Opening an Ingrid Winterbach novel fills me with excitement every single time. She is one of my favourite contemporary Afrikaans writers and I am immensely grateful that her work is available in English.
Expect the unexpected is the slogan that runs through my head whenever I am reading Winterbach’s exhilarating and wise narratives. The latest, The Troubled Times of Magrieta Prinsloo, was no exception. From the first page to the very end, the novel astounds. How about this for an opening sentence: “Magrieta Prinsloo, daughter of the biology teacher, tall, firm of calf and buttock, dark hair, right eye inclined to wander slightly outwards when she’s overworked, doctor of zoology, head of laboratory with twelve people under her, in early January, after a run-up of several months, gradually grinds to a halt.” Who could possibly resist reading on?
Magrieta is in trouble. Whether it is her depression or the wrong medication prescribed by her doctor or the unease she is feeling in her marriage, it all becomes too much to bear and, one day, after a spectacular blow-up with her boss, she quits her job at the university. There is no ready excuse and there doesn’t seem to be a way back for her, so she begins working for the Bureau for Continuing Education. Her new boss is peculiar, to say the least, and runs the bureau like “an espionage outfit”, assigning more and more work to his associates while solving Sudoku games all day long in his office. Eventually, he disappears mysteriously, and Magrieta and her colleague Isabel have to pick up the pieces at the bureau.
A man is murdered on a beach at Jameson Bay where Magrieta saw a beached humpback whale. On one of her walks, she encounters a woman who has pitched up a tent in the vineyards behind Magrieta’s house in Stellenbosch. She has no idea what any of this means, but she continues with her work and, after a bad spell in the relationship, Magrieta realises that she does not want to lose her husband. In several public toilets she finds strange whale graffiti drawings that she interprets to be signs left behind for her to find, but why? “You’re lucky…that the universe communicates with you like this behind toilet doors”, Isabel tells her.
Then, one day, while she is searching for clues of her boss’s whereabouts, Magrieta sees a baleen whale leap out of the sea and is transformed by the experience.
Winterbach has a knack for creating the most unusual characters and inventing odd loops for them to jump through, and yet it all seems uncannily familiar in the end. It is impossible not to care for them and not to keep on reading.
A novel about change and the essentials that make our lives fulfilling, The Troubled Times of Magrieta Prinsloo reads beautifully in Michiel Heyns’s translation.
The Troubled Times of Magrieta Prinsloo
by Ingrid Winterbach
translated by Michiel Heyns
Human & Rousseau, 2019
An edited version of this review was published in the Cape Times on 26 July 2019.