by Dawn Promislow
Freehand Books, 240 pp.
Reviewed by Janice Weizman
Among the most compelling novels are those that bring you into their world through their use of voice. Someone is speaking, across time, across space, across consciousness, and if their voice is strong and intriguing enough, the reader decides to trust that voice, and allows herself to be led. The reward of this trust is the chance to enter into another perspective, to see things that are not in our line of vision.
In Wan, the voice that leads us is that of Jacqueline Kline, an elderly ex-South-African widow from Johannesburg living in New York city, and an abstract painter of some renown. She addresses us directly, with a story from her past that she has never revealed.
Perhaps when one is old one feels that each word must be the truth.
I’m too old to hold on to this story anymore. So I’m going to tell it to you. That’s all. I will tell it. I never told that journalist, and I’ve never told anyone at all. I’ve never told it.
The voice is spare, plainspoken, and full of repetitions, a style that has the effect of making the prose sound like poetry. The story she tells unfurls slowly, latching onto details that emerge straight from her subconscious.
It’s fair to say that there aren’t too many women today who might fully identify with Jacqueline. She’s a stay-at-home mom to two children, her privileged, relaxed lifestyle enabling a life that includes daily afternoon naps, reading by the pool, and the time to paint abstract pictures in her studio at the far end of her garden. As a white middle-class South-African, it is in no way unusual that the family employs three live-in black domestic workers, who cook, clean, and tend to the garden and pool. But Jacqueline is painfully cognizant of the way she and her husband, Howard – a lawyer, are implicated in the system they live in. Here she is telling us about her maid:
The truth of it is I loved Emily: her solidity of character; her sense of humour. Her intelligence.
Sometimes I would talk to her about the political situation, it was a conversation of tremendous awkwardness.
It will change one day, I would say. Yes ma’am, I hope so, she’d answer. But she looked doubtful, and I’m sure I looked doubtful, and pained, and there was nothing else I felt able to say.
Once I thought I must say something more. You know . . . I said. Mandela? She looked at me, startled.
He will come out one day you know, I said. And he will lead this country.
I felt anguished as I said it. Emily was still looking at me, I couldn’t discern what she felt, what she intended with her look. She nodded. She said nothing.
As the months and years went on I tried to say a version of this every once in a while. It felt necessary. It felt necessary that I say it. I felt like a terrible person, as I said it. And then I’d go to my bedroom and feel such rage at our situation, and shame.
The story Jacqueline tells is of how the family agreed that Joseph, an activist lawyer and member of the military wing of the ANC, board in a shack near the servants’ quarters in their garden. Jaqueline’s days are long and languid, and her thoughts are constantly with Joseph and his work.
At breakfast, with the newspaper, I would scan and scan, until I found something, something I was looking for: a small explosion on the main road to Sasolburg, one day. Sabotage. I’d carry an image of that road, I’d been on it, it was the main road to the Free State, a long straight road, power lines, some shanties you could see in the distance, glinting, a lone Black man, walking.
And another day: a problem, again a small explosion, outside a police station in Ermelo, I’d been there too. A dusty town, with nothing, its police station a small squat building on the main road, manned with an officer, brutal in his language, I imagined it. I knew that language, I knew it. Opstaan jou moer, opstaan.
My mornings at breakfast now lost their peace. As I sat with my tea, I came to feel that the newspapers were, how can I say, my friends. They held what was true. It seemed to me if I read closely enough, I would find the truth of where we were, what was happening.
Much of this book unfolds from within the stifled, frustrated space of Jacqueline’s consciousness, which is filled with her sadness, her creative struggles, and her erotic thoughts about Joseph, who makes direct, hopeful passes at her. There is a constant disjunction between the calm, peaceful limits of her home life, and the violent, intolerable reality just outside it. She is part of a society that will not and cannot speak freely of its transgressions, and it is the weight of this silencing that leads Jaqueline to an act that will result in their exodus from South Africa.
Jaqueline and Howard are the children of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe – a fact that looms in the background of her narrative, somehow compounding the tragedy of how they are, against their will, complicit in the grave injustices of their society. Though they are alienated from these roots, the elderly Jaqueline informs us, a little baffled, that her daughter, Helena has taken an interest in them:
I’ve understood since that my mother-in-law was a person of absences, and erasures...
I think she and her husband never cared to keep their Jewish traditions, or pass them down, I think it hurt them too much.
And I think Howard felt about it as his parents did. He married me, after all. I, who am a secular Jew.
But here’s a thing. Helena travelled to Lithuania a few years ago, in 2009, with her husband. She had always been interested in that history, her grandparents’ history.
Howard had only the town’s name, Rakishok, to give her. Nothing else. He tried, he tried to remember, but he’d never asked his mother. Helena is interested in absences. I’ve said it before: she resembles me.
Told in short, episodic chapters, Wan is a book whose whole adds up to far more than its parts. It is a small, private story, that sheds light on the psychology of the individual caught up in a monstrous system. In its quiet meditation on art, the novel raises simple but profound questions: You can make beauty out of any ugliness, any great sin, and the question is why, why would you do it? Why must you do it? And what is left, when you have made it — a beautiful thing — out of ugliness?
What, what have I left?
Jaqueline offers a response of sorts to this question at the end of her life, from the peace and safety of her New York apartment: And it’s only a painting after all, it’s not a life. It’s not a human being’s life. On the other hand, perhaps I made, in my painting, something good, that is also incorruptible. Because outside of a painting, anything is corruptible.