Souvenir — Jane Rosenthal’s second novel for adults — is set in the Karoo in the late 21st-century, but it is not really science fiction in the usual sense. The author describes it as “more like an historical novel in that it is set in a different time from ours, but does not deal with a vastly different reality”.
And indeed, although human clones are commonplace and the effects of global warming are widely evident, Rosenthal’s vision of the future is both plausible and in many ways recognisable. Her central character, Souvenir, known as Souvie, is a “barbiclone”. To escape the stigma attached to this species she opts for the solitary occupation of service mechanic for wind machines.
This job takes her to far-flung farms where the isolation she experiences and the work she does is reminiscent of Annie Proulx’s windmiller in That Old Ace in the Hole.
One of the strengths of Souvenir is Rosenthal’s powerful feeling for place. This was manifest, too, in her earlier Uncertain Consolations and is here an even more vital element in a work so intimately concerned with the ecological.
Among the most striking descriptions are the devastating storms caused by fragmenting icebergs and the tidal waves that relentlessly devour and reshape the coastline.
One such tidal surge strikes the Vasselot casino where guests actually take wagers on the weather’s behaviour: “The water swirled, ugly and indifferent, below the stripped beam remnants of the casino decks, a roiling silvery shambles of deep sea creatures, deck furniture, whole tree tops. Spray flew inland and fell, a salty stinging shower over the Hostelry, the military vehicles, the dirigibles …
“The backwash took with it the old, dying yellowwoods and everything else — the injured and dead wave watchers, monkey ropes, the suspension bridges, palm trees, pumps, crabs, fish, otters — sucking them far beyond the Notice Rock and the Dune Dyke and out to sea.”
This descriptive intensity characterises the novel as a whole both in Souvie’s story and in the diary of Aunt Jem, which she treasures and repeatedly reads. The two narratives form a fascinating counterpoint as Souvie retraces her aunt’s travels over a much-altered landscape.
Through this device the past and the present are skilfully juxtaposed and the destruction by fire of Jem’s farmhouse forms a violent parallel with the ferocity of the tidal wave: “It entered our house, like all our visitors, through the veranda. Preceded by dense, billowing, suffocating smoke, sparks from the tall flaming protea bushes flew across the lawn into the sheltered inner veranda where the old couches, the kaross on the floor and the chairs were soon ablaze and setting fire to the bedroom wall. The bedroom windows burst inwards, flames raging across the beds. From there it rushed rudely through the door to the bathroom, the back bedroom, the linen cupboard and the lounge, and soon it burned through the interior wooden walls into the old kitchen …”
Besides her descriptive acumen Rosenthal has an excellent ear for dialogue and her characterisation has the knack of subverting stereotypes. This is most striking in Obed Will, the handsome and stately Nigerian with whom Souvie falls in love.
As a lepidopterist much concerned with conservation, Obed stands at the moral hub of the book. In the case of Souvie, who as a clone is quite literally a stereotype, Rosenthal ironically affords her the space to develop her individuality making her the endearing heroine of this imaginative and, in the light of recent events, prophetic novel.