Damon Galgut’s novel works very well as the story of a man who finds his life changing radically. A man who has the rug pulled out from under him, and loses his bearings, his grasp of how to move forward. It’s also an immediately compelling mystery of political corruption, and land development schemes. It’s also meant to tell the story of a South Africa in flux. Of a South Africa that has lost it’s bearings. Of a South Africa torn between forging a new future from ground zero, or attempting to accommodate, learn from, and grow from the base of the past. Unfortunately, The novel works less well in this realm.
Adam Napier loses his Johannesburg job as part of affirmative action initiatives and moves out to the country to live in his brothers never used bungalow. He has a notion to take up his long abandoned poetry writing. A chance meeting with an old school chum sets the tone and intrigue for the rest of the novel. Canning remembers “Nappy” (Adam’s school boy nickname) well, going so far as to call him his hero. Adam has not a clue who Canning is.
A little heavy on the metaphors. Weeds in the yard that must be tended to. The urge (on the part of Canning) to destroy the legacy of his father in revenge. Galgut (at least here) is not nearly as nuanced as J.M. Coetzee. He’s more….well, black and white, though the nexus of the black-white relationship in the new South Africa is all about money, and the opportunity to make it – and fast.
The one metaphor that works effectively is where the ‘identity’ of the state mirrors the evolving, remade, fake identities of the individual impostors of Galgut’s novel. And Galgut gives us some well-drawn characters. Canning is purposely murky and faceless. His much younger (black) trophy wife (and they live in an inherited hunting lodge where stuffed animals abound) is cunning, lethal and single-minded. The relationships between Adam and Canning and between Adam and his ostensibly apartheid culpable criminal next door neighbor are complicated and ever shifting.
This is a highly readable book that moves along quite nicely. If not at the Coetzee level, the novel is still engaging and worthwhile.