Wave forms

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.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

A woman of intrigue

Remembered most, perhaps, for her stormy affair with the artist Modigliani, Beatrice Hastings is "A treasure house … researched with true scholarly passion." Shirley Kossick looks at an analysis of a distinctive literary talent.

An adventurous life

A tribute to a mother's influence, Kate Turkington's <i>Doing it with Doris</i> is a collection of tales about the journeys, adventures and encounters inspired by inspired by her mother's philosophy of "make it happen". Shirley Kossick takes an armchair trip.

Fragments of a life best forgotten

Trezza Azzopardi's first book, <i>The Hiding Place</i>, was shortlisted for the 2000 Booker Prize and is a first-person account of a Maltese child growing up in Tiger Bay, Cardiff. In her second novel, <i>Remember Me</i>, the heroine — also a first-person narrator — is again something of an outsider. Shirley Kossick reviews.

Postcards of the past

These 12 stories were originally published in Toronto during Rayda Jacobs's 27-year exile from her own country (<i>The Middle Children</i>, 1994). As she mentions in the acknowledgements, they are "of especial significance because they are 'fledgling stories' — stories written while I was living in Canada, longing for home". Shirley Kossick reviews her latest collection of short stories.

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday