An exemplary homecoming: Mercia and her partner Craig venture to a river to watch salmon fight their way upstream after a summer at sea. The regularity of this cycle—birth, exile, return, year after year, generation after generation—does not diminish its drama. The scale of the salmon’s struggle impresses itself upon Mercia. “Clever, yes, but how repellent, Mercia thought, the endless repetition, not only the biological imperative to reproduce, but the need to return to origins…. Did they remember the reverse journey, the carefree, dizzying tumble downstream through the rapids?”
This is no casual question for Mercia, given her own ambivalent engagement in the hard work of remembering. Though born and raised in rural South Africa under apartheid, she has lived her whole adult life in Scotland, having fled from the racist and sexist strictures imposed by family and nation. Zoë Wicomb’s brilliant new novel October (The New Press, $25.95) is, in many senses, the story of Mercia’s strenuous and halting trip back upstream. It ultimately delivers her to nowhere quite as simple as her past or future; Wicomb keeps her sights set at all points on deeper waters.
When a strange and desperate letter arrives from Mercia’s brother Jake—married, poor, and newly relapsed into alcoholism—soon after her partner of twenty-plus years abruptly leaves her, Mercia returns to the small town of Kliprand to help. Who is to be helped and how remain open questions; Mercia is already plenty preoccupied with the manifold little indignities of being un-partnered and childless in middle age, when marital status and number of children are the primary societal measures of a woman’s success.
Luckily (for us and for her), Mercia is a feminist, and she’s at every moment aware of the sexist expectations to which she increasingly finds herself subjected as an older woman, that designation which “supersedes a name, wipes out presence itself… An older woman is not only left, but left behind.” A literary scholar immersed in a research project on post-colonial memory, Mercia at first seems too thematically convenient, too self-aware, too generous a gift for the author to grant herself. But Wicomb is too exacting to ever simply ventriloquize through her characters. (In addition to her stories and novels, Wicomb has herself done much scholarly writing on post-colonial fiction. And like Mercia, Wicomb grew up “colored,” the classification for mixed-race people under apartheid.)
Mercia’s attentions to her own heartbreak are complicated by Jake’s long-festering resentment for their abusive and recently deceased father, forcing Mercia to comb through her memories of their childhood in search of… peace, maybe, or something like understanding. These memories echo against scenes from her intervening life in Glasgow with Craig and the present-tense return to Kliprand, where Mercia struggles to communicate with her nephew Nicky and sister-in-law Sylvie across class, education, and her own unexamined biases. “Was there not the risk of being irretrievably lost? between cities? between continents?” Mercia worries. “What a day for being assailed by nonsense.”
Better than any other living writer I know, Wicomb has mastered that literary technique taught in sophomore English seminars as “free indirect discourse:” the penchant for slipping into subjectivities, letting characters’ interior thoughts seep into the narrating voice. In much of Wicomb’s fiction, this intersubjective drift is accomplished by installing the narrative voice as a literal mediating presence—her novel David’s Story, for instance, purports to be the testimony of a South African revolutionary as recorded and finessed by a disobedient woman writer; the coda that ends the story “The One that Got Away” backs out of the main narrative as its apparent author (again, a woman) shares her writing with the man on whom its protagonist is modeled. Such writer figures allow Wicomb to grapple with the imaginative presumption that enables most fiction: how can a writer who believes in her characters enough to make them come alive on the page responsibly presume to speak for them?
Most “accomplished” writers for most of English literary history have, of course, been men with few qualms about assuming and abandoning foreign perspectives at will. Galatea, Jezebel, the tamed shrew, the fallen woman, the spinster, the mammy, and yes, Mercia’s “older woman”—literature has been both workshop and marketplace for sexist tropes, constructing and refining oppressive models of womanhood and ensuring their dissemination.
This history makes it all the more potent in Wicomb’s work when narrative self-consciousness is introduced by women. The unnamed scribe in David’s Story alternately overrides and defers to the title character as he dictates his memories, begging the question of who the story belongs to and who’s most revealed in the telling; the subject of “The One that Got Away” tells its author that to him the story is just “Chinese boxes” and “idle chat,” the sort of trivializing response with which women’s creative work is so often met.
