Readersforum's Blog

June 8, 2012

Old Jo’burg glitters with gritty detail

Novels by Craig Higginson and Terry Westby-Nunn took the University of Johannesburg prizes. (Madelene Cronjé)

Two novels set in Jo’burg, Cape Town and London take the UJ prizes.

By Craig MacKenzie

Craig Higginson has won the University of ­Johannesburg (UJ) Prize for his historical novel The ­Landscape Painter ­(Picador Africa, 2011). One half of this engrossing novel is set in post-war Britain; the other half is a series of narratives set in gold-fever Johannesburg and Boer War Natal.

The central figure is the painter of the book’s title, Arthur Bailey, whom we first meet as a reclusive elderly man eking out an existence as an artist in straitened England in the 1940s.

A young girl’s moving into an adjoining room in the boarding house in which he lives sets off a string of painful memories about the great love affair of his life and these form the substance of the novel.

Bailey is transfixed by best friend Christian Hamilton’s ravishing sister ­Carwyn, whom he meets in London and is, accordingly, inspired to follow the Hamilton family out to South Africa. This well-to-do family has numerous dark sides — the least of these being their exploitation of the underclasses drawn to the city of gold.

Higginson’s evocation of boomtown Johannesburg is a model of meticulous detail and reminds the reader, somewhat depressingly, that although the scale of the city has expanded beyond recognition in the past 100 years, its yawning socio-economic disparities have not. The shantytowns that surrounded the early mines immediately south of old Jo’burg have merely mushroomed and been relocated further out of the city, taking their social problems and inherent inequities with them.

At the same time, however, there is a rude vitality in Higginson’s depiction of it and it is exhilarating to revisit in the imagination a time when South Africa was central to imperial attention.

The alternating narratives (post-war London, fin-de-siècle Jo’burg) develop a strong interest of their own, which is one of Higginson’s many achievements: all too often a novel with this kind of architecture has a glittering front room full of interest and fascination and a dull back room to which the writer remorselessly drags the unwilling reader at intervals. Here no such thing occurs; indeed, I would be hard-pressed to plump for my favourite narrative thread.

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