Fiona Melrose’s Johannesburg is only her second novel, but it feels like the work of a much more seasoned writer. After her highly acclaimed debut, Midwinter (2016), which chronicled the grief and survival of a Suffolk farmer’s family and was set in the UK and Zambia, Melrose returns to the country of her birth and locates her latest story, as the title suggests, in the City of Gold on a very specific day in history, 6 December 2013. Melrose seems to be a fearless writer; her imagination leads her where surprisingly few dare to go and she gives credible and moving voices to characters of all backgrounds. It is the hallmark of a true writer. As is her literary scope. Melrose is not afraid of intertextuality, allowing Johannesburg to beat with the heart of a few literary giants, Virginia Woolf most prominent among them, but the storytelling rhythm is entirely Melrose’s own.
6 December 2013 was the day we all woke up to a world without Nelson Mandela. “It had been a bad night for nervous dogs. Thunder, and rain, terrible and hot, had drenched the city”, read the opening lines of Johannesburg. The story of the day which followed is told from the perspective of several characters. They come from all walks of life. For each of them, while they are all mourning Mandela’s passing in different ways, this day also marks a different kind of threshold as they navigate the restless metropolis which is their home: “Towers of glass and everywhere more being built – banks, law firms, mining houses, the great and the good of a bygone era still standing despite a crusty patina of blood and guilt.”
September lost everything after being shot at during miners’ protests on the (aptly renamed for the purpose of this novel) Verloren koppie. He spends his nights on flattened cardboard boxes in a garden and haunts the streets of Joburg during the day, begging and wanting to be acknowledged. He makes his “pilgrimage to the Diamond, the home of the mine bosses, the killers of men” and remembers the senseless violence that brought him to this place. His sister Duduzile tries to take care of him, but “his life rested like a bundle of jagged rocks on her back.”
Inside the Diamond, Richard knows that what happened at Verloren will not be ignored. He dreams of his summer beach holiday when he can shed all responsibility and become a castaway: “Seagulls, sky, perhaps the call of children as they ran back from the water’s edge as heavier waves barrelled in. That was all. And that was everything.” He realises that at sixty-four he is already three years older than his father when he passed away, and he remembers his wife Anne who died three years earlier. He still feels lost as he contemplates whether a gift is required as he prepares for a friend’s birthday party that evening.
The party is in celebration of Neve Brandt’s eightieth birthday. Her daughter Virginia, or Gin, arrives back from New York to organise it at her mother’s home in Joburg. She is convinced that “it would all fail, her party, her preparations. And she would be judged by everyone who sat there and, of course, by her mother.” The relationship between Gin and her mother is fraught with what remains unsaid between them. Neve is deeply unsettled by the birthday and the idea of the party: “She had no interest in feigning delight and gratitude, for she felt neither.” She has little faith in her daughter, despite her assurance that she will take care of everything. Neve’s attitude is crushing: “A party. What could be worse? It was the most miserable possible outcome for any birthday.” Her toxic scepticism causes Gin “to bruise, in that acrid yellow and black way.”
Their domestic worker Mercy observes the two women and their cutting misunderstandings while trying to catch any news of Tata Mandela. Peter, the man Gin once had a relationship with, sees her visit as an opportunity to make amends for their failures of the past, but is incapable of decisive action. Gin “demanded that all of it, life and death, look her square in the face and he, all the while, was softening, losing his nerve, turning away.”
The city – “the practised master of the endless hustle” – is, as the novel’s title boldly declares, the protagonist of the story. As its inhabitants struggle with missed opportunities and silences, the tensions gradually become unbearable. Something has to give. Death is omnipresent in obvious and more subtle ways. And then, while mourners gather outside the president’s residence and the skies above the city prepare for their usual cleansing, Neve’s dog goes missing and September knows that it is time to make his protests properly noticed. Gin feels that her lot is “too much. Too much was needed from her. And everything was wrong. Everything was too much for just one day.”
From the beginning of Johannesburg, it is clear that the “bad night” of the first sentence will permeate the “skinless” day of the novel and shift the characters’ lives into a different gear. For most of the time, Melrose commands the multiple narrative strands with great aplomb. There were only a few moments in the story, specifically in the passages centred on September, where I found myself wishing for tauter editing. But the novel left me feeling enriched, as if my own life had somehow been transformed by these fictional recollections of a day which is still very fresh in my memory.
The epigraph of the novel comes from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway: “Fear no more, says the heart, committing its burden to some sea, which sighs collectively for all sorrows, and renews, begins, collects, lets fall.” Johannesburg pays homage to the timeless classic, adapting some of its key elements and structurally following in its footsteps. Readers familiar with Mrs Dalloway will delight at the various references to Woolf’s writing, but Johannesburg can be enjoyed purely on its own terms. Melrose’s novel is inspired, never dominated by her sources. To my mind, two other local greats echo in the pages of the book: Nadine Gordimer and Ivan Vladislavić, the two “novelists of Johannesburg and historians of its streets”, as the writer and literary critic Michiel Heyns referred to them in one of his reviews. With Johannesburg, Melrose enters a widely travelled literary territory and makes it her own. It is a fine novel and Melrose is fast on her way to establishing herself as one of the most fascinating, versatile novelists of our time and place.
by Fiona Melrose
An edited version of this review appeared in the Cape Times on 22 December 2017.