October has no such framing conceit. Still, Wicomb’s new novel is equally preoccupied with the ethical problem of telling another’s story. The book is everywhere concerned with the distorting effects of memory and articulation on lived experience, the dynamics of authority at play in writing and speech, and the diffuse effects of such narrative work on those by and about whom such stories are told.
Wicomb’s preceding works are testaments to the ways in which such questions are always gendered ones, and so their interrogation is necessarily a feminist project. But the stakes are raised in October by both the intimate trauma of abuse and the collective trauma of apartheid, confounding its characters’ attempts at articulation and control. Though their strategies differ, Mercia, Jake, and Sylvie are all engaged as survivors of abuse in the difficult effort to acknowledge and establish some tenable relationship to their pain. They struggle deeply to construct authentic ways of owning their truths.
Apartheid is not merely the stage on which these efforts are set; it at once produces and curtails the terms through which they can be made. Mercia’s father Nicholas was “like so many grown-ups a victim of apartheid propaganda. Hell-bent on being respectable coloreds.” Though understanding him as such does not neutralize the emotional damage done to his children, Nicholas is indeed a man of his time: a deeply Christian and deeply racist patriarch who prides godliness and enterprise above all, because the apartheid regime allowed him little else. He cannot be made sense of, cannot even be accurately apprehended, without appreciating the overwhelming world-historical forge in which he has been melted down and molded. Nicholas’s rigid and domineering masculinity is a survival strategy, though it is secured at the expense of his wife, children, and daughter-in-law. We must never tire of saying it: the personal is political.
Her critical tendencies lead to many satisfying and self-effacing insights, but Mercia’s training as a literary scholar does not, could not equip her to guide us knowingly through the landscape of post-apartheid South Africa, and she rarely presumes to try. Mercia often makes an understandable but doomed effort to quarantine her memories of both Craig and her childhood, bounding them in a stable past. But this impulse does not afford her any firm grasp on either of her home countries or her relationship to them.
Or rather, not-quite-home countries: Mercia never really commits to Scotland, cannot really escape South Africa. She alternately renounces and yearns for each. Rather than simply waffling in the choice between two homes, such constitutional ambivalence leads Mercia to a generative (if occasionally disingenuous) skepticism about the very viability of the concept: “Why bother with the idea of home, a notion that has been turned inside out, like an old garment in preparation for mending?” Mercia’s memories are littered with such insights, made all the richer by their endless revision. Wherever it is or isn’t, home for Mercia is always “a place for doing and thinking at an angle.”
To borrow a succinct phrasing of Stuart Hall’s, “In the diaspora situation, identities become multiple.” Emotionally and intellectually jolted by the “centripetal forces” of migration and return, Mercia’s efforts to rein in memory fail, unfailingly. But they represent an important and only obliquely acknowledged survival strategy shared by all three protagonists. Mercia’s wrangling with memory, Jake’s drinking, and Sylvie’s teenage rebelliousness are all attempts at self-authorship in order to dominate a difficult past. When such efforts inevitably fail, alternatives must be found, a kind of peace must be made.
If the ambivalent relationship between then and now, home and elsewhere, were all Wicomb’s novel set out to interrogate, we would have learned plenty. But it is equally a novel about the complex pressures of racialization in a violently racist society; about the politicization of language in a globalizing world; about religious morality and the threat of sinfulness; about the power of class and education to set the limits of the possible. It is a novel only a writer as staggeringly talented as Wicomb could write.
An exemplary not-quite-homecoming: Mercia passes through the town of Falkirk while riding back to her Glasgow apartment. She remembers eating stew from three-legged pots in South Africa, “pots manufactured for the colony” in the foundries of Falkirk, stamped with the town’s name. As her train passes the foundries, some unexpected sunlight punctures the rain. An Afrikaans phrase returns to Mercia, coughed up glittering and whole by the sea of memory: “Jakkals en Wolf gaan trou. That’s what they said at home when rain and sunlight commingled. An unlikely marriage between jackal and wolf.”
Sam Huber lives and writes in New York City. He is a guest contributor to Feministing.