/ 6 November 2007

The ties that bind

In the opening paragraph of Alice Sebold’s The Almost Moon (Picador), the narrator Helen Knightly sets the searing tone for the rest of the novel by telling the reader: “When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily. Dementia as it descends, has a way of revealing the core of the person affected by it. My mother’s core was rotten like the brackish water at the bottom of a weeks-old vase of flowers.”

The rest of the novel, set over 24 hours, leaves little to the imagination as Sebold employs graphic, hard-­hitting language to explore the strained relationship between a daughter and her mentally ill mother and how the seeds of this acrimony spill over into all areas of Knightly’s life. The book is an exploration into the ties that bind mothers and daughters and how, even after death, a mother can still have a controlling influence over her child. It is also an interrogation into the nebulous line between love and hate.

As the reader is assaulted with graphic descriptions of the mother’s death — the sickening crunch of nose cartilage as Knightly smothers her mother beneath a sausage of blanket she has wrapped her in is an image that is impossible to shake — the reader is taken through a series of flashbacks that should engender empathy for the narrator who has clearly endured a life of emotional abuse and alienation.

Oddly enough though, Sebold’s uncompromising scene-setting makes it impossible to muster an iota of sympathy. Take this scene in which Knightly gives her mother a sponge bath by way of example: “I lifted her arms and cleaned the hairless armpits. I swept the sponge over the cap of her shoulders as I lowered her arms back down. I took my free hand and placed it under the drifting solitary bosom. What once was part of the glory she carried was now a lonely sack with the weight of feathers packed in the droopy corner of an old pillow. A surge of lust shot through me as I held it, as pure as an infant’s appetite.”

The Almost Moon is harrowing but, without doubt, the most power­ful book I have read in years. The reader is bounced between a clinical indifference and heart-rending drama of unexamined lives that are only half lived.

Afrikaans fiction

Polaroid (Tafelberg) by Tom Dreyer is a collection of short stories about ordinary people that “for deep personal reasons need to believe in miracles”.

In these well-written stories, Dreyer brings to life characters on the periphery of society: people who call their caravans home, dodgy salesmen with flashy cars, hairdressers and factory workers.

Meet Eddie, Mr Lucky Strikes who convinces an entire plattelandse dorp that his tried-and-tested “Fire Drops” is the perfect solution to the soaring petrol price. Simply add a few drops to water and never pay for petrol again!

Ryk, an outsider hostel boy, sees through Eddie’s farce, but admires his ability to sell the mystery and keep the power balance in his favour. And when Ryk questions Eddie on the credibility of his product, Eddie replies: “Nothing is impossible.”

Then there is Reep, the caravan inhabitant whose sole cause in life is to save chameleons from being crushed by the machinery used on wine farms. He believes he can make a difference and uses the little things at his disposal to do so.

In “Portapool” Phil and his friend Jack erect a portable swimming pool in Phil’s back yard. He sacrifices his self-made golf course, but at least his daughter will be happy. Or that was the idea.

But in suburbia things often don’t turn out the way they were intended and the two beer-drinking men eventually land up in the portapool themselves, where Phil for a moment escapes to a place where everything is still “cool, bright and light”.

Dreyer successfully uses suggestion in his writing and a number of the stories are open for interpretation.

Polaroid is Dreyer’s fourth published work. He is also the author of three novels, including Stinkafrikaners, which won the Eugène Marais prize for literature. His latest title strengthens and broadens the repertoire of one of the most exciting writers in Afrikaans.

Adriaan Basson