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Ruth Browne Reviews The Spiral House by Claire Robertson

The Spiral House Verdict: Carrot

It is 1794. English, Dutch and the first young dialects of Afrikaans mingle companionably at Vogelzang, a farm out in the far country, ripe with secrets. Slaves tend to the kitchens, and the labourers who harvest the grapes answer to the whip and dogs of the knecht who oversees their work. Into this world steps Katrijn van de Caab, a young woman from Cape Town. Katrijn can read and sew; a nimble thinker, she is the ideal partner for Crispin le Voir, the French peruker.

A freewoman, Trijn struggles to learn herself. At Vogelzang, she looks to the houseslaves for guidance in the ways of femininity: Meerem dark and quiet, Jansie with her mysterious swaggering pregnancy, Derde Susann’s prophetic dreams and matriarchal authority.

Le Voir, too, is a model and mentor for Trijn. Thanks to him, Trijn’s mind finds room to test, expand and explore at a wholly unsympathetic time and place in history. But there are changes ahead for Trijn and those living at Vogelzang, betrayals and discoveries rising like the yeasted bread from Derde Susann’s kitchen.

In every alternating chapter, it is 1961. The little Union Jack stitched into the centre of the flag is a raw memory; this is the year of the independent Republic of South Africa. Sister Vergilius is a nun at the Mannamead Mission near the town of Slagterskop in the Union of South Africa. Unyielding, always penitent, Mother Rose and the sisters practice their faith under the Southern Cross, but Vergilius is losing her conviction.

Speaking “through his teeth like some sort of bliksemse bioscope captain in the Battle of Britain”, Special Branch Valentine Teichert is in Slagterskop to enforce new laws flying in from Parliament in Cape Town that will split husbands and wives and banish families and businesses on the basis of racial segregation. Fully aware of the inhumanities this nation has seen, Robertson traces the tendrils of hatred worming out through every province, to the country’s furthest reaches.

A senior copy editor for the Sunday Times, Claire Robertson worked for thirty years as a successful journalist before publishing this, her first work of fiction. It is historically situated and self-aware, always attuned to context. As to probable influences, JM Coetzee comes to mind first. His themes of madness and tortured femininity in a rural South African context play out in the character of Vogelzang’s Madam, crouched over her birdcage, inundated in bitterness. Denial and frustrated desire afflict the Vogelzang ensemble, but are tempered by the women slaves’ mutual reliance and care. Vergilius, too, reads like Coetzee to a point, although her gradual liberation at a time of upheaval in a foreign land evinces a powerful optimism. Andre Brink’s latest, Philida (ripped apart by Rian Malan for the Sunday Times), also concerns a Cape Colony slave girl determined to overcome her lot. From another angle, Katrijn van de Caab may borrow something from the title character in Dalene Matthee’s Pieternella Daughter of Eva, Pieternella van die Kaap. Both stories are the products of extensive research, and both deal with a child of mingled ancestry born to troubled times.

Robertson’s two casts and stories overlap easily across the years without losing distinction. Katrijn and Sister Vergilius have different paths and destinations, but both battle with questions of belonging. Doing her mending in the sun on the verandah, Trijn collects stones to represent skin colour: lighter shades for herself and Jansie, darker for Meerem and a pebble wet from Trijn’s mouth for Melt. Master Calcoen uses a similar system with coloured leather to play the eugenicist with his slaves, but Trijn only marvels at the echoes of human variety in the natural world. Camouflaged amongst nuns’ habits, Vergilius stirs in her cocoon, preparing to emerge like an emperor moth into a world of colour and confusion.

The Spiral House is set apart by its language: sometimes sparse and hard as exposed rock, but more often given to vivid, detailed descriptive passages like poetry. Often fairly dense and seasoned with archaic terminology, Trijn’s story in particular requires patient reading. This is offset, however, by gorgeous imagery. Under gathering clouds, Trijn lets the wind rush through her and looks over the “vine stock standing in lines naked and black as stitches on a cut.” With a cry of “Pers ke ke ke!”, the old slave Allaman summons heavy Old Haarlem the tortoise to eat overripe peaches from his hand. The freezing baths and restrictive clothing of Vergilius and her sisters capture a certain self-imposed penance with wintry clarity, and Slagterskop witnesses hate crimes portrayed with the same shocking simplicity that wrenches the heart in Antjie Krog’s accounts. This complex, persuasive novel rewards an attentive reader with a wealth of experience and sensation.

Book details

First published in the Cape Times and used with permission


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