BY BONGANI KONA
Zukiswa Wanner’s absorbing fourth novel, London – Cape Town – Joburg, started out as an idea for a film about a mixed race couple’s move to South Africa after the end of apartheid. Plans for the movie stalled and Wanner decided to turn the idea into a book.
Set in the three cities that form its title, London – Cape Town – Joburg, is, among many other things, the story of a marriage. Germaine Spencer, a ceramist and an art lecturer, falls in love and gets married to Martin O’Malley, an Irish-South African working his way up the world of high finance in London. Their relationship takes them from London and across the Atlantic to South Africa.
The book opens with the Germaine and Martin’s marriage in crisis after their teenage son, Zuko Spencer-O’Malley, kills himself in their Johannesburg home. “My son is dead,” Germaine says in the prologue, “and I failed to notice he was troubled.” Zuko’s suicide drives a wedge between Martin and Germaine and odds are their marriage will not survive. “A part of me has been ripped apart, stepped on, thrown into the rubbish bin. And just when I think I am almost fine, it starts all over again,” Martin says.
From this point of crisis the novel travels back in time to London in the summer of 1994 when Martin and Germaine first met. Martin is still smarting from a break up when his wife-to-be walks up to him in a bar and delivers one of the most dreadful pick up lines of all time: “What’s a guy like you doing in a place like this?”
They bump into each other again a couple of nights later, coincidentally, and their relationship takes off from there. They are opposites, almost: Germaine is a headstrong feminist who is not afraid to say what’s on her mind while Martin is more laidback, demure. Nevertheless they get along and they move in together, get married and have a child.
London – Cape Town – Joburg is also the story of a country, South Africa, undergoing change. When Germaine and Martin decide to move to Cape Town in ’98 so that their son can be closer to his grandmother, Sindiwe, and his uncle, Liam, we observe these changes through their eyes — the persistent racism and inequality, the creeping corruption of the ANC, the rise and fall of Thabo Mbeki, and xenophobic violence, among other things.
As the years pass, Martin and Germaine remain committed to each other but we know from the prologue that their picture perfect marriage will get turned upside down and it does. Most readers will be blindsided by the twist at the end. In hindsight, Wanner plants clues all over but the ending is almost unforeseeable.
Zukiswa Wanner has done it again: London – Cape Town – Joburg is a cracking read and it’s near impossible to put down.