Time: The Present Selected Stories – Tess Slesinger

Boiler House Press has simply outdone itself with the publication of two superb works under the Recovered Books imprint. Earlier this year, I read Gentleman Overboard, a splendid, psychological tale of a man faced with the terrifying prospect of drowning at sea, and now it’s Time: The Present by Tess Slesinger, an American author who sank without a trace during her time but is now seeing a revival. In a nutshell, this is simply the best short story collection I’ve read this year, and a shoo-in to my end of the year list.

Time: The Present is a superb collection of 19 stories exploring marriage, relationships, unemployment and class differences  where Tess Slesinger displays the kind of psychological acuity that make them so distinct and memorable.

Most of these stories were published in the 1930s in various journals and publications and capture the great turmoil of the period; a country grappling with the Great Depression and its crippling, sobering consequences on everyday living as well as the grim prospect of the Second World War looming large.

In this piece, rather than comment on each of the nineteen stories, I will focus more on those that to me were real standouts.

We begin with “White on Black”, the second story in the collection, a sharply observed tale on race, the difficulty of assimilation that comes with it; a look at how outsiders are always perceived as outsiders. Set in a private school attended by “nice” children, our narrator recalls a particular time when schools were starting to plant the seed of diversity in the minds of its students.

One of the private schools attended by the “nice” children of the West Side some twenty years ago followed not only the liberal practice of mixing rich and poor, Gentile and Jew, but made a point also of including Negroes.

This is particularly exemplified in the tale of the Wilsons, Negro siblings and central characters whose arrival at the school cause quite a stir. Paul, exquisite with striking features, quickly makes his presence felt with the boys, while Elizabeth makes similar strides with the girls. Boisterous and confident, both Paul and Elizabeth fascinate their peers, and contrary to being left out because they are black, they go on to become extremely popular in the school. But the innocence of childhood rarely carries itself into the harsh, cruel world of adults. As the children grow, so do their attitudes change with the dawning realization that it is not easy to practice the ideals of inclusiveness and diversity in the real world. Paul resents this fact, Elizabeth tries to adapt to it with varying results.

Slesinger’s flair for sarcasm and sharp, biting observations are on full display in the piece “Jobs in the Sky” – a prescient tale of ruthless corporate culture, mindless consumerism and joblessness. It’s a masterclass of character study, the stream of consciousness technique, satire and tragedy. The scene of action is the book section of a departmental store during Christmas rush and here is its principle cast of characters…

Mr Keasbey is the archetypical aggressive, competitive and experienced salesman, who always “signed in daily at eight-forty (ten minutes before the deadline).” Miss Bodkin is irreverent and a tad cocky, what she lacks in punctuality and discipline she more than makes up for in her superior sales skills. Joey Andrews is the new young man on the block, eager to please and massively relieved at finally bagging a job. Miss Paley, a teacher in her previous role, is a misfit in the book department, not really adept at selling, the pressure of being fired hanging like a Damocles sword over her head.

There’s so much going on in this story – the crippling impact of the Great Depression, the disintegration of the American Dream, a fiercely competitive and vacuous corporate life…and it’s astonishing how expertly Slesinger coalesces these various threads into a polished, unforgettable whole. The depiction of the commercial world replete with clichés is spot on – the customary, meaningless speeches given by the bosses at the start of everyday, the fear of not meeting targets and being laid off; as well as the rush of the Christmas season where customers behave like “animals stampeding in panic inside a burning barn.”  

The machinery starts with a roar; unorganized come into conflict with organized; the clerks are over-powered, the floor-walkers swept along with the stream of customers; the aisles are drowned; arms reach like fishing-rods into the piled bargains on every counter. But gradually the frantic, haphazard customers are subdued and controlled by the competent motions of well-trained officers, who reason, who separate, who mollify and implore. Still mad, but under direction at last, the crowd settles around counters creaming to be fed.

Brilliantly enmeshed in the story are Joey’s inner thoughts which highlight the crucial points of his former life – the ambition of securing a good education, the depression era turning those dreams into dust in a heartbeat,  followed by scrounging on the streets and finally gratitude at being employed at the department store. Also poignant is Miss Paley’s plight, another victim of the Depression era, fired from her long-held teaching post. Poor Miss Paley is out-of-sorts in a sales role rousing both pity and embarrassment in her fellow colleagues. The story ends with two dismissals – one hardly surprising, but the other one pretty unexpected.

