendship and here that, many years later, a young man, Hendrik, from a neighbouring farm can still feel their presence.
Haden has constructed her moving and perceptive novel on three time levels: the first refers to the carefree childhood of Catherine and Maria, untroubled by fears for the future and indifferent to the colour bar that prohibits cross-cultural intimacy such as theirs. This idyll is rudely truncated when Catherine is whisked away to England by her mother, leaving Maria alone to yearn for her friend’s return while experiencing occasional flashes of insight into Catherine’s life.
The second time level, which forms the main body of the narrative, concerns Catherine’s return to the farm in her late 20s, to find Maria still waiting for her but the farm sold to Tom and Isobel Fyncham after her father’s death.
When we first meet this couple the writer subtly alerts us to something not quite right about them. Isobel looks triumphant on noting the size of the homestead and one remark to Tom strikes a strange note: “Now is not the time to doubt. Not when we’ve come this far.”
From this point the plot becomes more and more compelling, especially when one recalls the novel’s prologue — set in 1990 when Catherine and Maria are both old — and the opening sentence: “A child found the bones.” This third time level is skillfully integrated into the action allowing complex shifts in perspective as the author gradually fills in the story of Catherine’s life and Maria’s loyalty.
Haden writes extremely well and has a special gift for describing place, from the open spaces on the farm to its deep rocky pool, and from the enchantment of the church to the loneliness of the large house.
Her characters are also well delineated and she has moments of affectionate humour as when “a warm gust of wind” snatches up a piece of news: “Gathering speed, it blew up the flight of stone steps and under the huge arched wooden door that had been brought all the way from Holland. It shot over the expanse of carpet and wove between the legs of the grand piano and blew through the door on the far side of the room that led into the inner courtyard around which the house was built. Here it circled the roses and the prickly pear tree and made a lizard run for cover.”