It’s difficult to believe that this is only Nick Mulgrew’s debut collection of stories. Stations reads like the work of a seasoned writer. Here is someone with acuity and a perfectly pitched voice. Not surprisingly, his writing is already highly acclaimed.
As the title suggest, the individual pieces in the book take their cue from the Stations of the Cross, in which Jesus’s last steps before crucifixion are commemorated. The dialogue between the structural skeleton of the book and each tale is striking. “Athlone Towers”, the volume’s first story, or “stop on a slow road to purgatory” as the spine of the book professes, uses the powerful image of the demolition of the famous Capetonian landmark to portray the demise of a relationship. At the same time it echoes Jesus’s condemnation to death. In the fourth “stop” of the book, “Ponta do Ouro”, a young man accompanies his mother on a fraught Christmas holiday to Mozambique. His parents are in the middle of a divorce. The corresponding station reflects Jesus’s encounter with his own mother shortly before his death. In “Restaurant”, a hopeful entrepreneur has to close down her restaurant. Her suffering mirrors Jesus’s death on the cross. In all of the stories, the devotional references are very subtle but enrich the reading substantially.
The way the stories engage with their religious context reminded me of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Decalogue, the Polish director’s ten films based on the Ten Commandments. What captures the reader’s imagination is the way the teachings are translated into a modern, often secular, narrative that we can all relate to.
Mulgrew’s characters are in transit, on the verge of a discovery or transformation. His stories are set around South Africa and beyond, even in the afterlife. The titular story takes us on a trip through the purgatory, which is reimagined as an alternative version of the Cape Peninsula: “Everything was familiar, but not familiar enough to be comforting… My heart dropped. This place had a geography that had to be relearned.” It is one of the most profound readings of the tensions and dilemmas of present-day Mother City. “Mr Dias”, “Posman”, or “Die Biblioteek vir Blindes”, also grapple with contemporary issues such as racism, affirmative action, or intolerance, but are more preachy and a slightly less successful.
The stories which spoke to me best were of intimate nature, focusing on topics close to the heart: rites of passage, grief, revenge, sexuality, or relationships between siblings, lovers and strangers. It is in these spaces that Mulgrew connects with the reader most poignantly, describing what might otherwise go unnoticed: “You lean to kiss me between the back of my ear and the top of my neck; in that place that doesn’t have a name.”
Mulgrew and I co-edited a book of African short stories. Watching him as an editor was a fascinating experience. His fine-tuned sensitivity and attention to detail are exceptional. He is also a fine poet, a true language practitioner. These talents reverberate in the arresting prose of Stations.
by Nick Mulgrew
David Philip, 2016
Review first published in the Cape Times on 18 March 2016.