Childless, single, and rootless, a middle-aged woman seeks to make a home in apartheid era South Africa.
Mercia Murray, the protagonist of Zoë Wicomb’s new novel October (The New Press, June 2014), is a woman twice exiled: once from the country of her birth, South Africa, and once from the life she has built for herself in Glasgow, which summarily dissolves when her partner of twenty-five years, Craig, leaves her for a younger woman. This crisis is the opening event of the novel; Mercia and Craig have no children together, ostensibly by mutual agreement. The second crisis of the novel, which comes on page thirteen, is a note from Mercia’s feckless alcoholic brother, Jake, begging her to come home to South Africa and take care of his young son. Thus we know, roughly, what to expect: a story about homecoming, a story about home, a story about belonging, not-belonging, women and children, class and race and education, motherhood and fatherhood.
Zoë Wicomb does deliver on these promises. To begin with, she invites comparison between Mercia and her sister-in-law, Sylvie, whose genealogy is, according to the infinite gradations of snobbery that apartheid created, inferior to the Murrays’ own. Sylvie and Jake have a child, Nicky, whose upbringing is affected by Jake’s alcoholic stupors and violence, and by Sylvie’s limited resources. Mercia’s emotional and intellectual responses to Sylvie comprise one of the most interesting relationships in a book full of the unspoken: “The trick is not to give the woman too many opportunities to air her views”, she thinks, almost the moment she arrives. Later, Sylvie’s fertility and sexuality is placed in opposition to Mercia’s hot flashes (she is fifty-two). Mercia is aware of the complex and ever-present tension: “Everything in her dealings with Sylvie is uncomfortable, creaking with embarrassment. A problem of class, Craig [the ex-partner] had proffered after her last visit, without the benefit of having met the woman, but what did he, a Brit, who had visited the country only once, know about the complexities of rural colored life?”
Perhaps this self-awareness is partly responsible for one of the major shortfalls of the book: the distinct lack of emotional connection between reader and protagonist, or indeed any of the characters. A certain feeling of distance makes sense, of course, given Mercia’s character. We are meant to be unable to connect with her completely. To begin with, she invites comparison between Mercia and her sister-in-law, Sylvie, whose genealogy is, according to the infinite gradations of snobbery that apartheid created, inferior to the Murrays’ own.Wicomb is making a point about a certain type of woman—middle-aged, unconnected, untethered, intellectual—and about the ways in which she flouts our expectations of what women, even middle-aged women, should be. Her usual indifference to children is uneasily challenged by the child, Nicky, but even this is inconclusive; she cares for him, but does she have the feelings of a mother for him? In fact, Mercia asks herself this question, suggesting that if she must analyze the nature of the relationship, it cannot be a replacement for maternal love. But Mercia analyzes everything. It is much too crude to say that Wicomb is arguing that intellectual responses to emotional problems negatively affect women; instead, she hints, obliquely, that intellectual responses to emotional problems are not expected of women, and that for a woman to respond so analytically, so rationally, is often taken as cold, unnatural. Craig, rather pointedly, leaves Mercia for a younger woman (a woman who “screams” in bed, Mercia imagines, a woman who is capable of sexual abandon, emotional openness), and later they have a child together. Wicomb does not force us to read these events in any particular way, but events are presented so as to hint that Craig’s desertion is connected, in some way, to Mercia’s relentless intellectualizing, and the associated lack of sexiness. This is an accusation frequently leveled at clever women, particularly ones of middle age or beyond; look, for example, at the comments made by A.A. Gill (amongst others) about Mary Beard.
Yet the distance which we feel from Mercia, and which we are invited to examine, extends to the other characters as well, and here is where Wicomb may lose some willing readers. Jake, the alcoholic brother, is utterly inscrutable; we really meet him only in flashback, where we learn how their father, Nicholas, spiritually intractable and physically abusive, shadowed his childhood. Nicholas’s ambition, and his bewilderment when his authority is flouted, are rendered perceptively, but coldly, without any animating sympathy. Sylvie is perhaps the most known, or the most knowable. The descriptions of her upbringing, her rebellion, her liveliness, are not difficult to relate to; they feel immediate and real. This is not to say that the other characters are utterly enigmatic—they are all explicable—but the reader cannot feel true understanding for them, because we are kept at arm’s length throughout the novel. There is direct speech, but more often we are given a character’s internal monologue, as when Sylvie watches Mercia:
Christ, the woman will sit there in the doorway soaking up sunlight and say nothing…If that’s what education brings then thank you very much, she would happily do without abc-ing. She too could sit around with books…but what a waste of time that would be, getting yourself all het up like a teenager about people you don’t know…No more than a kind of busybody-ness that passes for being clever.
Those remarks, of course, cause a self-conscious embarrassment in the reader, who is doing precisely that. Yet they also serve as a kind of key to this aspect of the novel. Perhaps reading is a waste of time, and these people—forget that they are not real—have nothing to do with us. Perhaps that is why there always seems to be a veil between them and the reader.
Still, Zoë Wicomb does not seem to believe that people can or should exist in isolation, which is the logical extension of the belief that reading is a form of futile prurience. While Mercia’s intellectualizing tendencies are not made the scapegoats for the breakdown of her personal life, they are not totally absolved either; meaningful connection is difficult for Mercia, The distance which we feel from Mercia, and which we are invited to examine, extends to the other characters as well, and here is where Wicomb may lose some willing readersbut this connection is something which she seeks, not necessarily because thwarted maternal instinct will out, but because connection is an entirely human need. Returning to one’s childhood home might seem a sensible way to begin trying to connect, but this has its own dangers. In a particularly excellent passage about halfway through the book, she recalls going to see the salmon leaping at Gartness, Scotland, with her ex-partner Craig, and this endeavor of leaping is made to represent both the horror and the imperative of returning. “Clever, yes, but how repellent…She for one did not want to see it—the gravel reds murky with spawn and the self-satisfied rumbling of parents, turned into shallow graves where, exhausted by the business of reproduction, the salmon must lie down and die.” The horror of that homecoming is echoed in Mercia’s own, deeply uneasy return to Namaqualand, and in the book she brings back with her and uses almost as a talisman (from textual clues, it seems to be Marilynne Robinson’s 2008 novel Home). The final secret that she discovers about her family contributes, also, to the sense of horror that attends both homecoming and the urge to connect to someone else, to the future even, through reproduction. “Clever, yes, but how repellent”.
October is extremely thought-provoking, though on a first read, it will probably not satisfy. It is the sort of book that requires time to percolate, and perhaps needs to be read in several sittings over the course of a week. It is not long, but there is a great deal packed into it, a complexity belied by the straightforward, rational prose, pocked with “surely”, “of course”, “must” and “should”. Post-apartheid South Africa remains a haunted country; yet its stories of racial differentiation, rural poverty and governmental indifference are a backdrop, here, to the personal tragedies which, one is tempted to suggest, could play out anywhere. It is the fact of Mercia Murray’s exile that is important: making a life for oneself in another country requires deliberation, and often involves a wholesale rejection of the past. Only when the past comes calling is this revealed to be a temporary solution.