Scribner / 290 pages / $25
Skinner's Drift, Lisa Fugard's debut novel about a daughter returning to South Africa to see her violent father before he dies, is a nocturne of guilt and beauty.
Eva van Rensburg comes home after more than a decade in New York to find a country where black bartenders feel they can flirt with her. Reading her mother's diaries, she sifts through her past, trying to figure out what happened, even as she avoids a dark childhood secret she shares with her father, the Boer farmer Martin van Rensburg.
Taking place one-third in the present, two-thirds in the past, the novel replays disjointed episodes of her relationship with Ezekiel, an old servant. Ezekiel loves Eva like a daughter, yet he cannot say this; black men of his generation do not say such things to whites. He once watched the young girl descend into a compulsive insanity, burying the animals that her father, in an equally strange rage, felt compelled to kill.
Meanwhile, Eva's refined English mother, Lorraine, copes with Skinner's Drift, the farm she hates. "My sometimes cruel husband loves this miserable, rotten, and yes, beautiful country. And I love miserable, rotten, sometimes beautiful him," Lorraine says. "There's an equation in there that makes sense."
In a fit after realizing that Martin has been having an affair, Lorraine replants her rose garden outside Ezekiel's quarters. The smell makes Ezekiel's daughter, Grace, remember the joy of lying in a man's arms, which causes her to aid a wounded rebel from neighboring Botswana, whom she feels may be her only hope for a future for herself and her son; if the rebels win, maybe he will take her as his "woman," which is the only hope someone in Grace's position has. Her son Mpho sings child-songs about AK-47s and two-way radios. Apartheid has warped the logic of farm life into something surreal and violent.
The land is an unspeaking character. It gives us the "full-throated uuuhuua! Uuuhuua!" of the lion returning after the drought breaks, and the butcher-bird's shriek as it impales its prey on the garden razor wire. The Limpopo River, which Kipling immortalized in his Just So Stories, is South Africa's border with Botswana. Rebels cross the Limpopo to recruit local blacks for terrorism, so the South African government enlists white farmers as the first line of defense, offering special loans - loans that Martin, whose farm has suffered greatly from the drought, cannot refuse.
Martin's secret is darker than the loans he keeps from his wife. His secret is not that the farmers' irrigation of their water-intensive crops is causing the Limpopo to dry up. It's not that Grace's rebel may have shot Eva's young lover, Neels. No, it's something that happened when Martin went crazy in the years without rain, a horrible accident that happened before Eva went away to school, when she was still her father's darling.
Fugard, whose novel was first published in Britain last spring, is the daughter of Athol Fugard, one of South Africa's preeminent playwrights. It's tempting to see parallels between her life and Eva's. Both came to America in 1980 and stayed, but Fugard has said little publicly about her famous father. What is evident is the influence of South African writers on her. Fugard's protagonists, like those of Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee, aren't free of guilt, and it isn't easy to forgive them.
It's an American shortcoming that we want to love our main characters, that we expect them to transcend their flaws. However, people tend not to transcend flaws that are deeply ingrained in their culture. Eva is a white South African; oppression is part of who she is. Similarly, being oppressed is part of Ezekiel, and anger is part of his grandson. Mpho cannot even hear Eva's complaint that Martin is innocent, that the death of an anonymous black child was an accident.
More upsetting than the prospect of a half-paralyzed stroke victim going before an angry tribunal is that Ezekiel forgives Eva. He forgives her even though she's unwilling to admit that Martin mistook the child for a wild beast and killed him, and even though Eva barely sees Ezekiel for who he is, the only person who has ever loved her unconditionally.
Skinner's Drift is an uncanny, tragic piece of writing - all the more upsetting because the racial violence across the razor wire between Fugard's South Africa and Botswana still exists. Keeping another race down changes not only the victim but the one whose foot is on the other group's neck. South Africa today is no longer at a white-hot flash point. But Fugard's frighteningly good novel looks at this historic turmoil without wincing or turning away.
Laurel Maury wrote this article for the Los Angeles Times.