A tale of the city’s powerless

Nineveh by Henrietta Rose-Innes (Umuzi)

Nineveh is a most original novel; its plot is derived from strange and unlikely material yet, in its understated way, it is relentless and perfect.

The author has prefaced it with a 4?000-year-old lament from Ur, in which “the goddess Ningal weeps for her city”. But the city in this novel is Cape Town and if there is a lament it is embedded in a low-key story that involves ordinary people.

The central image of the novel is the modern urban ziggurat of a residential development called Nineveh; this, and the jewel-like beetle that is associated with its disintegration.

The main character is Katya Grubb — one of Rose-Innes’s little jokes, as Katya is a pest remover, the proprietor and sole employee of a company called Painless Pest Removals. Instead of exterminating mice, cockroaches, plagues of caterpillars or what have you, she removes and relocates them.

When we meet her, she and her nephew, Toby, are dealing with caterpillars: “… it’s a strange sight, this writhing tree: a tree in mortification.” It’s also an offence to the manicured garden in which a party is about to happen, so the caterpillars have to go. Katya, in her “poison toad green, boomslang green” uniform, boots and latex gloves is there to do the job.

She is rather an unusual woman, but it is not her ability to deal with the lower forms of life despised and abominated by polite, organised human society, that makes her so. Only gradually is it revealed what a life she has led, her childhood in which she suffered neglect and what psychologists would call abuse (though Katya does not articulate this) at the hands of her parents, but especially her father.

Beginning to crack
She does recognise the alienating strangeness of her childhood, but she now has her defences well in place and has made a life for herself, with her clients, her cellphone, her van and a rented and furnished house.

She has achieved a degree of stability and sustainability. Her sister, too, has escaped from their father and established a perfectly organised, manicured, safe and secure suburban life. It’s testimony to the resilience of the human spirit that these girls have made it, each in their own way.

However, Katya, tough as she is in some ways, sits very lightly within the template of a “normal” life. Her seemingly secure existence is literally undermined by a developer’s excavation over the road from her house. As her walls begin to crack open and the big job she thought to secure for her future in the Nineveh development turns out to be built on shifting, not to mention wet, sands, she opts for a freer lifestyle.

But this is after we follow her through the first phase of the job at Nineveh.

She is contracted to remove a swarming type of beetle that has infested the pristine, as yet unlived-in, luxury flats. She first sees one of these beetles in the surrounding vlei; she admires its intricate structure, “all coated in the most fantastic blue-green iridescence”. But the swarms are mysteriously absent and in her attempts to find and capture the beetles she gets to know the Congolese and Xhosa security guards, a woman from the nearby informal settlement and a large dog called Soldier.

Immaculately sustained

Also, to her dismay, she discovers her father. A wacky resolution follows, in which the reader grows quite fond of the renegade father, and the developer gets his come-uppance when he is baptised in the smelly swamp waters of reality.

What of Katya? The entire novel is written in the third person, but the author sticks so close to Katya that it might as well be first person. We never hear another person’s view of Katya, or events that have not been seen through Katya’s eyes. This voice is immaculately sustained throughout — wry, humane, modest and an outsider.

Rose-Innes clearly has views on the environment and the interface of the urban and natural worlds.

And she takes the long view, evoking as she does the ancient city of Nineveh, which succumbed to decay and suggests that Cape Town, indeed all our cities, are heading that way. There is some satisfaction in the fate of the Nineveh development for those readers who are outraged by such insensitive money-making schemes that damage so much. The outcome in this book is both fair and ­unexpected.

On a more personal level, Rose-Innes examines, through the Grubb family, notions of normality, the function of family. It put me in mind of Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Housekeeping (1981), in which two girls, abandoned after the suicide of their mother, find themselves cared for by their aunt, Sylvie, a drifter and trainrider, a hobo. Her attempts to settle down to care for them fail abysmally; one sister takes refuge with the respectable matrons of the village, the other joins Sylvie on the trains.

Disempowered and discarded people
In Nineveh, too, the two sisters represent opposite poles of domesticity, with Katya inured to and comfortable only in impermanence and on the fringe, and her sister needing the manicured lawns, electrified fences and neatly nuclear-family suburbia.

This novel chronicles a short time in the small lives of ordinary people, the kind who endure into succeeding generations and outlive the great built cities of the world. It is about the agency and freedom of the seemingly disempowered and discarded people, such as Katya.

Somewhat buffeted herself by society, she has the grace and savvy to marvel at the burgeoning vigour of the young, represented in this novel by Toby, Tasneem his girlfriend (briefly) and Nosisi from the squatter camp. They will survive the demolitions and the developments, inherit the already decaying Nineveh.

When Toby starts to visit his disreputable and newly found grandfather, Katya worries, but Toby does not. She observes: “Really there is no way, no way at all, to discomfort this child.”

This deep novel is full of writerly delights for the delectation of readers: Rose-Innes has shown since her first novel, Shark’s Egg, that she has a very special ability to capture the essences of the city, its views and inhabitants, the light, the small details.

Her first sunset at Nineveh goes like this: “She can hear, rising now on the cool evening air, the sounds of people. The noises are faint but distinct and although she cannot see from her vantage point where they are coming from, she can tell from the quality of the sounds that it is a township or an informal settlement. A radio, a crying child, companionable shouting — not a mix you’d find in the suburbs — When she goes to the edge of the terrace she can see it clearly: a group of maybe 30 shacks standing close together in the bush, balanced precariously between the vlei and the road — She closes her eyes and listens. A densely patterned chorus of frogsong is building beneath the human sounds. “

For the rest of this “fragile symphony,” I must refer you to the novel itself, one of the best to come out this year.

Jane Rosenthal
Guest Author

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