A review of October by Zoe Wicomb: A deep, disturbing look at identity

Nicholas Murray, or Meester, as his son Jake calls him, is an evil man. His evil is reserved only for those who dare get close to him and the unfortunate ones who have no choice in the matter: his family. In the greater community of Kliprand he is a hero, regarded with the utmost reverence as any Man of God would be. It is only towards the end of the novel that you realise that as much as Zoe Wicomb’s October is about heartbreak and home it is also (and this is the haunting subtext) about Nicholas Murray, The Preacher – a man who is already dead by the time the novel begins. And it is his sins that continue to poison the heart of his son, Jake, and curdle the October skies in Kliprand upon Mercia’s return home from Scotland.

“Come home Mercia… you haven’t been home in ages… the child needs you”, reads Jake’s letter, “hurriedly scrawled without salutation”. It is this letter, written in a fugue of drunkenness – and the small fact that Mercia has just been left by Craig, the Scotsman with whom she’d been lovers for over two decades – that kickoff the long jog into memory. This journey also exhumes anxieties about home as a place outside of self, bound to the vicissitudes of time, as much as an internal place, a condition of the heart (and mind) in Mercia’s struggle to free herself of grief.

In this novel Wicomb complicates home in interesting ways by twice exiling her protagonist Mercia, first from home as a geographic location and home as a fairly secure emotional and psychological space. She further intensifies this instability of internal and external displacement by placing her protagonist’s emotional states against the gunmetal grey October of Scotland and the memory of Craig, who has left her and the idyllic, gay landscapes of Namaqualand and the hounding memories of the brutality of her father, which are inscribed on her brother, Jake, who is rotting away from rage and alcoholism in his bedroom upon her arrival. Furthermore, there’s Jake’s five-year-old son, Nicholas Willem Murray (named after Nicholas Murray), the child who must be taken care of or thrown out with the proverbial water in Jake’s self-sabotaging

In a terrifying portrait of Jake as a man who is the negative imprint of his father, we find this opening paragraph in the second chapter: “Jacques Theophilius Murray is a bad egg. Unlike an egg his badness is not contained, concealed within a sound, flawless shell. He is a drunk, and wears his drunkenness on his sleeve, which is to say that there are bags under his eyes, that his face is a flushed mass of veins barely concealed by his dark brown colouring, and that Meester, a pillar of respectability in the village of Kliprand, has suffered the humiliation of his son spending his days in the unfortunately named Aspoerster bar that has opened in his village. Jake wears his trousers low down on his hips, showing the crack of his buttocks.” Because this novel is built around Mercia’s battle to write a memoir of her life after Craig’s departure – and one suspects that October is, in many ways, the fruits of her efforts – it is this grotesque image of Jake (and many other inhabitants of Kliprand, especially Jake’s wife, Sylvie) that reveals Mercia as a “bad egg” of a different kind, perhaps, even a better kind. Now, an emeritus professor at a university in Glasgow, who’s concern for the backwardness of home,
Sylvie’s quotidian struggles as mother and wife, plus the welfare of Nicky the five-year-old, is somewhat contradicted by the way in which she revels in her exceptionalism from the rest of the Kliprand she left behind. She’s taken to engaging with them, especially Jake’s wife, Sylvie, at a nervous distance as if avoiding contamination. She, in many ways, embodies something of the nouveau riche in post-1994 South Africa. She splits her coloured identity in two, just as her father did upon his arrival in Kliprand all those years ago. There is the civilised coloured, herself, well-adjusted and in tune with the global world, and then there is the other coloured, a woman like Sylvie, whom she pities without pitying – but only does so to assert her own exceptional state.

Sylvie’s character is rendered with such cruelty by Mercia – with an inexplicable and exceptional loathing and disgust, that even in the end when she discovers the extent of her father’s evil, which left a fetid stain upon Sylvie as well – that she is unable to bring herself to observe this woman (whom she calls a “girl” throughout the novel) as someone on equal grounding as herself, on level human terms that is. Perhaps, it is here that it becomes quite clear how class fragmentation in the post-1994 moment, especially within black and brown communities, has served only to further alienate those who are unable to pull themselves by their bootstraps into the farther recesses of what we commonly refer to as “humanity”. Once we place them there, we are able to conveniently make them an inconvenience to our otherwise easy
lives. In this way, we project our own vulgar insecurities on their miserable lives while simultaneously tilting our noses and looking the other way.

It is tempting to read October as an allegory of a democratic state dealing with what it means to be a democracy, or more clearly, how to deal with the self-interests of being a home. But I choose to look at it as a book about the intricacies of being human. There’s a lot of selfishness, greed, grief and shame inside this book. In one sense it deals with the notion of “woman” in the contemporary world and with the follies of men, past and present, on the other hand. It is a slanted look at freedom and family and the contradictions inherent in the post-apartheid drama, in which we’re all actors.

Originally appeared in Cape Times*