As readers, we turn to specific authors when we don’t want to be disappointed. The internationally acclaimed writer, Craig Higginson, has become one of these for me. His latest novel, The Book of Gifts, is another gem in his impressive oeuvre. It begins with a family trip to uMhlanga Rocks and radiates from this particular moment into the past and the future, gradually piecing together the puzzle of the intricate – often toxic – relationships that play out during the holiday in KwaZulu-Natal. At the centre of the unfolding story and the complex familial constellation are the two half-sisters, Emma and Jennifer. Emma is a successful sculptor and mother to Julian, at the time of the holiday an eleven-year-old boy who falls in love for the first time with an enthralling, slightly older Clare. Jennifer is a teacher at Julian’s school back in Johannesburg where they all live, and wife to Andrew, a psychologist struggling to find his professional and personal bearing.
“A gift is never a destination in itself,” Andrew tells one of his patients, “but a means to an end – a stepping stone towards somewhere else.” Every chapter of The Book of Gifts is told from the perspective of one of the main characters and contains a mention of a gift that one of them gives to another with diverse intentions and consequences. The gift that stands out throughout is the one of life, whether it is the life a parent gives to their child or the life that an artist gives to their creation. Emma continues asking herself whether she is capable of managing both these callings, as a mother and as a creative person, and experiences guilt that allows a potentially lethal gift, “the poisoned apple”, to threaten her and her son’s well-being.
In a world where everyone has a secret and integrity is torn apart by betrayals, the gift of truth has the biblical potential to set one free, but speaking up takes courage. When Julian ends up in a comma after a mysterious fall, the adults in his life have to dig deep in order to comprehend – and perhaps finally accept – their responsibilities towards the conflicted young man and towards one another. But not all of them are ready for the effort involved.
Higginson explores how an act of creation can also reshape reality in order to reveal or disguise culpability, which adds another fascinating dimension to The Book of Gifts that made me reconsider my own understanding of the relationship between truth and storytelling. This finely layered, mesmerising novel will cement Higginson’s position as one of the most gifted – yes, that word again – writers in South Africa and beyond. His ability to shine a light into the darkest places of the human heart and confronting them with empathy is remarkable: “This is where life begins, he thinks, as he takes another step into the dark.”
The Book of Gifts
Picador Africa, 2020
Review first published in the Cape Time on 20 February 2020.