 “The Friedmans’ Annie” is superb and poignant, a terrific portrayal of the internal drama of a woman and an incisive tale of class differences and manipulation. The titular character Annie is a loyal housemaid at the Friedmans’, a well-to-do Jewish family in New York. In their employ for many years, Annie is sincere and efficient, takes her work seriously and it is a matter of great pride to her that she is indispensable to the family. Annie also feels a sense of achievement in the hardwork and discipline involved in being elevated to that position. From a newbie (Greenhorn) many years ago to an experienced maid now, that successful transition is a product of the Friedmans’ training and Annie’s will of iron.

And yet we learn that something is amiss; a sense of loneliness and emptiness that wells up in Annie every now and then. For Annie desires a happy married life and a home of her own. The mornings are busy and buzzing with work as are the evenings, but the lonely afternoons with the hours stretching endlessly accentuate feelings of uncertainty and fear; we see a gamut of emotions raging in Annie’s soul as she contemplates hanging up her working boots and settling down.

The dining-room looked gloomy and dead through the window in the swinging-door. When there was no longer work to be done in these big room beyond the kitchen, they seemed too strange to enter alone…Oh yes, the afternoons were lonely, and it was too bad that she wouldn’t be going out tonight with Joe to Trommer’s.

She is already seeing a man called Joe who is crazy about her, but he resents how Annie is always at the beck and call of the Friedmans’ and how uppity she has become after years of working there. Joe feels Annie is being exploited while Annie, fiercely loyal, is always defending them. Thrown into this mix are Mrs Friedman and her daughter Mildred. Mrs Friedman expertly manipulates Annie’s feelings agreeing to her decision to marry but also subtly conveying how important it is for a woman to remain financially independent. Mildred, leaning towards the left, hates her privileged life and her mother taking advantage of Annie, but she is unable to make Annie understand her position. As the tale progresses, the sense of distress in Annie reaches fever-pitch as she is confronted with the frightening prospect of Joe possibly leaving her out of sheer frustration.

“Ben Grader Makes a Call” explores the psychological consequences of unemployment on a marriage, the erosion of self-esteem and the burden of dependency that this development involves. Taking place over the course of an afternoon, this is a tale of Ben Grader, a young man with a successful career who one day is unexpectedly fired from his job. At first, Ben displays a fair amount of bravado but as the day progresses as do his wanderings around the city, this bravado transforms into uncertainty, loss of self-esteem and resentment, the latter particularly aimed at his wife who would now take on the role of sole provider.

“Missis Flinders” is a scalpel-like, hard-hitting tale of an abortion, the emotional burden of which sets in motion the unraveling of a marriage. The story opens with Margaret Flinders on the front steps of the hospital waiting for her husband Miles to hail a taxi to take them home. We learn that Margaret was in the hospital for an abortion, and she is stricken with grief at the step she has taken. Margaret and Miles are left-wing intellectuals immersed in a life of exciting ideas, freedom, and independence. To them, raising children is not an option, it is simply too bourgeoisie and an unnecessary burden.

But when Margaret gets pregnant, she realizes that she wants to keep the baby, while Miles is against it. During an evening of drinks that leaves them both intoxicated and exhilarated, Miles convinces her to abort the pregnancy. Margaret goes through with it but she is devastated at the irreversibility of her actions. What deepens her sadness is the uncomprehending reaction from the other residents in the maternity ward – the women who have delivered babies, whether alive or stillborn – who can’t fathom Margaret’s decision to abort. Moreover, when she observes these womens’ husbands excited at the prospect of fatherhood and their indulgence towards their wives, she begins to wonder whether there is any substance to her married life with Miles.

…intellectuals, with habits generated from the right and tastes inclined to the left. Afraid to perpetuate themselves, were they? Afraid of anything that might loom so large in their personal lives as to outweigh other considerations? Afraid, maybe, of a personal life?

