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The Outsiders in My Head: 2015 Barry Ronge Fiction Prize Shortlistee Elaine Proctor on Writing The Savage Hour

Published in the Sunday Times

The Savage Hour, or at least its content, its flesh, bones and spirit, have been waiting in the shadows of my writing life for a long time. I was aware of it gathering density as I lived and learnt, as my mother aged, children grew, as the writing lessons from my first novel prepared me for this more challenging book.

When publisher, time and space aligned and the waiting material was let loose, it was a question of wrestling the story out of it. Of surfing the currents of feeling it presented and applying a muscular and solid narrative structure to ease its way.

This is my homecoming book and the idea of telling the story of my country has been with me a long time. By that I mean the country of my imagination and the people of my inner landscape. It’s not a literally autobiographical book, but it began at the point of my most intimate engagement with the place. The land, real and unsentimental, and the people who wash up on it like shipwrecks.

I was interested in a community of people who were not powerful, who were somewhat shut out of the new opportunities presented to the various elites. In this way I guess I was working with class as well as all the other identifiers. The Zimbabwean farm labourer, the beautiful but ruined young woman in hiding from the Cape gangs, the burdened police chief, the fading matriarch, the gay detective – all are us and we are them.

I hope this will surface. There’s more where it came from. I’m thrilled to be on the shortlist, it helps to bring the work, done in such a solitary way, into the communal conversation. I’m grateful.

* * * * *

Excerpt from The Savage Hour:

Groot Samuel is the first to fill his hand with earth and throw it into the grave. It hits the wooden casket louder than hail on a tin roof. Aletta is next, then Frans, Delilah, Gogo and Jannie.

Handful by handful, the mourners fill the grave with earth. The air becomes dense with red dust cast high on the wind by many, many hands.

Jannie watches the red cloud grow. The sun behind doubles the density of the haze and endows this leave-taking with a powerful otherworldliness.

He sees Pieter slip away up the driveway without seeking leave and wonders at his hunched shoulders, bent with grief. He watches Groot Samuel herd the family together into a sort of receiving line. He sees Cheetah and Klein Samuel shuffle awkwardly towards it, unsure of this practice.

Isle offers her hand to Cheetah when her turn comes. Jannie sees horror settle on Ilse’s face as Cheetah refuses it. Instead, the farm girl puts her fingers to either side of her head to make ears, like a … like a what. And she pants. Like a dog! She pants like a dog.


Cheetah is being Ouma’s canine shadow. Her friend. Her constant.

Jannie almost stumbles in this moment of revelation.

Where is Suffering?

The question sends the blood rushing to the vein in his temple.

Gone. The dog is gone.

And so the last meagre strip of fact lays itself down on all the others that have come before and is, finally, denser than the air around it. He moves from suspicion to certainty with the help of Cheetah’s gesture.

Jannie searches out Delilah to share this revelation but sees she is engulfed by mourners who reach for her, as Ouma’s youngest, to commiserate and weep. He can see the rising cherry-red patches on her cheekbones that reveal her growing discomfort. Why is it that in the giving of their insistent comfort, the mourners take more than they leave? Jannie is pulled away from Delilah’s plight by the demands of his discovery and he must follow where it leads. He knows that had Suffering been there on that fateful morning, as he always was, he would have barked until someone came to Ouma’s rescue. He would have woken them from their slumber, he would have bared his teeth and howled until they answered his call.

Jannie knows then that somebody made damn sure he was not. He knows it in his body. Absolutely.

Ouma did not slip.

* * * * *

Full 2015 Sunday Times Alan Paton Award shortlist

Full 2015 Barry Ronge Fiction Prize shortlist

The Savage HourBook details

Image courtesy of Tim Burrough


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