By Rubendra Govender
Review by Betty Govinden
From the very first page of the novel, The English Major’s Daughter, by Rubendra Govender [Bambata Publishing 2012], we realize with some horror that we are dealing with a rather “dysfunctional” family. Indeed, the epithet has become somewhat staid these days. As the story unfolds, and to the very last page, we appreciate that there are many layers of dysfunctionality.
The patriarch of the family has the rather high-sounding name of MAJOR RONALD PARKER-SWANN. He gives his self-description as “Major Parker-Swann, Retired British Intelligence Officer, and Special Forces Combat-Trained Soldier, now Resident in Bazley Beach.” But he is hardly the commanding male figure or adequate role model that his name might suggest. Major, as he is called, even by his wife and daughter, is aberrant, erratic, bumptious, double-dealing, dishonest, exploitative, racist and sexist – one of T S Eliot’s “hollow men”. Major has reduced his wife, Majorie, to becoming an alcoholic wimp, being totally loveless and manipulative towards her and their daughter. Marjorie kowtows to her husband’s every whim, and succumbs without contestation to this suffocating and oppressive relationship.
The family, which comprises Major, Marjorie and Caroline, the teenage daughter, are expatriates from England, and had settled in Kenya. But they are “expatriates” is a deeper sense in that they do not have a sense of belonging, a sense of home. Even the domestic space they share is hardly an inner sanctum providing shelter from the vicissitudes of the world outside. By the early 1990’s they decide to move at short notice to South Africa. Major does seem “out of place” in Africa, and is only interested in it as an exotic destination and how it will serve his own selfish interests. It is clear that Major has decided to come to South Africa more out of expediency, for what he can extract from it:
“As honeymooners, the Parker-Swanns had traveled to South Africa in the late seventies and they had enjoyed the weather and other splendours of the South Coast, together with the exchange rate, which was extremely favourable for British tourists. Most British tourists seeking low-budget, cheap getaways, regularly visited South Africa because of that fact.”
The family come to the Natal South Coast, and choose to make their new home in Selborne and then at Bazley Beach. Major is quite shameless about taking advantage of South Africa. As he says:
“Why do you think I chose this country ? Those from the working class in Britain who settle here, can live the high life. They can send their children to private schools and they can basically buy their high status. We’ll not settle for any other area on the South Coast. Bazley is my one and only choice. As you’ll remember from our honeymoon, it’s as private and British as it gets.”
The family hope to become absorbed into this closed community, with its exclusive club houses and other relics of the colonial past. But Major gets onto the wrong side of this in-group and soon becomes a “social outcast”. He is then drawn to a Right Wing group in the region, joining a reactionary group of English and Afrikaaner members, where he is more comfortable. It is ironic that Major finds his home in a narrow, right-wing enclave in the South Coast, determined to halt the march of history, and refusing to accept the groundswell of change in the offing. It seems unbelievable that a group would want to resist democracy, given South Africa’s lag haul of apartheid, but this is not quite as implausible as we might first assume.
The plot thickens when Major shoots dead a man and pretends it was in self- defence. He also develops a liaison with his General’s wife, and becomes increasing apoplectic towards his family.
Caroline attends the local school and comes under the benevolent influence of her teachers, especially her music teacher, Mrs Porter, whose daughter, also named Caroline, drowned trying to help a swimmer, a young black boy. The teacher’s influence serves to change Caroline’s life gradually but dramatically. She makes an attempt to help Caroline out of her debilitating family set-up, but a series of unexpected events takes them in another direction. Caroline tries to start a new life in Cape Town, but does not quite succeed in the way she had intended.
An implicit feature of the narrative is the attention given to “female experience”, and the life-preserving relationships and alliances between women. There is a close bond between Marjorie and Caroline, although both are not brave enough in the earlier part of the story, in the face of the overbearing and threatening Major, to make bold decisions on their own. The friendship between Caroline and Victoria, the Black domestic helper is especially exemplary. There is mutual respect and true friendship, beyond class and race differences. There is also the relationship between Caroline and her teacher, Mrs Porter, which is life-enhancing and provides respite from her suffocating family. Caroline tries to escape the logjam and entrapment she is in, and through her dreams of a modeling career, envisions new possibilities for her life. The question of choice and emerging agency, the movement away from victimhood and victim status, become important questions when reflecting on the female characters as the narrative unfolds.
There are occasional resonances from English literature and the Bible. Noteworthy is the scene where Major realizes he has blood on his hands that cannot be washed away. This is reminiscent of the scene from Macbeth where Lady Macbeth speaks of the “damned spot” on her hand. There is also the scene of Victoria bathing on the balcony of her home, which reminds one of Bathsheba and David in the Bible.
The novel reads like an “issues” narrative, dealing with women’s abuse, prejudice, exploitation, sexism, racism, and attitudes to youth and old age. What is innovative is the author’s attempt to broaden his scope, after his first novel, Sugar Cane Boy, to depict and expose South African realities from the vantage point of a conservative white perspective, often hidden from the official narrative of liberation. He reveals a developing mastery of dialogue and of plot, as well as an over-riding concern for character and the psychology of the human personality. All this bodes well for future offerings we might expect from this promising author. The spatial scope of the novel – from Kenya to the South Coast to Cape Town – is also worth considering, as well as the historical context in which the narrative is located.