Harrowing story of an African farm

THE LAND WITHIN by Alistair Morgan (Penguin)

South African literature has a long tradition of farm novels, ranging from Olive Schreiner to Marlene van Niekerk by way of many others and the best of them go far beyond extolling the lyric loveliness of the (always contested) landscape and the rural life, digging deep into the lives of people on these farms.

Alistair Morgan's novel does likewise and he combines this with a psychological study, which in his title clearly foregrounds the inner landscape of the mind.

For the most part the story is set on a farm in the vicinity of Graaff ­Reinet and from the outset the reader is given fair warning. The first sentence of the book reads: "He had always associated the farm with the smell of death."

The writing is concise and swift, plain in effect, yet the author lays down image after image describing the actual Karoo farm on which the protagonist, Henry, was raised, but also taking the reader into a corner of Henry's psyche that he has not so much repressed as learned to live with. He rationalises the smell of ­carrion by attributing it to a type of succulent that grows prolifically there, but in other images he describes the gables on the farmhouse as reminiscent of storm clouds and sees the white gravel on the driveway as consisting of tiny bones. Of course, the reader realises that the scene is being skilfully set for some dark event, but nothing can quite prepare one for what has happened and what will occur.

Henry and his very pregnant wife are in the town to see his terminally ill father. At his request, they have to go out to the old farm, sold long since, to see whether the old man might be buried in the family cemetery. This is poignant and potent stuff for South Africans, who have been tussling over the land and the graves of their ancestors for centuries. Morgan deftly includes all this history, but ramps things up ­considerably.

Henry is a clinical psychologist, but his professional consciousness does not immunise him against his own life, his family and his past. He is already in an emotionally charged state, caught between the imminent death of his father and the anticipated birth of his son. The execution of his father's request demands far more from him than he thought it would, because the time he spends on the old farm evokes many memories of his childhood, some of which are beyond traumatic.

Ironically, the most lyrical description is of the farm as seen from the graveyard, which he goes to inspect with the farm's new owner, Kabelo.

"After arriving at the low wrought iron gate to the cemetery, he paused to take in the view of the valley below. The layout of the farm was clear from this vantage point. Down to the left, although not fully visible because of the poplar grove, was the farmhouse. Beyond it was the dam and then the lucerne field. And more."

It is deceptively lovely. After an absence of more than 20 years, Henry finds that the only grave that has been cared for is that of his own brother. He has to think about why and who has brought the ­flowers. This intricately mapped and often profound book ends with these words: "And then, to no one in particular, Henry said: 'I think I am going to need a spade.'"

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.

Jane Rosenthal
Guest Author

Related stories


Subscribers only

How smuggled gold destined for Dubai or Singapore has links...

Three Malagasy citizens were apprehended at OR Tambo International airport, but now the trail is found to connect to France and Mali

How lottery execs received dubious payments through a private company

The National Lottery Commission is being investigated by the SIU for alleged corruption and maladministration, including suspicious payments made to senior NLC employees between 2016 and 2017

More top stories

R2.3bn VBS trial expected to only begin in 2022

The state is expected to request a 16 week-long trial, as delays stymie progress in the saga.

Spy boss tells how agency was used to detain Zuma’s...

Day two of State Security Agency testimony at the Zondo commission birthed more revelations that point to the former head of state and agents breaking the law

Covax will take excess doses of Covid vaccines off the...

The global initiative plans to deliver two billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines to developing nations

Eastern Cape citizens don’t have to visit the labour department...

This measure, aimed at slowing the spread of Covid-19, may shortly be introduced in other regions.

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…