“In The Times So Unsettled Are”, Heinrich and Mariedel are Socialists who refuse to leave Vienna during a time of great political upheaval, when the Socialists are hell-bent on transforming the political and economic landscape of the country. But their dreams and plans are perennially in the threat of being torn to shreds. During endless conversations over cups of coffee in a traditional Viennese café, Heinrich and Mariedel become entranced by the American couple Richard and Mahli (Molly) – their infectious humour, love for one another and the aura of happiness that they convey warm the hearts of the Austrians. Richard and Mahli try to convince Heinrich and Mariedel to begin life anew in America, but they refuse. Several years later, Heinrich is killed and his death leaves Mariedel in a state of shock she is not willing to acknowledge, but it provides her with the impetus to finally leave Vienna for America, reunite with Richard and Mahli and live vicariously through their happiness. But things don’t turn out as planned and what Mariedel witnesses disturbs her even more. This is a beautifully written tale of love, loss, friendships and broken dreams.

Fractured relationships and mismatched wavelengths of both husband and wife are running themes, the myriad facets of which shine in many of these tales. Yet Slesinger is not keen on taking sides, both the men and women she portrays are flawed. For instance, in “Kleine Frau”, a young couple on a honeymoon is disconcerted by the drowning of a child belonging to one of the local families, but while the husband is bereft at not doing his best to help, the wife in her selfishness is unhappy with him for ignoring her in the mounting cold. “Mother to Dinner” wonderfully captures the intense conflict in a young woman who is torn between pleasing her cold, intellectually superior husband and her bourgeoisie mother who the husband never fails to deride. In “After the Party”, Helene Colborne, a wealthy upper class woman is tormented by her husband’s Socialist tendencies and later by his sympathies with the working class; and suffers a nervous breakdown when he pledges all his wealth to the Communist Party.

What’s remarkable about Time: The Present is the sheer variety of themes on display marked by Slesinger’s grasp on a wide range of subjects. Slesinger is as adept at painting a picture of the economic perils and complex social issues of her time as she is at showcasing the nuances of marriage and relationships, expertly weaving these elements together to form a rich tapestry of stories. Often written in a stream-of-consciousness style that is accessible and engaging, most of these stories are set in the 1930s but the topics that form the nucleus of these tales exhibit a timeless quality. These topics carry much weight even today – the travesty of race and its non-inclusive aspect; disparities of class and that unbridgeable economic divide; a bleak corporate culture that epitomizes soul crushing competition and mind-numbering drudgery; politics with its clear demarcation between socialism and capitalism; not to mention life changing events such as job loss, abortion, death and divorce that expose cracks in the relationships of ill-matched couples. At once astute, razor-sharp, gut-wrenching, tragic, perceptive and wise, Time: The Present is a magnificent collection, one that definitely deserves to be better known.

Maud Martha – Gwendolyn Brooks

Faber Editions is putting out some excellent titles. Earlier this year, I read the wonderful Mrs Caliban by Rachel Ingalls, and now it’s Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks, which at barely 114 pages is an absolute gem of a novella.

First released in the US in 1953, Maud Martha is the only novel published by Gwendolyn Brooks, a Pulitzer-prize winning poet. It’s a striking and evocative portrayal of black womanhood in 1940s Chicago told with poetic grace and intensity.

Composed of 34 vignettes, sometimes bite-sized, sometimes running into not more than four pages, these mini-portraits build up to depict the ordinary life of an indomitable, black woman and her people – dreams and desires, dashed hopes and disappointments and yet finding meaning in the simple pleasures of life.

What she liked was candy buttons, and books, and painted music (deep blue, or delicate silver) and the wet sky, so altering, viewed from the steps of the back porch: and dandelions.

Thus begins the first description that we get of Maud Martha, a dreamy, young woman, who would have liked either a lotus, or China asters or meadow lilies, but is fascinated instead by dandelions (“yellow jewels for everyday, studding the patched green dress of her back yard”). Considering herself plain-looking in sharp contrast to her lovely sister Helen, to Maud the dandelions epitomize an accurate depiction of herself (“it was comforting to find that what was common could also be a flower.)”

Maud Martha’s family comprises her parents, sister Helen and brother Harry and they have a home they can truly call their own, although for a short period they are faced with the danger of losing it due to financial troubles. Maud mostly has blissful memories of her childhood – a warm family life even if she’s not the apple of her parents’ eye, traditional Christmas celebrations and the camaraderie with her schoolmates.   Even as a child, her perceptive quality shines through – when she notices her parents embracing, she is glad that they have ended their quarrel and patched up, and the death of her grandmother frightens and saddens Martha as she ponders, “I never saw anybody die before. But I’m seeing somebody die now.”

