Méira Cook’s Free State novel brings dense, dramatic unease


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Méira Cook's first novel, The House on Sugarbush Road, was something of a tour-de-force in Manitoba, winning the 2013 McNally Robinson Manitoba Book of the Year Award and earning a nomination for the Winnipeg Public Library's On The Same Page competition.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 30/05/2015 (2921 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Méira Cook’s first novel, The House on Sugarbush Road, was something of a tour-de-force in Manitoba, winning the 2013 McNally Robinson Manitoba Book of the Year Award and earning a nomination for the Winnipeg Public Library’s On The Same Page competition.

Nightwatching — the South African-born, Winnipeg-based Cook’s latest novel — will no doubt win similar accolades; the slim paperback pulls its weight with drama as nail-biting and atmospheric as its predecessor.

Set in the Orange Free State of South Africa in the late 1970s, Nightwatching is unavoidably an apartheid novel. Its protagonist is Ruthie, the restless adolescent daughter of a preoccupied widower who finds relief from the burden of her existence only in annoying the family housekeeper, Miriam, and in escaping at night to peer through neighbours’ windows.

Robyn Shapiro Both apartheid and the hot South African summer weigh heavily on Méira Cook's characters.

Ruthie is persistently followed by Sip, the neighbour’s gardener’s boy, who adores her despite her unpredictable temper and unfixed loyalties. Miriam adores Ruthie, too, though she questions a system where countless numbers of her friends “had shrugged off their own children in order to carry white children on their backs then tend these same children and, yes, even grow to love them.”

When two guests come to stay with the family over one eventful weekend, Ruthie, Miriam and Sip each must confront their own powerlessness in different ways.

Every scene in Nightwatching hums with the heat of the Free State’s oppressive summer, “a hot cracked thing one couldn’t stare at full-on or walk down barefoot.” Whether Ruthie is moving through rooms indoors or wandering near the veld, she never escapes the relentless, slow brutality of the weather.

Cook is an award-winning poet with a gift for tightly drawn characterization and sharp lyricism. If for no other reason, Nightwatching is worth reading for Cook’s treatment of adolescent growing pains. Long passages in Nightwatching jangle with Ruthie’s directionless internal tension: “At odd moments of the day words would fly into her head and lodge there and she would whisper them over and over without knowing what they fully meant — I wish… I want… I will…”

Ruthie is gifted but wound as tightly as piano wire, given to expletives and prone to cruelty, but these tendencies are driven by a helpless sense of need: “The high, silver, wordless note of her desire rang through her like a tuning fork and Ruthie felt small suddenly, and suddenly lonely.” If the reader can’t remember her own adolescence, she might find it difficult to identify with Ruthie’s constant existential angst — but loneliness is universal.

It’s often easier to empathize with Miriam, whose dissatisfaction emits from the injustices of apartheid, who watches as “the shift whistles blew and black men marched into the mines as if they were marching into war,” and as the women are demeaned by employers and must submit “as if to say I am not here, I do not signify.” Miriam’s and Ruthie’s longings ping back and forth between them, and Cook wisely leaves them unresolved.

Nightwatching is an impressive achievement for its prolonged atmosphere of unease, its sustained tension. But the novel carries almost more weight than it can manage successfully. Tragedy is surely not an inevitable storyline for novels set in South Africa — even a South Africa under apartheid — but Cook pushes this story to its outermost limits of misfortune. It’s possible some readers will have reached maximum capacity for sadness before the novel’s final cataclysmic events.

But Nightwatching is the kind of story that is necessary to read, because it helps us remember — both the pains of history and our own growing pains.


Julienne Isaacs is a Winnipeg writer.

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Updated on Saturday, May 30, 2015 8:34 AM CDT: Formatting.

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