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Turning the Farm Novel Inside Out: Michele Magwood Interviews Craig Higginson on The Dream House

By Michele Magwood for the Sunday Times

craig higginsonThe Dream HouseThe Dream House
Craig Higginson (Picador Africa)

Towards the very end of her life Nadine Gordimer could still be seen around the Parkview village, her slight, attenuated figure supported by her helper, her sharp black eyes missing nothing. One day she collared Craig Higginson. She had read the manuscript of his latest book and was excited by it. It was a novel, she told him, that “wrote its way deeper than race and into those spaces about our shared humanity”. She particularly liked his main character, Looksmart. In what must be one of her final cover shouts, she hails him as “a welcome new kind of character in the constantly evolving reality of African literature”.

The Dream House comes burnished not only with Gordimer’s imprimatur, but that of the late André Brink as well. Brink describes Higginson as being “in the vanguard of the latest and most exciting novelists in South Africa”. What was a clear tipping of the literary hat has become a passing of the baton.

On a farm in the Midlands the elderly Patricia Wiley is packing up the family home. Outside, developers have moved onto the land, gouging out plots for new houses, flattening stables and outbuildings, felling trees. The old dogs have been shot, the livestock sold, and Patricia’s husband roams the hinterland of senility, searching for the animals, and for a certain grave. Two long-standing staff members, Beauty and Bheki, prepare to leave the farm with their employers.

The setup hints at a typical South African plaasroman but Higginson soon sets about upending the old tropes. “I’m trying to kind of ironise or write against the farm novel,” he explains. “So many of them are dominated by the patriarchal white farmer and the children connected to the beautiful landscape and traditions and loyal servants in the background and protecting the land for the next generations. I wanted to break that open.”

The farm of The Dream House is a boggy failure, the farmer is hopeless, there are no children, no legacy to leave. The servants are complex, ambiguous. The land is being turned into a smart housing estate. “This landscape is in transition, it’s not a farm, it’s not a gated community. It’s in a state of both renewal and decay. The buildings coming out of the mud are half-new, half-ruins, and that’s where SA feels to me to be.”

On this last day, then, as a sucking mist clings to the homestead, a silver car purrs up the driveway. It is driven by Looksmart, successful businessman, born and raised on the farm and once a surrogate son to Patricia. But years before something terrible had driven him away and now he has returned, “armed with anger”, to confront the couple. Even if we did not know Higginson is a playwright – the book is based on his acclaimed play Dream of the Dog – we would guess it from the tight choreography and intense dialogue of their discord.

“I wanted to dig deeper and fiction can do that, there were so many things that the play couldn’t explore.”

For all its emotional tension it is a quiet, restrained novel, pulsing with longing and regret. Higginson eschews the melodrama we expect, a conflagration or violent catharsis. That would be too obvious, he says. “Why should Looksmart be so defined by his hatred as to commit murder? I didn’t want an allegory of doom and apocalypse, I wanted to find a middle space.”

He presents us instead with a subtle exploration of family and belonging, of loss and regeneration. As the title implies, each character is dreaming of a house. “They’re all trying to find their homes, a homeland where they can dwell and settle, or their way back home. But I suppose what it’s saying is that no one yet feels at home in this country, that there’s too much unresolved stuff in the present. We’ve all got these pictures that we’re moving towards, but I think it’s too early to settle.”

Follow Michele on Twitter @michelemagwood

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