Our Fathers by Rebecca Wait
Malcolm isn’t ecstatic to see his nephew again, mostly because he’s grown accustomed to living alone. Although determined to do his duty by his only living relative, he’s not sure what he has to offer beyond constant cups of tea. His wife, Heather, used to manage the emotional side of things.
The islanders also have mixed feelings about Tom’s return, some have particular reason to resent the reminder of the shocking incident that catapulted this quiet corner of the world into the news. John, Tom’s father, was ‘one of us’; how could he have done something so dreadful? Was it – the more comforting rationalisation – a freak moment of madness or did they fail to read the signs?
Rebecca Wait handles her material adroitly, with great compassion for her characters and avoidance of sensationalism that such situations can attract. Tom and Malcolm’s mutual conversational clumsiness is poignantly rendered in their repeated failures to connect. While she sensibly eschews a redemptive cathartic climax, the men, along with the reader, are enriched by the time they spend in each other’s company.
I was sceptical initially when, over halfway through, we move into Katrina’s, Tom’s mother’s, back story, but this soon developed from what might have seemed a psychological case study into a brilliant narrative of a vulnerable woman subjected to coercive control. (Although I still don’t know if John’s excruciating chat-up line was meant to illustrate his character, and Katrina’s in her failure to give him the finger, or the young author’s assumptions of gender relationships in what I presume to be my own youth.)
When I requested this novel from publishers riverrun, I didn’t realise I’d read this author before. If my memory serves me right (this was before I started reviewing), I was a little disappointed with the mental health theme in her debut The View on the Way down. I’m glad I didn’t (remember), as I might have missed out on this, her brilliant third novel. Our Fathers is a quietly potent novel about a shocking crime which honestly addresses coercive control, survivor guilt and our collective willingness to turn a blind eye. Psychologically astute, I cannot praise this novel enough.
It must be something in the ether because this is the sixth novel about/set on islands I’ve read so far this year. Perhaps it’s about the need for clearly boundaried space? If that’s your thing, you might also enjoy
Kiran Millwood Hargrave The Mercies
Elisabeth Gifford The Lost Lights of St Kilda
Amitav Ghosh Gun Island
Sandrine Collette Just after the Wave
Molly Aitken The Island Child
A Man Who Is Not a Man by Thando Mgqolozana
I’ve seen documentaries about African coming-of-age rituals, but naïvely assumed the practice had mellowed or completely died out. Not so! Lumkile is older than the boys in the films that previously disturbed me and, in his culture, boys undergo circumcision alone. Or under the supervision of an older relative, whose absence in his case might explain why Lumkile’s journey to manhood goes so badly wrong.
The rationale, as outlined in an early chapter, is that the ordeal teaches patience and endurance, learning how to manoeuvre through the difficult situations that life will undoubtedly present. Lumkile willingly suffers the agony, hunger, thirst (I found it particularly unsettling that initiates aren’t allowed to drink during their eight days of seclusion), isolation and enforced wakefulness but, when his penis starts to ooze and rot away, there’s no-one to tell him how serious it is.
The tension of this section of the novel is palpable as Lumkile, already weakened, fluctuates between the fear of chickening out and the fear of losing his life. Worse still, his community, and even some hospital staff, blame him for the failure of a procedure so central to their concept of masculinity. Saddled with shame, Lumkile finds no solidarity with the boys in a similar situation on the ward.
First published in South Africa in 2009, A Man Who Is Not a Man is republished by Cassava Republic, who provided my advance proof copy, on May 19th 2020 (appearing in the US on July 7th). Although I didn’t find the before and after chapters as well-written as those on the mountain, this is an important and compassionate story of a painful coming-of-age. It also highlights the ideological gap between traditional cultures, where individual needs are subservient to those of the group, and modern cultures which, while not completely devoid of social pressures, prize individuality.
If you’d like to explore this topic further, you might like my short story “Rebekah’s Foreskin”, about circumcision practices in some cultures in the Western world, which you can read in my identity-themed collection, Becoming Someone.
This week’s flash fiction challenge is to compose a 99-word story about tapping. I haven’t managed to link my contribution with the overall theme of masculinity although, in my head, the unnamed narrator of my contribution to the collection is male. With half the world on lockdown due to the coronavirus, I thought of how social isolation is bad for our mental health.
I thought of Lumkile in his mountain shelter, fearing for his life. I thought of Steve in my second novel, Underneath, who seeks to resolve a relationship crisis by keeping a woman captive in a cellar. I thought of Henry in my forthcoming third novel, Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home, confined to his room with a fever, quietly going off his head. In that novel, I’ve drawn on the language and landscapes of my native Cumbria where, rather conveniently, tapped means crazy. I’m not sure how widely used the other interpretations are, although hopefully you’ll get the gist.
Tap tap tap: is that the central heating system waking? Or rain on windows rehearsing for another flood? Is it him, coming to repay the loan he tapped me for? Is it the virus making a start on my head? I should open the door, in case it’s the woman I tapped off with at last month’s party. I should lock it, in case it’s her trying to leave.
How many days since I touched someone? How many weeks since I spoke to anyone face-to-face? I have beer on tap but I’m going mental. Let’s face it, I’m tapped.