Its been too long since I’ve read a Barbara Trapido book – I’ve loved her since I first read ‘Brother of the More Famous Jack’. This time the action and characters switch between Trapido’s adopted country, England, and South Africa, the country where she was born. The story opens in a 1970s student house in London when Caroline, a supremely capable and beautiful Australian girl meets Josh, a South African who loves ballet.
The skill of Trapido’s characterisation is strongest with Caroline – ‘Caroline is quite simply Wonder Woman, and that’s in itself diverting, even though she herself is not a person with whom one can giggle and conspire.’ And its true. Caroline can conjure up ballgowns from festoon blinds sourced from Oxfam, a black and yellow plaid coat from a travelling rug and makes her own pesto while her friends are eating pulses and tinned pilchards. All that while studying for her doctorate on old trade routes through Persia.
Josh and Caroline soon decide to get married but their plans veer off-course almost immediately when Caroline’s mother and her ‘Less fortunate’ younger sister arrive from Australia. With spectacular insensitivity, Caroline’s mother later arrives to announce that Caroline’s father is dead and she is to live with her daughter and her new husband, apparently cast aside by the younger sister. Thus begins a life of ‘make-do and mend’ where Caroline moves the family into a decommissioned bus to live and teaches at the local school. The family, which soon includes daughter Zoe, are deprived by Caroline’s dutifully supporting her mother with a regular funds transfer and eventually, a deposit on a house, while they remain in the family. The mother, not surprisingly dubbed the ‘Witch Woman’ by her son-in-law is a true parasite.
Chapters then switch to the viewpoint of the other characters – Josh, Zoe, and Josh’s old ballet teacher Hattie in South Africa, who he has never forgotten, her daughter Cat, and Jack, the mixed race boy who grew up in Josh’s house with his liberal adoptive parents. All of the characters are on a collision course towards the climax, along with Herman, Hattie’s big blond Africaans husband. Trapido effectively switches character voices, all of which remain distinct, although the young girls’ voices did seem a bit forced to me.
Most of these characters are not being true to themselves, living lives of thwarted ambition and misplaced duty. Hence the symbolism of Stravinsky’s ballet Pulcinella, a story of masked characters. There’s two aspects of the writing that really shine for me in this book – the intricate, strongly drawn characters and their interesting back stories, and the tragicomedy that is a hallmark of Barbara Trapido’s writing. She paints such piercing portraits of very memorable characters, and again I’m noticing the constant reinforcement of the character traits, which itself creates some of the comedy. It reminds me of Jane Austen’s characters, some of which are also very funny.
The more serious side of the story is the upheaval that occurred in the years before and after South Africa dismantled apartheid. Aspects of this are told through the microscope of the character’s lives so that this history never feels forced. A good learning for my own writing.
My only criticism is that much of the book is told as exposition and at times it can feel like the story is dragging, as I wished for more scenes to get a sense of these characters in action. But nonetheless, they are characters I won’t forget in a hurry.