THE DREAM HOUSE by Craig Higginson (Picador Africa)
This novel comes to us with blessings from beyond the beyond; the late writers Nadine Gordimer and André Brink have been quoted on the cover. One has to wonder whether this was necessary for the author of the memorable and interesting Last Summer (2010) and the award-winning The Landscape Painter (2011), who is also an esteemed theatre director and playwright. And it does present reviewers with a problem as it would seem foolhardy and unwise to dispute with these eminences.
Nevertheless, rushing in here, I found The Dream House to be a great disappointment. It is set on a farm in KwaZulu-Natal where an elderly couple are spending their last night in their farmhouse. Developers have already bulldozed the dairy and the pastures, destroyed the farm roads with heavy machinery.
The narration rotates through the consciousness of five characters, all in the third-person, authorial voice. These five are the old whiteys, Patricia and Richard; their faithful chauffeur and man-of-all-work, Bheki; domestic worker-cum-carer Beauty; and Looksmart – born on the farm and specially favoured by Patricia, who has seen to it that he went to a proper school – who returns after a long absence.
Perhaps the best realised of these inner worlds is Richard’s – aged, weak, unhinged, not always sure where he is, nor indeed whether he is still alive or in some unrecognisable afterlife. But he’s still the colonial master, as yet unchallenged, in spite of the terrible things he has done. Now and then his mind clears and he reverts to form.
Patricia is central to the farm and the novel. Similarly disintegrating, she is only now, at this last minute, beginning to realise how blind and inadequate she has been for decades. These two miserable old people, pickled in impunity and ignorance, unaware that they are specimens of a past era, are partly why I found this such an unbearable read. One keeps expecting something terrible to happen to them, some retribution, perhaps fully deserved.
On their last night on the farm, Looksmart, long since a successful businessman in Johannesburg, returns to visit Patricia. He enters the house without knocking, and she hears someone walking down the passage. “There is a readiness in her that has been learned over time that protects her from anything resembling fear. She almost has an appetite for it, this confrontation with a man with no face, who steps into her house uninvited, makes himself at home and decides on ways of taking back from her.” This is the start of Looksmart and Patricia’s interaction that night.
However, it soon devolves into an unconvincing conversation, in which Looksmart seems oddly distant, given that he was her companion and favourite, and it is also unlikely that she would not recognise him. This scene is further undermined when he uses turns of phrase that echo Patricia’s speech patterns and mind-set. In one example he says, “That doesn’t sound very jolly.” One might, at a stretch, think he is mocking her, but as this is his first interaction in the novel, this is far from clear.
And nor is this inconsistency of register and dialect confined to Looksmart. Beauty, who has not had the benefit of a proper school, and who has hardly left the farm, can say: “Yebo, Mesis. And I know Bheki can find him soon” as well as “I was about to do the cleaning with the hosepipe …”. Higginson knows that people adopt different registers of speech for different situations, but perhaps his play-writing has affected dialogue here, since in a novel there is no actor’s voice, dialect and interpretation, and no visuals, to help create the character. In a novel it’s all in the nuances of the written word.
Although Bheki and Beauty are less well developed as characters than the two old horrors, Higginson has at least given us a realistically multiracial set of characters, whereas some current novelists write as though other races do not exist in South Africa.
He goes so far as to incorporate a lot of untranslated isiZulu, which serves to emphasise the daily reality of most white South Africans who have no understanding of any other languages apart from English and Afrikaans, yet coast along on their wealth and previous advantage.
Gordimer said of Looksmart that he “is a welcome new kind of character in the constantly evolving reality of African literature”. Though one cannot be sure from this short quotation what she meant exactly, it is true that there have been similar characters in recent years. Agaat, in Marlene van Niekerk’s novel of the same name (published in English in 2007, Tafelberg/Jonathan Ball), turns the tables on her benefactress, adoptive mother and employer when she becomes old, ill and dependent. And at the same time Agaat takes over the running of the farm. More recently in The Land Within by Alistair Morgan (Penguin, 2012), Kabelo is the owner of a guest farm in the Karoo and has to contend with previous owners, resurrected history and unfinished business.
The South African plaasroman (farm novel) is transforming as the ownership of land transforms. Inequalities and power work differently now when it comes to race. It is not a great surprise to discover that Looksmart works for the developer. But it is quite fun to find that they plan to replicate, in a gated community, that very farmhouse with its lovely verandah – the dream house of colonial times, now available more widely, if not exactly, for “the people”.
Higginson deals with white guilt and seeming impunity, as well as with the anger even, or especially, of those like Looksmart who were the beneficiaries of special treatment. It’s an endlessly interesting matter – and this novel ends fairly unexpectedly. But I found it difficult to take seriously because the characters tend to be stereotypes: Patricia and Richard are without any redeeming features, Bheki and Beauty fail to emerge with any solidity, and even Looksmart, whose very name seems faintly derisive, is put through his paces like one of Patricia’s ponies.
This story has also been told in the form of a radio play and has some horrific scenes in which Rottweiler dogs play a part, used and dispensed with as proxy perpetrators and also as victims of that tough-mindedness shown in Patricia who, it seems, is perfectly capable of leaving the past “without a backward glance”.
In his article in the Sunday Independent on current South African writing, Higginson raised the crucial matter of for whom a writer is writing. Few of Patricia and Richard’s generation (of any race) will read or benefit from this novel. For younger readers it presents an oversimplified and quite sensational view of white guilt. And Looksmart, unlike Agaat and Kabelo, does not grasp his new power and position with confidence; his relationship to the past and the future is too ill-defined and insufficiently described. The novel leaves one feeling dissatisfied – not only as a result of too high an expectation.