As the years roll on by, Maud Martha will go on to have a couple of boyfriends, meet Paul Phillips, marry him and settle down, have a house of her own, give birth to a daughter Paulette and enmesh with her community.

Maud Martha beautifully conveys not only the experiences and dreams of the titular character but also the broader aspirations of her community and the difficulty in attaining them due to class and race barriers. The piece on New York is vibrant with colourful images – Maud has visions of herself in New York with its splendid tapestry of well-heeled, sophisticated people, delectable food, expensive wines, posh luxurious restaurants and hotels, the art and culture scene. In another piece, one of her boyfriends, her second beau, who “belonged to the world of the university”, covets the finer things in life – well-furnished apartment with bookcases, records, symphonies, a dog; things that are a hallmark of the well-bred, upper class set. But what chance does he have of achieving this kind of status given his poorer roots, he laments.

What chance did he have, he mused, what chance was there for anybody coming out of a set of conditions that never allowed for the prevalence of sensitive, and intellectual, yet almost frivolous, dinner-table discussions of Parrington across four-year-old heads?

We are also given a glimpse of the working class community that Maud Martha is part of, exemplified by her neighbours in the building where she resides. Named “Kitchenette Folks”, it is the longest chapter in the book that wonderfully depicts the building inhabitants and their wide-ranging personalities, expectations and circumstances. There’s Oberto, who adores his wife Marie, often criticized by the women who gossip about her poor housekeeping skills, but Oberto considers himself blessed because he would rather have a wife who invests her time in caring for her looks. There’s the little boy Clement Lewy, whose mother has lost the will to carry on after being deserted by her husband. But Clement is a spirited boy, revels in the orderly, sameness of his life, and is always joyful when he greets his mother coming back home after a hard day’s work. There’s the strange youth of twenty who one day barges into Maud’s apartment, and the Whitestripes (“the happiest couple Maud Martha had ever met”), whose close bonding and affection Maud knows she will never have with Paul. There’s Richard, the truck driver, whose weekly earnings barely support his family of five, and the daily stress becomes so hard to bear that one day he just doesn’t come home.

It’s also an astute depiction of marriage and the tempering of expectations that come with it witnessed through the lens of Maud’s relationship with Paul. Maud has no illusions about her marriage. She knows Paul will marry her because she is sweet and good (“He is thinking that I am all right. That I am really all right. That I will do.”), although a part of her wonders whether he is beset with thoughts of finding someone better. As a couple, they are often mismatched as far as interests go – Maud loves theatre, art and culture which Paul does not much care for. He has an affinity for a dazzling social life filled with glamorous beautiful people, and being recognized in exclusive clubs. With the birth of their daughter Paulette, Paul is often overwhelmed with the dreariness of his existence (“she knew that he was tired of his wife, tired of his living quarters, tired of working at Sam’s, tired of his two suits”), and yet she is fiercely protective of her world when her mother comments that they could do better (“I have a husband, a nice little girl, and a clean home of my own”).

She watched the little dreams of smoke as they spiraled about his hand, and she thought about happenings. She was afraid to suggest to him that, to most people, nothing at all “happens.” That most people merely live from day to day until they die. That, after he had been dead a year, doubtless fewer than five people would think of him oftener than once a year. That there might even come a year when no one on earth would think of him at all.

There are undercurrents of darkness that lace the novella, the racial slurs and insults that slip through the holes in the fabric of Maud Martha’s life; the bigotry and condescending attitude of the whites that she and her family can’t always escape. When visiting a movie hall, Maud and Paul worry about getting “suspicious looks” because they are the only black couple in the theatre, while in a heartbreaking scene, a department store Santa Claus looks through Maud and her daughter Paulette when the latter lists the gifts she wishes Santa to bring her for Christmas.

Like an exquisitely carved doll-house of extraordinary workmanship with each compartment having a unique story to tell, these perfectly crafted miniature stories are complete by themselves, and yet unique in the way they reveal various facets of Maud Martha’s personality. She is a child saddened and bewildered by her grandmother’s death. She is a self-aware teenager who envies the prettiness of her sister Helen. She loves books, boasts of a rich inner world and a lively imagination. She becomes a wife and a mother and manages the highs and lows with aplomb – the happiness, challenges and inevitable frustrations that these roles entail. All the while reminded that she is a black woman who will not be considered an equal to her white counterparts but she handles their oblique insults with dignity, although internally rebelling against them. She is a woman who loves tradition, festivities that made her childhood such a jovial place. But more importantly, she is a woman who despite life not having panned out exactly the way she wanted, still manages to find gladness and beauty all around her.

