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22nd of October 2018


Book review: The Café de Move-On Blues and Mr Peacock's Possessions

The Café de Move-On Blues by Christopher Hope (Atlantic) $32.99

New Zealand has seen waves of South African immigrants over the past two decades. While they have added to our society, what about the land they left behind?

Award-winning South African novelist Christopher Hope takes a scalpel to the body they abandoned. With incisive insight and clear prose he dissects a country wasted by the ravages of the stupid and brutal policies of the "mad circus" of apartheid. In its wake, he discovers the same violence and racist hatred, albeit in a different guise.

Hope takes as his starting point the student demonstrations in Cape Town against the statue of arch British imperialist, thief and racist, Cecil Rhodes. The statue was desecrated and removed. Following a trail of the "statue wars", Hope then investigates the fate of other relics of "heroes" of South Africa's past. Needless to say, they are all dead white males, until Mandela's ANC won power.

The statue wars were a "public act of exorcism", a "festival of ignorance" as the inheritors of Mandela's reign tried to erase the past. They were attacking the symbols of white supremacist rule with "racial venom".

Likewise, just as the Afrikaners changed the names of the places of the old British colonial overlords, so the new rulers altered the names the Boers left. Statues, buildings, streets and towns – all are now subject to the vengeful fury of the current regime. Except Black is the new White.

From Cape Town to close to the Zimbabwean border, Hope finds "a land convulsed by violence" and the "assumption of moral righteousness". The statues, of Kruger, Kitchener, Rhodes and Verwoerd, commemorate "a country given over to brutality, where the rule has been that there are no rules, where the elite, then, as now, enriched themselves, all the time claiming to be on the side of the angels".

One of the most recent relics was Eugene Terre'Blanche, the leader of the proto-fascist "Afrikaner Resistance Movement". To Hope, Terre'Blanche embodied "what infects the South African scene: a sense of being centre stage, a theatricality, a rising anger and a willingness to revert to violence".

Hope discovers a country mired in recrimination, revenge and retribution. His conclusions make for a challenging read. We all toasted the ascent of Mandela: it would appear his country is now being ripped apart.

Hope's is no objective autopsy, however: he is self-confessedly partisan. He grew up in the country, before heading overseas. His voice is that of the pained doctor, concerned for the fate of his patient, yet unable to prevent his illness. He is both insider and outsider, and it is that unique stance that gives his observations their power. It is a harrowing but vital read. – Steve Walker

READ MORE: * Books of the week September 8, 2018* Books of the week August 25, 2018* Books of the week August 18, 2018

Mr Peacock's Possessions by Lydia Syson is beautifully researched, but never feels like a history lesson.

Mr Peacock's Possessions by Lydia Syson is beautifully researched, but never feels like a history lesson.

Mr Peacock's Possessions by Lydia Syson (Zaffre Publishing) $33

"Literature," author David Lodge reminds us, "is a record of human consciousness, the richest and most comprehensive we have." Insight and sensitivity is everywhere apparent in historical novelist Lydia Syson's new book, Mr Peacock's Possessions. Set on various Pacific islands in the 1870s, it follows the titular wayfarer and his family, their association with Niuean workers and the mysterious disappearance of a tormented boy. It also becomes an expose of little-known settler existence in the Kermadecs, as well as a strong thematic study of Victorian patriarchy, idealism, control and freedom.

Syson has clearly done her research. From the Peacock family's struggles to maintain a boarding house in Upolu, Samoa, in the face of German economic dominance during the late 19th century, to a rich portrayal of the different lives lived by those upon Niue and the Peacocks' sanctuary, Monday Island (modelled on Raoul Island), the author's details are precise and credible. They also come to the fore in the family's journey aboard the ship Esperanza as they are taken to their new island home. Moreover, always Syson's historical landscapes – potentially distancing and unfamiliar to contemporary readers – are welcoming and faintly recognisable.

The key to Syson's successes here is that, though the wealth of her research is clear, she never lards it into the action in ways which give us a history lesson. Instead, facts and details are used sparingly, but with necessity to immerse us in the compelling exterior and interior lives of the characters.

This cast is also crafted credibly. Victorians they might be, but the author creates them with an ease which makes them seem tangible, as free in their aspirations and as constrained by the social mores as the rest of us. Elder daughter, Lizzie, for instance, is a compelling mix of fire, industry, wit and compassion; while migrant worker Kalala offers a piety, integrity and perseverance required to unravel the dark secrets at the novel's core. The other standouts are timid only son Albert and his defiant father. It's young Albert upon whom, in the culture of the times, so much masculine privilege and hereditary and fatherly ambition rests uneasily. Pater Peacock is his son's opposite: forceful, daring, idealistic and – ultimately – dangerous.

In its characters, settings and details, Mr Peacock's Possessions tells an all-too-human and modern tale about the dangers of untrammelled authority, heedless romanticism, phobic gender and racial archetypes and the shortcomings of power. Astutely, the author anchors this rich mix of themes to the lives of one family and their employees on one small Pacific island. This particularising of the general pays off big time, making Mr Peacock's Possessions rich and comprehensive indeed. – Siobhan Harvey

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