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Builds like a Highveld storm: Shelagh Foster reviews Fiona Melrose’s Johannesburg

Fiona Melrose populates the suburb with a diverse cast and shows the common thread between us, writes Shelagh Foster for the Sunday Times

Fiona Melrose, Little Brown

In Midwinter, Fiona Melrose captured readers with her extraordinary talent for dialogue and her deep compassion for her characters. Reading Johannesburg, you realise how she does it. Johannesburg is set in one day, in one area of the city – Houghton. Gin – or Virginia – has arrived from New York to host an 80th birthday party for her mother Neve. They are both self-contained, tightly wound women who have never quite connected, and who can’t help hurting each other.

Mercy, Neve’s domestic worker, is a warm-hearted observer, keeper of peace and order in the Houghton home situated on the same street as the Nelson Mandela residence. Mercy will shortly be going back to her home for the December holidays and would prefer more time to attend to her own preparations.

Dudu works at a neighbouring house. She is tired. Tired of picking up after her careless employers, tired from caring for her homeless and hurt brother, September.

Peter hovers on the periphery, longing to connect with Gin, the woman who has always refused his love. Juno, Neve’s little dog, potters under feet and shrubbery, unwittingly awaiting its essential role in the unrolling drama. Other characters enter and leave, adding depth and colour. They are all entirely real.

The day is the day on which Mandela’s death is announced. Mourners gather at the residence while Gin, planning the perfect birthday dinner just down the road, fights her inner demons. She would rather be at home in her artist’s studio than here, in her mother’s house; she would rather be anywhere.

Gin is an easy-to-admire-from-a-distance woman. Not exactly likeable, but as Melrose peels back her layers, you can see both her strength and fragility, her need to hide her inner self.

While Gin is clearly the protagonist, the story truly belongs to September; an old man of 38 who has been bowed by a deformity and shattered by a crime of Marikana-esque proportions. His home is an abandoned garden; his bed, boxes and bags; his food brought to him by his beloved protector, Dudu; his last shreds of sanity held together by string, a protest placard and a determination to see wrong recognised and justice done.

At first glance, September is “other”, the smelly and annoying beggar at the intersection; but as Melrose sculpts his life you realise he is not other, he is a man, a brother and son, a being of broken dreams and promises – just like everyone else.

This is Melrose’s magic. She doesn’t enter her characters, she is them and they are her. She writes with a universal truth: that we are all one, that the only things that separate us are our fears and delusions.

It is no easy task to tell a story through so many different characters, each with their own perspective and voice. Melrose seems to do it with ease, making what could be a complicated and tricky read, a riveting page-turner.

Her beautiful language and extraordinary grasp of mood and pace allow the story to build like the approach of a Highveld storm, heavy with both promise and menace. – @ShelaghFoster1

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