Maud Martha learns to make best use of the raw materials that life has accorded her and fashion it into something memorable. She would have loved a stately home and a lavish lifestyle but she takes pride in decorating her little kitchenette. She would have loved Paul to be more compatible with her, but does not harbour resentment when that does not happen. She bears no ill-will towards her father who clearly panders to her sister Helen’s every whim. There is a wide gap between her imagined life and the hardcore reality but she does not slide into unhappiness and despondency.  

What’s also great about Maud Martha is the magical prose awash with lush and vivid imagery and descriptions – the “shafts and pools of light, the tree, the graceful iron” that form an intrinsic part of her family home; New York which “glittered in front of her like the silver in the shops on Michigan Boulevard” as she stood before theatres “of the thousand lights”, the snow as “finest bits of white powder coming down with an almost comical little ethereal hauteur.”

The episodic structure of Maud Martha is reminiscent of Evan S. Connell’s fabulous novel Mrs Bridge – the miniature scenes are perfectly rendered, much nuanced and subtle, sumptuous language with a poetic touch. However, as a character, Maud Martha is very unlike Mrs Bridge; she is definitely not a helpless woman by any stretch of the imagination, even if her life has not always evolved as per her wishes.

Then she thought of her life. Decent childhood, happy Christmases; some shreds of romance, a marriage, a pregnancy and the giving birth, her growing child, her experiments in sewing, her books, her conversations with her friends and enemies.

“It hasn’t been bad,” she thought.

Maud Martha, then, is a gorgeous depiction of ordinary life, where Brooks through sheer poetry and wisdom conveys the beauty of the everyday – the hopes, ambitions, pitfalls, joys and sorrows. Through Maud’s personality and the environment she grows up in, Brooks explores broader themes of racial and class differences, family life, marriage and community. Maud Martha lives life on her own terms, and refuses to let regrets, disillusionments and the cruelty of racism bog her down. It’s her refusal to let ways of society always dictate her actions that is testament to her spirit and individuality and gives the novella its power.

To create – a role, a poem, picture, music, a rapture in stone: great. But not for her.

What she wanted was to donate to the world a good Maud Martha. That was the offering, the bit of art, that could not come from any other.

She would polish and hone that.

The Promise – Damon Galgut

A decade ago, Damon Galgut captured my imagination when I devoured three of his novels in quick successionThe Good Doctor, The Impostor and In A Strange Room. All were excellent, but the latter two were even more so. His last offering Arctic Summer, while elegantly written, was somehow not in, the same league as his ‘holy trinity’ of novels, but an earlier novel, The Quarry, was quite interesting and a precursor to what Galgut was capable of writing. And now we have The Promise, released earlier this month, where Galgut is once again in top form.

The Promise is a riveting, haunting tale that chronicles the disintegration of a white South African family seen through the prism of four funerals spread decades apart. Steeped in political overtones, the novel packs a punch with its lofty themes explored through the lens of the morally bankrupt Swarts. 

The first section dwells on the funeral of Ma, or Rachel Swart, and is set in the 1980s at the height of apartheid. The Swarts own and live on a dilapidated farm deep in the countryside. Manie Swart, who heads the family, runs a reptile park, having recently found solace in religion. With Rachel’s death, Manie is left with their three children – the eldest is Anton, followed by Astrid, and then the youngest of the brood, Amor.

When the book opens, we are first introduced to Amor, who while at her boarding school is informed of her mother’s death.

The moment the metal box speaks her name, Amor knows it’s happened. She’s been in a tense, headachy mood all day, almost like she had a warning in a dream but can’t remember what it is. Some sign or image, just under the surface. Trouble down below. Fire underground.

It’s a moment that feels unreal to her, and she follows through the motions, utterly dazed. Although her mother’s death was expected given the progress of her illness, Amor can’t quite come to terms with it.

