Home Remedies

Diane Awerbuck’s second novel was published by Umuzi last year.

She rose to prominence as a literary author with her first book, Gardening at Night, praised by Andre Brink who appeared to be impressed by the allegorisation of politics in South Africa.

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My first impression of Ms Awerbuck’s latest novel, centred in and around the False Bay area of Fish Hoek, is that it is a phenomenal and original narrative journey which starts in Kimberley in the Northern Cape and ends in possible redemption at Polsmoor Prison in Tokai, near Fish Hoek.

For the benefit of non-South Africans unfamiliar with the Cape’s landscape, Fish Hoek is a quiet suburb situated on the east coast of the Cape Peninsula. And yet the narrative aptly describes surroundings, both natural and sub-urban which will be familiar to the international reader.

While the story deals with themes familiar to South Africa’s past and present, I suggest that the central message of the story is a universal one.

The story’s title could be ironic, but I believe that it juxtaposes the narrative where Joanan Renfield, under challenging and tragic circumstances, persists in solving personal philosophical dilemmas .

Elsewhere, in a previous review by Dawn Garisch, the protagonist is described as being unlikable. Indeed, it may be difficult for the perfectionist, or those who strive towards perfection in their own lives to endear themselves towards this flawed character. But, to my mind, Joanna Renfield, the story’s unlikely hero and protagonist, invites a sympathetic understanding of an overweight and vulnerable woman who must solve personal, existential and professional problems on her own.

Another reviewer suggested that the book’s jacket alludes to a ‘chick-lit’. What it does do, with the narrative structure and character focalisation, is give a feminist view of post-apartheid and democratic South Africa, not dissimilar to those given by South Africa’s Nobel laureate, Nadine Gordimer. The feminist narrative is not lost on male readers of  Home Remedies.

The narrative gives an impressionistic, yet jaundiced view of societal conditions which plague the white female protagonist, a writer and curator at a cultural museum in Fish Hoek. The protagonist, by exposing her own vulnerabilities in dealing with work-related issues and home life amongst her male house-mates, a sick boy and a Scandinavian chauvinist, leaves no stone unturned in exposing the negative side of empowerment which is designed to benefit previously disadvantaged South Africans.

In the event, Joanna Renfield’s chief antagonist is an emboldened, but hurt struggle hero, Viola, whose trauma of the struggle, a litany of abuse by her male peers, has a detrimental effect on her work as head curator. Viola, alongside Joanna, suffers from a feminine inferiority complex brought about by years of male prejudice.

The historic abuse of Saartjie Baartman and return of the native messenger’s corpse to its rightful place of rest on the African continent sets the tone for a narrative on post-apartheid, democratic life from a (previously privileged) female perspective.

The protagonist asks questions of herself as woman, mother and writer. She asks questions of history and its consequences, and in doing so is victimised as a consequence of the country’s colonial past. The experience of her  rape, echoing that of David Lurie’s daughter in J M Coetzee’s Disgrace, is narrated from the female point of view. The real life rape of a white South African woman is   foregrounded to emphasise the severity of the heinous abuse of women in South Africa in the twenty-first century.

This sickly phenomena of rape and abuse of women, the reader is reminded, stretches back to the years of isolation which MK cadres endured beyond apartheid South Africa’s borders, and still further to the tragic legacy of Saartjie Baartman.

The protagonist’s interior monologue’s, against the background of dark discoveries, both personal and exterior, counterpoise the tragedies of her life and that of her peers with comic effect. I could not help noticing the reference to the vampire myth of Bram Stoker’s Dracula where the narrator also takes the name of Renfield, the name of Dracula’s servile accomplice.

Setting aside the political and historic sub-themes for a moment, the effects of climate change are subtly interwoven into the narrative. One example is the reference to endangered toads and frogs, previously viewed as horrendous creatures that instil fear amongst the superstitious.

The closing lines hint at redemption which earlier did not seem possible.

A particularly enjoyable aspect of the narrative is the author’s use of original metaphors, complex if one struggles to understand the character’s focalisation, but adaptable whether or not the reader is familiar with the character’s natural and human surroundings.

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