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Old Jo’burg glitters with gritty detail

Craig Higginson has won the University of ­Johannesburg (UJ) Prize for his historical novel The ­Landscape Painter ­(Picador Africa, 2011). One half of this engrossing novel is set in post-war Britain; the other half is a series of narratives set in gold-fever Johannesburg and Boer War Natal.

The central figure is the painter of the book’s title, Arthur Bailey, whom we first meet as a reclusive elderly man eking out an existence as an artist in straitened England in the 1940s. A young girl’s moving into an adjoining room in the boarding house in which he lives sets off a string of painful memories about the great love affair of his life and these form the substance of the novel.

Bailey is transfixed by best friend Christian Hamilton’s ravishing sister ­Carwyn, whom he meets in London and is, accordingly, inspired to follow the Hamilton family out to South Africa. This well-to-do family has numerous dark sides — the least of these being their exploitation of the underclasses drawn to the city of gold.

Higginson’s evocation of boomtown Johannesburg is a model of meticulous detail and reminds the reader, somewhat depressingly, that although the scale of the city has expanded beyond recognition in the past 100 years, its yawning socio-economic disparities have not. The shantytowns that surrounded the early mines immediately south of old Jo’burg have merely mushroomed and been relocated further out of the city, taking their social problems and inherent inequities with them.

At the same time, however, there is a rude vitality in Higginson’s depiction of it and it is exhilarating to revisit in the imagination a time when South Africa was central to imperial attention.

The alternating narratives (post-war London, fin-de-siècle Jo’burg) develop a strong interest of their own, which is one of Higginson’s many achievements: all too often a novel with this kind of architecture has a glittering front room full of interest and fascination and a dull back room to which the writer remorselessly drags the unwilling reader at intervals. Here no such thing occurs; indeed, I would be hard-pressed to plump for my favourite narrative thread.

Dark secrets

Another of Higginson’s achievements is to create, with great subtlety and skill, an atmosphere of foreboding that builds incrementally until the shock revelation that is at the dark centre of the novel. It is his uncovering of this dark secret that prompts Bailey to return to London, bitter, disillusioned and cut off from society. The following passage renders, in Higginson’s pared-down, pellucid style, his aimless trudging on Christmas Day and captures the person he has become:

“I go out, wandering my usual paths. But there’s nothing out there either. Not a kind word. Not a hand raised in greeting. Not even a nod. I suppose it’s easy to recognise an outcast. Even children with no knowledge of the world recognise me. I’m not one of those men a child would grab onto, forgetting for the moment that I’m not its parent. A force-field of shame and longing is always around me.”

The parts dealing with the early phases of the Boer War in the midlands of Natal are particularly absorbing. Bailey and a fellow journalist set off to cover the war and find themselves ineluctably drawn into it as unlikely participants. The Spion Kop debacle is the centrepiece of this section of the novel and the random brutality of war, as well as its chaotic muddlement, is chillingly and convincingly captured.

A tragic sense of loss pervades The Landscape Painter, but there is also an attractive richness to the novel. The missed opportunities Arthur Bailey is haunted by are compensated for by his hard-won insights into life’s vagaries and, having once gone for the big prize, he is content ultimately to settle for small compensations. “There’s a kingfisher  … that visits me as I drink my coffee and munch on a baguette. Each time it appears, I’m amazed once again by the wonder of it. As the light fades around me, I contemplate this busy, sparkling creature — so far away from me — and find that this evidence of life and this passing companionship can suffice.”

Consummate debut

Terry Westby-Nunn takes the university’s Debut Prize for her mesmerising novel, The Sea of Wise Insects (Jacana, 2011). Given the wave of crime fiction washing over the country, very much like crime itself, it takes an unusual and compelling novel to take the genre in a new direction.

For The Sea of Wise Insects is crime fiction in the broad sense only. It does indeed deal with crime, but is at heart more a meditation on human relationships — and, more particularly, on how unfathomable and complex they can be.

The life of accident-prone Alice Wolfe is seen through two main prisms: Cape Town, in the narrative present tense of the novel, which centres on an accident in which her sister-in-law-to-be is killed, and an earlier spell in London, where she worked as a housekeeper in a seedy hotel. Alice is indeed in wonderland, but it is a vertiginous fantasyland in which things not only are not what they seem to be, but indeed take on the hard-edged substance of nightmares. Alice meets Ralph at the hotel in London and he follows her back to South Africa, all the while writing a hardboiled novel that gives the novel in which it is embedded its name.

If there is a single notion at the heart of this dark novel, it is betrayal. Alice is betrayed by her father, who suddenly disappears from her life forever and is reduced to a thin voice at the end of payphone lines from the Karoo, where he works peripatetically. She is betrayed by her brother, for whom she covers up when the car accident in which Veronica is killed is investigated by the police.

And she is betrayed by Ralph, who not only discards her without warning, but also leaves in his wake the manuscript of a novel (The Sea of Wise Insects) that reveals that he has cynically been using Alice as ­inspiration.

The final betrayal, however, is the revelation contained in his manuscript that her very conception was the consequence of violence, something that casts a ghastly yet explanatory pall over her profoundly dysfunctional family.

Zany, richly textured and bizarrely believable, Westby-Nunn’s novel prompts the reader to think afresh about what it is to commit a crime against another human being. The three-part narrative structure of The Sea of Wise Insects is inspired. A ­consummate debut.

Craig MacKenzie is English professor at the University of Johannesburg and a UJ prize panellist

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