It’s at Rachel’s funeral that the true colours of the Swart family start spilling out; their racist tendencies come to the fore. For instance, Manie Swart, his sister Tannie Marina and her husband Oom Ockie find it difficult to accept that Rachel has gone back to her original religion and has wished for a Jewish funeral.

It’s the usual topic, about how Ma has betrayed the whole family by changing her religion. Correction, by going back to her old religion. To being a Jew! Her aunt has been extremely vocal on this subject for the past half a year, ever since Ma fell ill, but what is Amor supposed to do about it? She’s just a child, she has no power, and anyway what’s so wrong about going back to your own religion if you want to?

The spotlight then zooms to Salome, the Swarts’ dedicated housemaid, who despite her many years of service as well as nursing Rachel in her final years, is hardly noticed by the rest of the Swarts and remains invisible.

To the Swarts, Salome is just a minor figure in the background. Yet, her future is the central premise of the novel, the essential moral core that rests on ‘the promise’ Rachel eked out from Manie in her last days. The promise pertains to Salome being given ownership of Lombard Place, the house where she has resided for a long time. It’s a promise that Manie refuses to acknowledge after Rachel’s death. That blank refusal shocks Amor, and it’s the first lesson that she learns regarding her family, they are well and truly lost.

Meanwhile, as the novel lurches forward in time, a picture of the Swart children begins to emerge. Anton, a soldier at the time of his mother’s funeral, deserts the Army, spends several years hiding, and only resurfaces when the political winds of change are blowing in the country – Mandela is elected PM and apartheid is abolished. Tormented by the fact that he shot a mother at the beginning of the book, Anton stares at a bleak future over the course of the novel as he gradually sinks deeper into debt and despair.

Every day since he left home has been imprinted on him as a visceral, primal endeavor and he doesn’t dwell on any of it, nothing to be savoured there. Survival isn’t instructive, just demeaning. The things he does recall with any clarity he tries not to, pushing them under the surface. Part of what you do to keep going.

You keep going because if you do there will eventually be an end. South Africa has changed, conscription stopped two years ago. Jesus, what he did by deserting the army, he’s a hero, not a criminal, amazing how fast that changed.

In sharp contrast, his younger sister Amor is quite an enigmatic, fascinating character, whose single-minded focus of giving Salome her rightful due is as powerful as the flash of lightning that strikes her at a young age. After the blatant disregard shown by her father towards her deceased mother’s wishes, Amor spends the next many years as far away from her family as possible. While she chooses to build a new life in Europe, she never really settles down, eschews meaningful relationships, as she restlessly flits from one city to another. Later, she finds her calling as a nurse working long hours in an AIDS hospital in Durban. Amor’s extreme form of selflessness is construed by her brother as her way of righting the wrongs of her morally wayward family.

Last but not the least is Astrid, the middle child, who settles for marriage and children, a destiny that fails to excite her and fills her with existential angst. Essentially frivolous and morally empty as the senior Swarts, Astrid resents Amor’s transformation into a beautiful woman, while her own looks begin to fade away.

Throughout the years, the siblings keep drifting away from each other, they barely keep in touch, and are only ever united during the four funerals.  Despite their fractured relationship, the one thing that binds Anton and Amor is their deep contempt for their family, which is tottering at the edge of ruin.

One of the key themes explored in The Promise is racial division and South Africa’s shadowy, opaque transition from apartheid to the post-apartheid era. This is primarily showcased in Salome’s treatment. During apartheid, the rights of blacks were severely restricted and they were not allowed to own property, a fact that the Swarts hold onto in their denial of fulfilling ‘the promise’. But with the dawn of a new era and dramatic shift in South Africa’s political landscape, the Swarts’ attitude towards Salome hardly undergoes a sea of change.

Amor, appearing half asleep, winds her way slowly upright to a single question. Um, what about Salome?

Excuse me?

Salome, who works at the farm.

Until this moment, everyone in the room has worn an almost stupid air. But now a tremor runs through the group, as if a tuning fork has been struck on the edge of the scene.

That old story, Astrid says. You’re still on that?

It was sorted out a long time ago, Tannie Marina says. We’re not going backwards now.

Amor shakes her head.  It wasn’t possible for Salome to own the land. But the laws have changed and now she can.

She can, Astrid says. But she’s not going to. Don’t be stupid.

