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Jo'Burg Days: Mrs Chud's Place

Barbara Durlacher reviews books by the South African author E M MacPhail.

I’m going to begin this review by giving two quotations from the book which seem to aptly sum up the sense of alienation and despair that is the unbridgeable divide in South Africa between the white and black races, no matter how many well-meaning efforts are made to close it.

Them and Us

They are rooted here. Their tenuous life, haunted by
Ancestors, walks beneath these leaves.
Out of sight but always well in earshot
Our neighbours weave the slow grass mats
Of their dark-green unfathomable lives,
Whilst we in our dry, well-furnished houses

with house-boys polishing the spacious acres,
stare out across the smooth manorial lawns
and red platoons of cannas through the trees

David Gill
Attachments to the Sun

…and he told them his home place was near to Babanango which was on the road to Nqutu in the direction of Dundee.

Setting off from his home place, young Jabulani plans to reach Durban where his father works. He is confident in the knowledge that his father, who has many years of experience, will find him a job. Instead, through a number of misunderstandings and wrong turnings, Jabulani unexpectedly finds himself in Johannesburg, where - through another misunderstanding, he is employed by Mrs Chudleigh, a wealthy, well-meaning suburbanite living in an up-market area.

Having now adopted the name Obadiah, the young man settles down to a life of ‘garden wek’ and an on-going feud with the household’s long-time cook-housekeeper Gertie, “that Pedi girl” as Oupa calls to her, while his new employer attempts to come to terms with the heartbreak and turmoil of her husband’s abandonment of his marriage and subsequent divorce.

For a time, the strain of coping with the unexpected responsibilities of her new situation insulate Mrs Chud from the events around her, and it is not until her father arrives from his isolated Karroo farm that reality begins to assert itself. Slowly she starts to notice the responses of the children, the grandfather and the outraged black woman to the newcomer, and too late, realises that her well-meaning attempts to help her protégée Obadiah are going to fail. This realisation comes simultaneously with the crescendo which brings the book to its tragic end.

EM Macphail’s writing is wonderfully concise, her word pictures brilliantly recreate scenes familiar to us all – as in Chapter Six, “Independence” - a short story complete in itself and a wonderful depiction of the ‘old’ Afrikaner South Africa. Her writing is full of light and local colour, and her characters resonate with the reality of their depiction.

The interplay of young South Africans growing up in the challenging and difficult environment of life in the unstable and politically charged life of that era has an unexpected effect on the unsophisticated people involved, and the author’s depiction of those times brings back the familiar tensions. Sadly, those tensions have been replaced in 2007 by stresses and fears of a different kind.

The old schisms of the Anglo-Boer war raise their ugly head; the mistrust between black tribal cultures in South Africa and the ominous rumblings of the social unrest of the years between 1970 and 1980 are subtly felt. All of these, combined with the after-effects on a whole generation of young men conscripted and made to fight in a war they did not want or whose reasons they did not understand, lead to the final eruption of turbulent emotions in this finely structured and delicately balanced story.

To get a real feel of the South Africa that was only yesterday, and yet looking back, seems so long ago, read this excellently written book, together with others by the same author.

“Phoebe & Nio” and her short stories “Falling Upstairs”.

Johannesburg author EM MacPhail’s delicate portrait of her main character Nio is unforgettable, and can easily stand alongside the currently popular author Alexandra Fuller’ recreation of her childhood in “Don’t Let the Dogs Bark Tonight”. Mrs MacPhail’s excellent book deserves to reach a wide audience despite the many years which have passed since it was first published.

Set in the Johannesburg of the 1950’s we meet a shy young girl trying to come to terms with life. When her father died during her early childhood her London-born mother battled to save their Transvaal Lowveld farm and Natalie was sent to a convent boarding school. As a shy, introverted and lonely little girl, she was temperamentally unsuited for the rough and tumble of a convent school and dormitory life. When, with childish cruelty the children changed her name to Nutalie, Nuts and then the Latin diminutive Nio, she takes fright and, too shy to cope with so many changes in her early years, she withdraws into a world of books and her imagination.

Then Phoebe befriends her and gradually she starts to learn about life, gaining a sense of self-worth and security from her meetings with Granny and the slightly disreputable crowd of “ma-plotters” she meets on her visits to a smallholding on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Later, through Phoebe’s warm and loving letters from Europe, Nio begins to mature, although this brief flowering and unfolding, is abruptly curtailed with the death of her beloved mother and her rushed and drastically misdirected early marriage.

Wonderfully evocative of the South Africa of that period, with perceptive pen pictures of the sort of characters that people small-town society, South African-born E M Macphail has created an unforgettable portrait of a vanished era.

The gossiping wives in the Platteland dorpie have their duplicates everywhere, while in Magdalena, the black house girl, and Joey, wife of the local drunkard, she finds a rough understanding and honesty that give her the only true friendship she has during those horrible months in the bleak mining town and the period when she tries to cope with the tragedy and heartbreak that overtake her.

The unexpected reversal of circumstances leading to the solution of the girls’ problems cleverly concludes the story of Phoebe and Nio as seen from the perspective of an author whose sympathy and understanding has fleshed out these imaginary lives with extraordinary perception.


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