October by Zoë Wicomb

26/06/14, New Statesman

South African writer Zoë Wicomb, a major pillar of international writing and winner of the inaugural Windham-Campbell Award, along with James Salter and Tom McCarthy, was born in Namaqualand (erstwhile Cape Province) but has lived in the UK since the 1970s. She is the author of two crucial postcolonial novels, David’s Story (2000) and Playing in the Light (2006), that look at apartheid and its legacies and racial identity in complex, rigorous, profound and unexpected ways. Her subject position as a ‘coloured’ (mixed race) writer, inhabiting the middle rung of South Africa’s racial hierarchy of whites-coloureds-blacks, alone brings a welcome complication and truthfulness to a problem usually seen simplistically as black-and-white. October, her latest, revisits similar themes of homemaking, exile, return and race with the kind of consistency and unity of vision that one finds in, say, the films of Eric Rohmer or Theo Angelopoulos – it is a vertical enquiry, exploring depths, rather than a horizontal spread of variety.

The story of October is slender but to read it for story would be a misreading: Wicomb has never written the kind of plot-driven storybook that seems to hold such sway in the Anglophone world. Mercia Murray, a coloured South African academic in her fifties, living in Glasgow, is left by her Scottish partner, Craig, for a much younger woman. Partly in response to a despairing letter from her brother, Jake, and partly in an attempt to heal the wound of abandonment, Mercia returns to her childhood home in Kliprand in Western Cape, to discover Jake sunk deep in alcoholism, possibly beyond all help. He has a son, Nicky, who is five years old, with Sylvie, a young woman who is an intriguing combination of strength and subservience. Mercia seems to think that she has been summoned by Jake to adopt the child and take him away to Glasgow but days go by and Jake lies in a stupor in his dark, foetid room, refusing to emerge or talk. Mercia, alienated from the culture and people of her native country, her first home, makes strenuous efforts to build a bridge with long-suffering Sylvie – class complicates matters here for Sylvie is far down the social ladder from the Murrays – and, more easily and beguilingly, with the little boy.

In the sutures of the days (and also of the narrative), Wicomb deftly inserts the past: the childhood of Mercia and Jake; of Sylvie; and the history of Nicholas Murray, Mercia and Jake’s martinet father. It is a feat of compression and layering. We learn of the vicious physical abuse Jake was subjected to by his father, a pastor-turned-schoolteacher, who ‘cultivated a necessary distance, an unbelonging’ from the ‘pitch-black Africans’, so that ‘the distant memory of European blood could be kept alive.’ Jake is a man broken by childhood abuse and, in later life, by an even more heinous act on the part of his father.

Wicomb deploys an American writer to open up a conversation about the concept and experience of home; the writer in question being Marilynne Robinson and the novel, Home (2008), a book about siblings returning to the place of their birth. The use of Robinson is overt – a passage is quoted as an epigraph to October; Mercia reads Home, and meditates on the book, throughout Wicomb’s own novel – but it also has another, perhaps unintended, consequence. By locating her enquiry on the problematics of authenticity, belonging and unbelonging to a continent other than North America, amongst a different set of people inhabiting different historical conditions, Wicomb makes readers confront much more complex and intransigent questions of home and exile than offered by the dominant model in the Anglophone literary world, the US Immigrant Experience, which seems to have marginalised all other kinds of stories of exile and homemaking and other contexts for posing resonant questions about home.

Reading October is to realise that novels can often cohere through a set of glittering metaphorical underpinnings. The title, of course, provides a binding metaphor: a month of new beginnings and renewals in Mercia’s native South Africa but one that spells a shutting down in her adoptive, exilic one. There is a brilliant section in which Mercia and Craig travel to the Pots of Gartness on Endrick Water in Killearn to see salmons leaping, ‘a journey that must end where it started’. Another theme of Nature versus Nurture/Culture is woven through the beautifully evoked pastoral sections that intermittently mark the novel. All these recurring metaphors deepen Wicomb’s great questions: Where does one belong, the place where one started out, or a different one that one has chosen? What does belonging mean, anyway? What does one bequeath to the next generation? Reading this novel is an experience akin to listening to subtly and rigorously structured music. The book is dense with the details and textures of everyday life, not least in its attentiveness to nature and the seasons: Wicomb writes as stunningly about ‘the burnt-red summer bracken snuggling up to the purple haze of heather’ of Scotland as she does about the purple explosion of vygies after the rains in Western Cape. October confirms her as one of the most intelligent writers of our times.