FORGET about the protracted and meandering opening pages that are often territory of the South African farm novel. Alistair Morgan cuts to the chase with this first line from The Land Within: “He had always associated the farm with the smell of death.” The reader is both warned and bewitched on page one. This technique also worked well in Morgan’s award-winning debut novel, Sleeper’s Wake (2009), which opened with the equally captivating “When I woke up they had to remind me that I’d been in an accident”. Morgan circumvents lengthy descriptions by constructing the scene as we read rather than as a precursor to the action.
Farm novels are the dominion of many Southern African writers: Eve Palmer’s The Plains of Camdeboo, Alexandra Fuller’s Let’s Not Go to the Dogs Tonight or, a personal favourite, Etienne van Heerden’sLeap Year. And let’s not forget Marlene van Niekerk’s epic, Agaat. At just 155 pages, The Land Within is perhaps more of a farm novella than a novel, but it is precisely this sparse and honed method that keeps the word count down while maximising the story’s impact. Henry Knott and his heavily pregnant wife Marian have been visiting Henry’s cancer-riddled father in Graaff-Reinet – a Karoo town some 700km from Cape Town – with its tiered mountains that seem to touch the cerulean sky, but if there is serenity to be found there, it won’t be Henry who finds it.
Philip Knott has one last wish – he is “Wither(ing) against the cruel behest of cancer” – and would like nothing more than to be buried in the family farm’s cemetery. Except the land is no longer in the hands of his family. And Philip’s son Henry has no desire to revisit it, because, as a psychologist, he is fully aware that the land within his skull still has the horsepower to drag him across this harsh and untamed terrain, leaving him impaled on the ubiquitous and deceptively named Soetdoring (literally: sweet thorn). But Henry and Marian do visit the old farm in the hope that the new owners will assent to such an arrangement. However, Henry’s mother Paula has pipped them to the post: the farm’s new owners have received a letter from her specifically asking them to turn down any such request by Philip. The reason, she says, is that Philip Knott is no longer linked to his ex-wife lineage of the Dunbar family, whose cemetery is on what is now Kabelo and Ayanda Mahlangu’s land.
Here Morgan has subtly and ingeniously introduced a universal question – but all the more germane to South Africa – of land ownership and the graves of ancestors. One could go as far as to say this is the crucible of combat. At this juncture, the reader realises that Morgan is about to turn what has gone before on its head. The farm’s new owners are in the process of remodelling the farm as a hotel, although it is clear to all that it is foundering. Yet, he must come cap in hand to speak to the new man of the house. Kabelo is not prepared to go against Henry’s mother’s wishes, and the two spend some time deliberating on what is to be done.
Meanwhile, Kabelo’s wife Ayanda insists the couple stay the night, and here is the nexus between the child Henry and the grown psychologist of 20 years later. We know from the opening sentence that there are dark secrets the farm has held hostage, and Henry has no wish to release them. As he examines himself it becomes apparent to him that it isn’t the farm that needs exploring: it’s the recesses of his mind, where he now discovers these secrets were merely repressed, not exorcised. Neither the young Henry nor the adult Henry has ever felt quite grounded, or not enough to face his fears.
The young boy he thought he was and the man he is now are doomed to always fall short of their own credos, but just how badly, we wonder. We sympathise with Henry: he is as ensnared between the impending death of his father and the envisaged birth of his son. Muted red herrings abound and when the final “red herring” makes its appearance, you will feel like slapping yourself with it. By now we are waiting with bated breath for anything from an ancestor to a basilisk to appear in order to break the mounting tension. There are small creases in an otherwise taut mural: no light relief, a few incidents where we are required to suspend disbelief slightly, an overly visceral rendition of Henry’s pregnant wife’s vulva. But Morgan is a master raconteur; a writer who knows what is needed where to hold our attention. It’s all in the timing.
Verbaan is an award-winning journalist and a fiction editor.
By: Aly Verbaan