It is a poor season for just about everything, but not for reading if you can manage to keep enough headspace intact to engage and enjoy it. And the latest novel by Michiel Heyns, his ninth, is pure literary delight. “Margaret Crowley, handsome, clever, rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly fifty-six years in the world with very little to distress or vex her. It was therefore hardly to be foreseen that in her fifty-sixth year she would kill a man with a kitchen knife.”
And so begins A Poor Season for Whales, taking you straight to the heart of the “last outpost of the white middle classes”, Hermanus, where Margaret Crowley has moved after an amicable divorce to start a new life away from her usual social circles in Cape Town. One day, while she is walking her dog Benjy, her canine companion gets into trouble and is rescued by Jimmy, a mysterious stranger, who takes an unsettling interest in Margaret and her life.
At first grateful for his assistance, ambivalent about her own reactions to the young man, Margaret cautiously allows Jimmy into her home, while he does everything he can to become indispensable to her. Her friends and her grown-up children are not impressed, and there are moments when she also suspects ulterior motives, but Jimmy intrigues her beyond the initial hesitation. And when her ex-housekeeper, Rebecca, demands her assistance in providing her with a home, and her over-the-top sister-in-law decides to descend on Margaret and her children for Christmas, Margret does not feel that she has a choice but to allow Jimmy to help her handle the situation.
As you joyously and nervously turn the pages of A Poor Season for Whales, the question throughout persists, of course, about who is going to end up with a kitchen knife in his back, especially after the said knife appears on the set like a Chekhov’s gun. The title suggests that whales might also make an unexpected appearance. Or not.
The plot is carried by pitch-perfect dialogue. Imagine Jane Austen meets Before Sunrise and Heyns’s own A Sportful Malice. The running socio-political commentary felt spot-on. Heyns has a beautifully wry sense of humour and I found myself laughing out loud every few pages. After Jimmy’s condemnation of Margaret’s cooking skills, I might never be able to allow iceberg lettuce into my kitchen.
On a more serious note, the novel also reminded me of The Talented Mr Ripley and perhaps a lesser known but stunning novel by Elizabeth Jane Howard, Falling. The way Heyns depicts the relationship dynamics in his novel made me think – with discomfort – about a few people in my life who have the tendency to push one into previously unimagined corners and get away with it. But a kitchen knife is seldom an option.
A Poor Season for Whales
by Michiel Heyns (2020)
Review first appeared in the Cape Times on 15 May 2020.