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Ms. Magazine
Sunday, November 8th, 2009
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Till We Can Keep an Animal

by Megan Voysey-Braig

Dead Woman Talking

A review by Gaiutra Bahadur

Near the end of this debut novel, the daughter of a rape victim sits in a circle of gangsters smoking crystal meth in the Cape Flats, a place freighted with the injustices of South African history. In real life, its slums, sequestered between city and sea on the outskirts of Cape Town, rose up to house many of the 60,000 people kicked out of District Six when the apartheid regime claimed their central-city neighborhood exclusively for whites in 1966.

The daughter, Imogen, received in the housing projects as a "white woman with a clipboard," is there for research, and sitting next to her on a folding chair, cleaning a gun, is her mother's rapist and murderer. She doesn't know this. The narrator, who does, says: "What if he drew that gun he was cleaning and put it to her head, holding it like some American gangsta rap star? Not even our gangs can be original."

Her observation could serve as a commentary on the novel itself. The narrator is the dead woman Sarah, stuck in a purgatory where, like the narrator of Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones, she watches her family cope with her own passing. While shadowing her daughter, in a predictable though improbable scene, Sarah finds herself eye to eye with the man who shoved his gun up her vagina and pulled the trigger.

"God, Imogen," she says, "run, please. Call the police." And then Voysey-Braig emulates the contrition at the center of J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace, another novel about a white South African raped by an apartheid victim during a robbery, as Sarah wrestles with racial guilt. "So I learn to turn in the scars he made in me, learn to turn in the scars I made in him," she says, after discovering that her murderer lost his family in a gangland shooting.

But where Coetzee was a master of restraint as he explored South Africa's peculiar reckoning with crime and its own conscience, Voysey-Braig gives us too much: too much lyricism, so that sentences and sometimes entire passages lose their meaning in flights of fancy. Too many narrative tricks. And too much suffering for one woman, one family, one story, to bear. Not only was Sarah raped, she was sexually abused as a child by an uncle. Although she loves her husband, and grieves to see him a widower, she is apparently a lesbian who stifled her orientation to please her family. As a child, she watched her father beat her mother, who narrates a story-within-the-story about Sarah's great-grandmother, raped repeatedly in a British concentration camp during the Boer War.

The author has talent that turns pages, and she spins female characters who deal fiercely with their inheritance of violence by men. The early chapters, describing Sarah's killing, are haunting. But with a central event itself so devastating, the writer needed to ration the plot surrounding it. Imitation is not necessarily a narrative sin, but it does risk comparison to a greater original.

Gaiutra Bahadur is a freelance writer.

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