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Boeke | Books > Resensies | Reviews > English

Things I Thought I Knew: Lyrical and gripping sophomore effort from Kathryn White

Jonathan Amid - 2011-12-01

Title: Things I Thought I Knew
Author: Kathryn White
Publisher: Umuzi
ISBN: 9781415201220
Price: R162.95

Click here to buy a copy from Kalahari.net.

In a year that has seen bold and brilliant literary works from the likes of Finuala Dowling, Henrietta Rose-Innes and Ivan Vladislavic, to mention but a few, Kathryn White’s second novel, Things I Thought I Knew (following her first novel Emily Green and Me) enters the fray amid relatively little hype.
Having read this stunning new novel in one sitting I am willing to wager a large amount on the fact that White’s novel – deeply poetic, acutely observed, overwhelmingly emotive in places – will go some distance in establishing her as a compelling new voice on the South African literary scene.

Through its seemingly familiar yet haunting title, Things I Thought I Knew establishes a sense of intimacy with its reader: the title gestures towards feelings of nostalgia, wistfulness, regret and, above all, uncertainty. Before reading the first page of the novel we are thus prepared to encounter a deeply personal, elegiac narrative, a love story and a story of displacement and belonging, one that insists on the reader’s investment in the events to follow.

The first part of the novel is set in the Transkei’s Cefani, at the end of apartheid. At pains to present a simultaneously flowing yet fragmented narrative, the novel offers the stream-of-consciousness thoughts, emotions, passions and sensations of Lily, the first-person narrator of her life story. Lily – who has “purple” eyes but who passes as white – grows up in a dilapidated beach resort with her sister Jules, classified as black, her Xhosa academic father and her white artist mother. The parents’ marriage must remain a secret, while the girls remain largely in the dark about the system of racial classification in the country at the time.

It is during this first part of the novel that White establishes certain key elements of the novel as a whole. Lily is to tell her story in densely refracted fragments that are gathered into a myriad of paragraphs by the author, each with its own heading no less. We are thus confronted by Lily’s innermost thoughts channelled and ordered through an authorial prism.

We are to learn that Lily has a special gift (she can see and communicate with the dead and read the future) and that she is already aware from a young age that her great love will be Adam, the first man. It is her desire to be with Adam that will propel Lily headlong into a maelstrom of events that will forever alter her beliefs and way of seeing the world.

After moving to a small town in the Eastern Cape with her mother, while Jules and her father leave the country for London, Lily finally meets Adam. But their imminent romance is neither straightforward nor immediate as Lily meets another man, Garth, to whom she is drawn. To complicate matters further, the mysterious and sensual woman Malone with roots in Antigua and a father tethered to the West Coast is on hand to muddy the waters.

The rest of the novel charts the tumescent relationship between the four main characters. Apart from the tremendously evocative picture White paints of Lily’s most pressing and delicate thoughts – blooming in alternating images of precious beauty and brutally open fear and pain – the author sketches an emotionally resonant and richly layered portrait of life for those that live life on the margins. Whether this may be those who were ostracised and marginalized during apartheid for their mixed marriages, those that chose to leave South Africa and try to make a life abroad, the ones that were not quite white or black enough to fit comfortably within racial borders, or the ones that feel that they are somehow different, White’s novel gives a texture and nuance to believable characters that fall in the abovementioned categories. We gather a truly embodied sense of history’s forbidding and unusual pathways, and view first-hand how often families are ruptured and torn apart by the cruel hand of fate.

The novel angle of Things I Thought I Knew is the fact that the central protagonist and focaliser is someone that has otherworldly visions, but also suffers from epileptic fits. While this “visionary” sense of the ethereal and transient is threaded throughout Lily’s accounts of her experiences, White never loses a grip of the humanity and frailty of her narrative voice, of the feebleness and vulnerability that accompany her heroine’s illness.

After a traumatic incident in the second half of the novel, Lily is sent to an institution and medicated, her “visions” and psychic abilities rendered impotent. In this second half of the novel in particular, the reading experience is often confounding, painful, discomfiting. As we start to question Lily’s ability to make sense of the world around her, we are confronted by our own (in)ability to perceive and construct a reality that has our own well-being at the centre.

White’s wisdom and compassion, her willingness to delve into difficult psychic realities and render them intelligible, are ultimately what define Things I Thought I Knew. Without revealing the outcome of the intertwined fates of Lily, Malone, Garth and Adam: there is a shocking event near the end of the novel that manages both to intensify the reverberations of events that have gone before and put the denouement into perspective.

White’s choice of an ending is startling, but befitting of an affectively powerful meditation on the power of choice, the quiet violence of dreams, and the compulsive nature of need.

Although Things I Thought I Knew is harrowing, resolutely emotional reading, its astuteness in evoking joy and melancholia, and its orchard of fluorescent, earthy imagery, ultimately offer a fresh and fascinating journey that grips all the way through.