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Claire Robertson’s third novel is an absorbing, eloquent story that lingers, writes Michele Magwood

Published in the Sunday Times

Under Glass ****
Claire Robertson, Umuzi, R270

At the centre of this story – its very pistil, the author might say – is a secret. A secret wrapped in an enigma and obscured, frustratingly, from our view. “You enter an honourable pact with the reader,” observes Claire Robertson. “You can misdirect them but you may not mislead them. You can’t lie but you can suggest other theories about what is going on. I so enjoyed it – felt this sort of glee writing it.”

Under Glass is Robertson’s third, eagerly awaited, novel. Her first, The Spiral House, won both the Sunday Times Fiction Prize and a South African Literary Award. She followed it up two years later with the splendid The Magistrate of Gower, which narrowly missed out on another Sunday Times award.

She started writing fiction relatively late in her career as a journalist, yet her sui generis style sprang fully formed onto the page: subtle, precise, fine-grained.

Robertson’s historical settings have moved from the Cape to the Free State and now, in Under Glass, to the colony of Natal.

It is 1857 in the makeshift settlement of D’Urban. Mrs Chetwyn, a resolute young wife, has arrived with her small daughter and her Indian ayah after a testing sea journey. They are to meet up with her husband Captain Chetwyn, who has been on safari, searching for suitable land to establish a sugar estate.

The money for the estate has been staked by his father back in England and carries with it a strict stipulation that will shape the destiny of the whole family.

“The book is about the steps Mrs Chetwyn takes to secure her family’s future,” says Robertson, “the way she tests the limits of her power and breaches those limits.”

One of the overarching themes of the novel is that of genesis and fecundity: of planting and reaping crops for the mother country, and of settler women reproducing, their bodies relied upon for the peopling of the colony.

Mrs Chetwyn meets an eccentric botanist, McQuarie, with hair “of such dark ruddiness as to seem bloody”. His hands hang at his sides, she writes, “putting Mrs Chetwyn in mind of a spade and fork on the walls of a shed, inert, yet somehow holding the sense of work as they hang there”. She becomes enthralled with botany and cultivation and forms a strong bond with him that will change the story dramatically.

Robertson is a demanding writer, in that you cannot read her quickly or casually. She has a taut, oblique style and weighs every word, creating memorable images of startling clarity such as this description of visiting suitors: “On they come in their elliptic collars and tethered studs, their bloodstone-buttoned vests. They come in pairs for courage and the sport of it, or singly and, on finding other fellows already there, light cigars to smoke them out.”

Her descriptions of the straits of settling a new land are vivid: mattresses made of seaweed, tinned butter, ticks and flies and snakes and the “prickly heat sprinkled with flour until she is a crusty, sour mess”.

The Zulu worker Fuze makes this observation about the colonists: “The popular idiom is that they are birds, but they are like cats … smacked on the nose, they freeze and wait and creep back. They do exactly as they please and stubbornly stay, beyond the limits of good sense.”

Underpinning the story is the question of land, and ownership. “I was very aware of what’s going on in South Africa now,” says Robertson. “Aware of this great drumbeat of injustice, of the great decisions that were taken so carelessly, and of people like myself and my children who have to work out their feelings of legitimacy as inheritors of something they recognise as a crime. Colonialism and Empire – how do you resolve those things?”

Under Glass – the title refers to the enormous glass cases that transported plants to and from Africa, and to the hothouses that the colonies were – lacks the emotional heft of both The Spiral House and The Magistrate of Gower, but it is an absorbing, eloquent story that lingers long after you have closed the book. @MicheleMagwood

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