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Us and Them, Then and Now: Michele Magwood Reviews Claire Robertson’s The Magistrate of Gower

Claire RobertsonBy Michele Magwood for the Sunday Times

The Magistrate of GowerThe Magistrate of Gower
Claire Robertson (Umuzi)

An image flicks past in this exquisitely wrought story that could be used to describe the whole novel itself: that of a slow-growing crystal in a salt solution. In the way that Marlene van Niekerk’s Agaat can be likened to a cobra being coaxed out of a basket, so the themes of The Magistrate of Gower accrete subtly, obliquely, shards of menace gleaming through the cool deep solution of the story.

Claire Robertson’s first novel, The Spiral House, was published in 2013 and quickly picked up both the Sunday Times Fiction Prize and a South African Literary Award, a rare double for a debut author. But Robertson was no novice writer: she’d spent 30 years in journalism and knew how to make every word count.

The Magistrate of Gower opens in 1902, in a Boer prisoner-of-war camp in Ceylon. 17-year-old Henry Vos is incarcerated there with his commando, a handsome boy, so close to the Aryan ideal of his tribe that he stars, slightly bewildered, in the propaganda films and magazine articles of the day. He falls in love with a Cingalese youth, a monk, and when they are discovered he is sent, disgraced, to another prison: “the smaller camp near the sea, where the madmen and the wicked were sent”.

Henry will survive this, and return home to train as a lawyer. He is a wise, private man who embarks on an ascetic life as the magistrate of a small platteland town. It is a respectable town, with good women doing good works for the poor whites of the shanty town, people who fume in their poverty under the patronising kindness of the burgers. Here, in Gower, Henry will meet the young woman who will eventually tell his story, the dauntless Adaira van Brugge.

Gradually, the central theme of the novel emerges: the rise of Afrikaner nationalism. Robertson reels out the thin twine that will ultimately mesh into the monstrous Nasionale Party: the badges of the “Purified Party” that begin to appear on breasts, the egregious burnishing of Boer history, the planning of the glorious Centenary Trek that was to pass through the town. Henry and Adaira, in their different ways, resist this, what he calls “the story of people clinging to the blind lie of of being God’s chosen people, pointed always down that blind alley and when they are not running, huddled in a circle, facing out, clenched like a frightened fist.”

In this book Robertson seems to be preoccupied with nascence, with becoming. Not only the evolution of Nationalist identity, but with the first bitter shoots of Naziism, and of the forming of the writer that Adaira will become. Henry works on an early statute that will one day become the Immorality Act; and the term “quota”, meaning jobs reserved for Afrikaners, begins to crop up, the first signs of social engineering that will sweep the Nats to power in 1948.

The story builds to a disquieting crescendo as Adaira has an affair with the town’s lone Jew, and Henry takes a young lover, risking everything he has. Every page gleams with Robertson’s acute power of description: Girls at a dance “flick about like skinks;” a face stares from a photograph “blank as an antelope”. Her story might be set nearly a century ago, but it has much to say to modern day South Africa, in the perfidy of well-intentioned charity and the iniquity of “othering”, but mostly in the threat of nationalism, which in her view takes the good in a people and twists it.

In just her second outing, Claire Robertson takes her place with the established South African greats. She has the crispness and economy of Coetzee, the subtle, oblique depth of Vladislavić, the storytelling spell of Galgut and Mda. She is technically faultless and intensely imaginative. But she has something more, an affecting, profound humanity that is entirely her own.

Follow Michele Magwood on Twitter @michelemagwood

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