ONE of serious contemporary fiction's direst challenges, arguably, is to render the ravages of recent history real -- without succumbing either to graphic or sentimental melodrama on one hand, or to test-tube realism on the other.
In The House on Sugarbush Road, Winnipeg's Méira Cook meets this challenge admirably by drawing first on her gifts with language -- any poet's first and most vital resource -- and, almost equally important, on her own harrowing familiarity with the South African realities she has so intimately and specifically depicted here.
"Almost," because although the novel thrums with gorgeously observed details of streetscape and landscape, as well as with astute historical and political, social and psychological commentary, the most arresting and engaging feature of this powerful novel, first and last, is its poetic language.
In this regard Cook, who emigrated to Canada from South Africa in the '80s, joins a distinguished host of contemporary Canadian poets who often turn to fiction to fine effect: think of Ondaatje, Atwood, Ann Michaels, Leonard Cohen, Daphne Marlatt, or, in another era, of A.M. Klein.
Cook also joins a distinguished group of writers who, from their vantage point in contemporary Canada, look back to their homelands with a craft honed by distance but mitigated by conflicted memory: a constant theme in this novel is the tension between a nation's wilful amnesia haunted by the persistent ghosts of individual and cultural history. Think Rohinton Mistry or Neil Bissoondath, Dionne Brand, Anita Rau Badami, or M.J. Vassanji.
The House on Sugarbush Road turns on the tortuous intersections between two families, a servant's and her masters', inhabiting and attending (indeed, abetting) the inevitable decline of a typical Johannesburg great house of its era.
Set in the 1990s, just after Mandela has been elected, the novel looks back upon the inextricably intertwined histories of Boer and indigenous populations, of house servants treated at once as "family" but at every turn reminded that they are other.
The harsh history of the everyday atrocities of apartheid are rendered at once from the twinned points of view of the decline of the masters and the aspirations of the servants; but rather than simply instruct us about this political and historical revolution -- to be sure, there are many good books that do just that, but they are not fictions -- Cook shows us the specific, everyday life and language of this reality in a novel that teems and hums with tangible and pungent street-level description.
Under Cook's sharp eye for setting, the city and veldt come alive in painfully bright tones; equally impressive are the novel's vividly drawn characters, chief among them Beauty Mapule -- mother of a murdered daughter, and servant to generations of the Du Plessis family -- and Benjamin Du Plessis, the physician she tended warmly when he was a boy, but now antagonizes in counterpoint to what she perceives as his neoliberal condescension.
In her deft development of this relationship, Cook surgically dissects the individual effects and legacy of apartheid.
The novel's plot builds to what some readers might apprehend as a harsh if not apocalyptic closing, not to be herein revealed because, first, the surging and ultimately cumulative rhythms of the plot depend upon the reader's engagement, page by page, with the narrative.
And second, because in its building towards what seems increasingly to be its inevitable climax, The House on Sugarbush Road also begins to resonate insistently with other, similarly disposed recent novels, among them, South African master J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace and Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost. That's very good company for Cook to keep.
Canadian literature scholar Neil Besner is vice-president, research and international at the University of Winnipeg.