South Africa may have embarked on a new path sprinting towards progress, but Salome’s status remains the same. On paper, apartheid has been dismantled, but this is not really reflected in the ground reality, the country’s evolution has been anything but smooth.

The Swarts are the epitome of this racist thinking, first brought to our notice when they fail to understand why Rachel had to go back to her Jewish roots. Seeds of racism are also sown in Astrid, who when cheating on her second husband, worries whether she has committed a sin, not because she is having an extra-marital affair but because she is having this affair with a black man.

We are also shown how South Africa’s economic progress has paved the way for unchecked greed and rampant corruption. Money permeates the motives of many, and even religion is not spared from its poisonous pull.

Money is what it’s all about. An abstraction that shapes your fate. Notes with numbers on them, each a cryptic IOU, not the real thing itself, but the numbers denote your power and there can never be enough.

This is apparent in how the Swart property is divided among the children and also in the way the local pastor wields his influence on the family, his greed for land ensuring that he extracts quite a bit from them eventually. Indeed, the tenuous relationship between the Swart family members is a symbol for the broader social and political fabric of South Africa struggling to hold its people together against a volatile backdrop.

But the most striking feature of The Promise is the shifting narrative eye. Indeed, Galgut’s unique narrative technique was on display in his brilliant book In A Strange Room, where he effortlessly switched between the first and the third person in the space of a paragraph. This is very much a trait in this novel too, but Galgut takes it to the next level. While In A Strange Room, the narration was from the author’s own point of view, here the narrative eye takes on a gamut of varied perspectives. It moves fluidly from the mind of one character to another, whether major or minor, and at times even pervades their dreams. But for the most part, the narrator is in direct conversation with the reader, always scathing, biting and lethal in his observation not only when exposing the hypocrisy and foibles of the Swarts, but also while commenting on the murkiness of South Africa’s altered political landscape and dubious moral standards.

She (Salome) shuffles off slowly around the koppie to her house, I mean the Lombard place…

The tone is as sharp as a knife and at times laced with subtle moments of black comedy. Galgut is wonderful as ever at creating an atmosphere of unease, as his characters, increasingly unmoored and unsteady, stumble towards their ominous fates. Powerful in its indictment of a country afflicted by racism and corruption, The Promise, then, is another winner from the Galgut oeuvre, and fully deserves being longlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize.

Earth and High Heaven – Gwethalyn Graham

I have a very small Persephone Books collection. But what I have read from their catalogue so far has been simply great. Earlier this year, in March, I really liked Isobel English’s Every Eye, and followed it up with Gwethalyn Graham’s Earth and High Heaven this month. What a lovely novel it turned out to be.

Earth and High Heaven is a wonderfully absorbing novel the focal point of which is a love affair between a Gentile woman and a Jewish man portrayed against a backdrop of racial prejudice.

The novel is set in the city of Montreal in Canada in the early 1940s when the war was still raging in Europe. The opening lines pretty much sets the tone for what is to follow…

One of the questions they were sometimes asked was where and how they had met, for Marc Reiser was a Jew, originally from a small town in northern Ontario, and from 1933 until he went overseas in September 1942, a junior partner in the law firm of Maresch and Aaranson in Montreal, and Erica Drake was Gentile, one of the Westmount Drakes. Montreal society is divided roughly into three categories labeled ‘French, ‘English’, and ‘Jewish’, and there is not much coming and going between them, particularly between the Jews and either of the two groups, for although, as a last resort, French and English can be united under the heading ‘Gentile’, such an alliance merely serves to isolate the Jews more than ever.

We know from this that Erika Drake and Marc Reiser fall in love with each other but we are also made aware of how the couple are going to have a long struggle ahead given the backgrounds they come from. Racial tension was rampant in Montreal at the time, but Graham points out that the Jews weren’t necessarily singled out although they bore most of the brunt. There were nuances in discrimination within various strata of Montreal society.

Hampered by racial-religious distinctions to start with, relations between the French, English and Jews of Montreal are still further complicated by the fact that all three groups suffer from an inferiority complex – the French because they are a minority in Canada, the English because they are a minority in Quebec, and the Jews because they are a minority everywhere.

Erica is an English Canadian born in the affluent Drake family. Her father Charles Drake is the President of the Drake Importing Company and the family resides in a sumptuous home in Westmount. Erica has two siblings – an elder brother Anthony and a younger sister Miriam. Both Anthony and Miriam marry partners against Charles Drake’s wishes, but ultimately it doesn’t matter much because he is not close to either of them and does not care greatly for their opinion.

