Review: The White Room by Craig Higginson

The White RoomThe White Room, Craig Higginson’s latest novel, is sublime. Sometimes a simple, strong word can express it all, especially when you are reviewing a book so intricately fascinated by language – how we use it to communicate, to obfuscate or to hurt.

I have been reading Higginson’s work – his internationally recognised plays and award-winning novels – religiously since the publication of his third novel, The Last Summer. In The White Room, his fifth, Higginson returns to many of the themes he explores in his narratives: the nature of storytelling, trauma and loss, our place in history, familial ties and other human relationships, the fragility of love and, as mentioned above, the sheer wonder of language.

The novel has undoubtedly autobiographical echoes, as the protagonist, like Higginson himself, is a Zimbabwean-born playwright, living in South Africa, and travelling to London for the opening night of one of her plays. But, Hannah Meade is not Craig Higginson, although the play she wrote and is about to see performed for the first time strongly resembles Higginson’s own work, the remarkable The Girl in a Yellow Dress.

This is not the first time Higginson picks up the skeleton of one of his plays and fleshes it out to transform and resurrect it in the form of a novel. His previous, The Dream House, was based on another of his plays, Dream of the Dog. The reverse adaptation, for want of a better term, was extremely successful in both cases – the richly layered novels expounding the core truths of the theatrical pieces.

The White Rooms opens in London, where after the performance of her play, Hannah is hoping to reconnect with Pierre, the Frenchman of Congolese descent with whom she had a brief but turbulent affair while he was one of her English students many years ago in Paris. She is now a successful playwright, teaching creative writing, and walking the beaches of the Cape Peninsula where she “lives in a small town not far from Cape Town that is stuck between a high wild mountain and a wrinkled bay filled with sharks.” In this latest play of hers, Hannah works through the events of the past, looking “back at that earlier version of herself as an old antagonist still capable of harming her and all she has accomplished since leaving Europe.”

She goes back to her memories of the time she spent in Paris with Pierre and tries to come to terms with her more distant past, when her beloved twin brother Oliver was still alive and Hannah thought she would become an actress. Sitting next to his wife in the audience in London, Pierre has no idea what he is about to witness on stage and how the play’s dramatically filtered unfolding of the past events – “her version of Pierre – which, like a figure in a dream, is little more than an extension of herself” – will once again shatter his life.

The White Room takes us seamlessly back and forth in time as we are confronted with the inability of the young couple to not only recognise, but also acknowledge and accept each other for who they truly are when they meet in Paris, and the inevitability of their present encounter in London with all its surfacing anxieties and possibilities: “She withdraws deeper into the shadows as the rest of the audience fades into insignificance, and the world of the play, with hideous alacrity, starts to rearrange itself around him.”

Just as effortlessly, the narrative moves between fiction and reality. What adds intrigue to the story are the recurring references to Higginson’s own oeuvre as it has evolved in the last two decades since the publication of his first novel, Embodied Laughter.

Most of the story is set in Paris where, meeting once a week for their private lesson, Pierre and Hannah attempt to dissect their reality as it is reflected in the grammar rules of the English language. But whereas these are relatively easy to convey and Hannah feels “happiest in the place of language”, the dishonesty and escalating misunderstandings between the overeager student and his conflicted teacher erupt in scenes of heart-wrenching violence: “From the outset, there was a strong and dangerous attraction between them, an ineluctable force that wanted to draw them together, as mismatched as they might have appeared to be. But that did not make them compatible or healthy for one another.”

Higginson’s prose is luminous. He is one of those writers that make you look at individual words and phrases and delight in the multifaceted variants of their meanings. He seems always aware of how they relate to one another and, how through those connections, they enrich our experience and understanding of the world as well as our place in it. It is engrossing to trace through the narrative how the colour in the novel’s title refers to a physical and metaphorical space, the starkness of the blank page, as well as the traumatic history embedded in skin colour. And even though Hannah “tells her students that she in only interested in the life of the text”, that “[t]heir so-called lives are of no relevance”, her own story explores the undeniable entanglement of the two realms: “She was like a house that in the end no one wanted to inhabit. She required too much work. No matter how hard they tried to paint her walls white, she was a step behind, painting them black.”

Both Hannah and Pierre are intensely troubled characters, riddled with guilt, shame, insecurities and dark longings. But no matter how distant their internal conflicts might come across at times in comparison with one’s own life, they are simultaneously deeply familiar. It is impossible to remain unmoved by their story.

When opening a book with Higginson’s name on the cover, I have come to expect excellence – to be enthralled and challenged, emotionally and intellectually. The White Room not only delivers on these expectations, it goes far beyond them.

The White Room

by Craig Higginson

Picador Africa, 2018

Review first published in the Cape Times on 24 August 2018.

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