Barry Ronge Prize shortlist: Craig Higginson talks about the genesis of The Dream House (Plus: Excerpt)
Published in the Sunday Times
The Dream House
Craig Higginson (Picador Africa)
My previous novels had been displaced in terms of setting and location, so I decided to write a novel that was about us right now. How could I capture this strange in-between space the country was in? I returned to a one-act play I had written – no more than a single scene, a single encounter – and started opening it up and writing more deeply into it. I wanted to write a novel that borrowed some theatre techniques – especially the dialogue of conflicting perspectives, where the audience or reader is faced with a puzzle they themselves must navigate. It seemed this was a task each of us faced.
But I also wanted to write a personal, moving, surprising tale. I hoped to stretch our expectations in terms of content and form. What emerged was a stark, fragmented drama in which the placement of the words on the page often assumed the significance we expect from poetry – and where the white spaces around them started to speak.
My characters are each dreaming of a house to dwell in and a country they can unambiguously call home. That remains an aspiration for each of us. South Africa is still in the making and we have become its only makers.
Something has been busy near the grave. As recently as last night. The black earth has been churned up here and there – randomly, as a porcupine might do – but the small headstone and slight mound where Rachel lies have been left untouched. Then he sees it’s one of the dog graves that was dug up. He knows this because he dug the grave and buried the dog himself: a Rhodesian ridgeback called Jess that was always said to be too soft. A white bone gleams in the mud, wiped or licked clean by the animal that unearthed it.
The earth is soft but the coffin is buried deep – deeper than expected – and it requires some effort to reach it. The wood looks slightly slimy, almost black, but the coffin still seems to be intact. Moving with deliberation, he clears the earth away until the coffin stands alone, restored to its shape – and then he gets to his feet and stretches and they both regard it.
He and Beauty have hardly spoken since they came out here. She seems to be sulking with him for some reason. He never spends much thought on her moods, for they are as mysterious as the weather that comes in from the mountains: unpredictable, changeable, brooding, dramatic.
He bends down and passes his hands underneath the box, and Beauty copies him. It is heavy with wet. Spreading their four hands as wide as they can underneath it, they draw the box upwards as gently as they can. It wobbles slightly but retains its shape.
He can still picture the moment they put the box in the earth. Then it had been the colour of a horse chestnut, with a nutty glow inside it, carefully varnished. To the small boy holding onto the clothes of his father – part of the gathering of workers observing the ceremony from a distance – it seemed almost a pity to put such a beautifully crafted object into the earth, where no one would ever admire it. But now he is grateful for the quality of the wood.
The Madam was standing very still when the workers finally stepped forward to bury the child. She threw flowers into the little hole, but no earth. It is said that she only wept later, when she was alone in the house. And the servants of the time never disturbed her grief: they would bring her tea and something to eat only when she had exhausted it. Then the Madam would devour whatever was given her without seeming to notice it: she could eat a whole cake, or a chicken, or a pot of soup – pouring in bits of cut-up buttered toast and a jug of cream.
It is also said that the only period the Madam was happy was when the boy Looksmart was in her house. Bheki recalls seeing the boy walk in through the front door like he’d always lived there – and how he’d admired the boy for it. Because the boy expected the best of the Madam, and thought nothing of her sorrow, he managed to provide a place where she could laugh again and be a better person for a while. After Looksmart went, Bheki continued to be her driver, but all the words that could ever have been spoken between them already felt finished. There was nothing left to do but drive up and down the driveway in the same car, buy the same food from the same shop, and occasionally visit the old umlungu, John Ford.
The coffin fits neatly into the blue trunk. They gaze at it for a while before he bends to scoop and pack the earth around it – so that it won’t slide around inside. He even pats a layer of earth over the top of the coffin – picking away the odd wayward frond or twig – so that it can once again be out of sight. Then Beauty locks the trunk with the combination lock she has been carrying in her pocket. He knows that only she and the Madam know the numbers for opening it.
The Madam is waiting for them in her wheelchair in the sunlight of the stoep. She watches their progress across the lawn. Both of them are wearing the expressions of those who know they are carrying a dead child. This is not just a bale of teff. They show her how respectful they are feeling, even though they are feeling it. Inside the house, the phone is ringing, but no one moves to answer it. And there is no sign of the Baas.
High above them, the weaverbirds are attending to their nests. And from the other side of the trees an earthmover is groaning towards them. There is nothing unusual in the air, yet with the arrival of the dead child, everything has changed: for the first time Bheki begins to understand that these people will be leaving for good.
- The Dream House by Craig Higginson
Find this book with BOOK Finder!