But Charles shares a special bond with Erica. They get along very well and Charles respects her in a way he does not respect his other two children.

Marc Reiser is Jewish, his parents having migrated to Canada from Austria several years earlier. Leopold Reiser, Marc’s father owns a small planning mill in Manchester, Ontario. Marc has an elder brother David who is a doctor in a remote, rural region of the country.

The book opens right in the midst of a big dinner party held at the Drake residence. Marc Reiser is brought to the gathering by an acquaintance of the Drakes’ – the French Canadian Rene de Sevigny whose sister has married Anthony Drake. Marc Reiser knows no one at the party and soon Rene abandons him leaving Marc to fend for himself. Eventually Erica and Mark meet and strike up a conversation. They immediately hit it off. When it’s time to say goodbye, Erica offers to introduce Marc to her father but Charles looks through Marc and completely ignores him.

Erica is offended by Charles’ rudeness. Attempts to make him understand this are futile because Charles is set in his ways and refuses to budge from his deep-seated prejudices against the Jews.

Charles behaviour does not deter Erica from seeing Marc. Quite the contrary. Soon the relationship between the two blossoms and starts getting serious. And Erica’s parents are aware of this.

A significant chunk of the novel then revolves around the discussions that Erica has with her parents regarding Marc as she tries to make them come around to her point of view. Erica, thankfully, is not entirely on her own. Her sister Miriam supports her and immediately likes Marc when she is introduced to him for the first time. Their parents, however, think differently and judge Marc without even meeting him. Continuous quarrels with her parents finally begin to take a toll on Erica and her health.

Will Erica succeed? Will she and Marc eventually surmount all odds so that they can marry?

Erica Drake is an interesting creation. Her upbringing means that she grows up with the same set of prejudices but she is discerning enough to be ashamed of them and change her way of thinking.

She had met a good many Jews before Marc, but in some way which already seemed to her inexplicable she had neglected to relate the general situation with any one individual. Evidently some small and yet vital part of the machinery of her thought had failed to work until this moment, or worse still, she might even have defeated its efforts to function by taking refuge in the comfortable delusion that even if these prejudices and restrictions were actually in effective operation, they would only be applied against – well, against what is usually designated as ‘the more undesirable type of Jew’. In other words, against people who more or less deserved it.

Now she saw for the first time that it was the label, not the man, that mattered.

Indeed, by working as a reporter at the Post, she has no qualms coming down the society ladder a bit or two even among her own set.

When she was twenty-one, her fiancé had been killed in a motor accident two weeks before she was to be married; not long after, she awoke to the realization that her father’s income had greatly shrunk as a result of the depression and that it would probably be a long time before she would fall in love again. She got a job as a reporter on the society page of the Montreal Post and dropped, overnight, from the class which is written about to the class which does the writing,. It took people quite a while to get used to the change.

Marc loves Erica enough to keep meeting her till regimental duty beckons him, but at the same time he is bogged down by the seemingly insurmountable odds against them. He has a fatal sense of the relationship not surviving even though Erica thinks otherwise.

The implication of racial prejudice, then, is a big theme of the novel, particularly the danger of making sweeping generalisations. Erica tries hard to make Charles see Marc as an individual and appreciate his many qualities rather than being dead set against him because of general racism towards Jews. Every individual is different and it is important to understand these nuances as against taking a collective approach and putting everyone on the same boat.

The other theme Graham looks at is the power play between men and women. This is displayed in details, such as Erica’s irritation when Rene orders lunch for her at a restaurant without consulting her and also explored a bit deeper when Charles tries to persuade Erica to leave her job at the Post and join the family business instead.

…as a woman you can just go so far and then you’re stuck in a job where you depend your life taking orders from some fathead with half your brains, whose only advantage over you is the fact that he happens to wear trousers.

Earth and High Heaven then is a brilliantly immersive novel. Graham’s writing is sensitive and intelligent and many of the discussions and arguments between Erica and her parents and Erica and Marc are tense but riveting. The characters are wonderfully fleshed out. Plus, Graham has a deep understanding of the various facets of 1940s Montreal society and this is superbly articulated in various dialogues between the characters.

Highly recommended!