The dead do tell tales

Megan Voysey-Braig’s fascinating debut novel Till We Can Keep an Animal (Jacana) was awarded the European Union Literary Award last year.

It is the story of Susan, a woman in her fifties who is raped, then shot and killed by robbers in Cape Town.

Susan relates the story of her death as a kind of omniscient narrator. When she is killed she doesn’t go wherever it is dead people go.
Instead, she hovers in the world between ours and the next, eavesdropping on the conversations of the living, reminiscing about her life. We, as readers, share in these reminiscences. In a deft way the narrative defies the cliché that dead people don’t tell tales.

She is understandably furious about her death: “I am dead and I shouldn’t be.” It’s not only Susan’s story; the book features several other women. In different ways they have had “experiences” in the male world. Raped, repressed and bruised, these women are trying to find their world in the world. They want to heal and to treat the singed hearts of ruthless men.

Voysey-Braig’s book is full of strong women, women who question men in a misogynistic world. Susan describes losing virginity as “losing the skin from the hole, where all hell finds its way in”. It is an image of devastating effect, because before she is shot, one of the robbers shoves a gun up her vagina. In a movie this is the kind of scene that could make one puke: the gun, both as a phallic symbol and as an instrument of death, in the most intimate, personal and potent of female spaces.

The story is credible. Mostly. But I wondered why the ethereal narrator insisted on using human modes of transport. Susan uses taxis and cars to get around. Aren’t ghosts supposed to be able to just fly off? She even feels hunger “as I never got to eat that dinner with my husband”.

Then there are the coincidences that stretch credibility.

On one of her journeys she happens to go to a coffee shop where people happen to be talking about the paranormal. “What if someone, or freakier still, something is observing what we do down here —?” Susan’s daughter Imogen, while on a field research trip, visits the Cape Flats and, fortuitously, happens to talk to one of her mother’s killers.

Apart from this, the first part of the novel is thoroughly enjoyable. I felt it became a bit unwieldy when other tales in the second half were introduced and I got the feeling that one dead life is being used as a pretext to dig up the lives of those who have gone. Some of the tales are touching, really moving, but they don’t quite feel intrinsic to Susan’s story.

Voysey-Braig must be commended for trying to locate South Africa’s crime in a social prism. As a friend once said, crime didn’t fly from space; it was bred by South Africa’s peculiar history. “It’s in the history, I guess. We aren’t coming from the meekest of places into a democracy,” a character in the book says. Yet another character says: “The slaves [are] turning on themselves, becoming accustomed to the atrocities they have to endure, mirroring their master’s inhumane behaviour.” But sometimes I felt this sociology of crime got in the way of the narrative.

Voysey-Braig’s subtlety has to be applauded and in many ways the narrative is driven inch by inch by the controlled authorial voice. There isn’t any wailing and at critical moments of the story, drama is far away, things are stated sotto voce. Talking about her death, for instance, Susan says: “We go when we go and that is all there is to it.” She tells us “dying was nauseating too, like being on a hurtling roller coaster — As if you were travelling so fast out of yourself and not knowing where you headed.”

The story’s narrative poise and control means we are composed about many things that could possibly enrage us, sending us into tantrums. But we don’t come out emotionless; Voysey-Braig is much too ruthless to let us go off easily; we feel a kind of a slow-burning, consuming rage at crime, the single biggest blight on South Africa’s exemplary democracy.

Till We Can Keep an Animal is not exactly an easy book to read, both in terms of its narrative structure and its subject. Perhaps it is worth the trouble, for forging a nation from disparate groups and interests is never easy.

Percy Zvomuya

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