BY JENNIFER MALEC
White Dog Fell from the Sky is a vivid and moving novel set in Botswana in the late 1970s. The novel is Eleanor Morse’s third, and her first set in Africa. Morse hails from Maine in the USA, but spent a number of years in Botswana in the 1970s, travelling and teaching. As a South African, I felt the usual stab of protectiveness for southern Africa, and an ignoble sense of pique at an African story told by an American. However, White Dog is deftly written, and the descriptions of the landscape are evocative and truthful, thankfully lacking in the cloying symbolism that often haunts the African novel:
The pan was terrifying, the horizon white and fathomless, a savage, demonic, eerie place. So hot you couldn’t breathe. […] One gets used to a landscape that’s human in scale. There’s a future because it can be seen, just over the horizon if we choose to walk there, or ride there. But there was no future or past here. The horizon was unreachable, unknowable, swallowed in white.
Isaac Muthethe, a black medical student, is forced to flee South Africa and take up menial work as a gardener for a young American woman, Alice Mendelssohn, and her unpleasant husband, Lawrence. Tragedy hits both Isaac and Alice, and in places the book is almost unbearably sad, but it is sustained by a faint sense of upliftment.
In an interview with Timothy Gillis, Morse says she deliberately chose to use third-person narration for the character of Isaac, as she felt “arrogant being a white woman telling a black man’s story in first person”. But leaving aside arguments about who has the right to write whose story, the problems Alice faces – divorce, the death of a partner, an infestation of lice – seem almost ridiculous when compared to what Isaac and his family suffer under the apartheid government.
Ultimately, however, problems of theory or literary etiquette are rebuffed by the eponymous White Dog. The animal appears on the first page of the novel, as Isaac is dumped, half alive on a dusty street in the middle of nowhere, and steadfastly remains by his side. Even during Isaac’s period of disappearance at the hands of the South African security police, White Dog patiently and soundlessly waits for him, nearly dying of starvation in its devotion. But the dog’s mute loyalty is not endearing. Isaac mistakes it for a ghost the first time he sees it and it retains a ghostly lack of personality throughout, requiring nothing (except the occasional scrap of food) and giving nothing in return.
White Dog Fell from the Sky is a novel that demonstrates the difficulty of developing meaningful human relationships, and the near-impossiblity of doing so across racial boundaries in the context of 1970s southern Africa. Through the novel, Isaac and Alice prove – to themselves and us – that integrity, on however insignificant a scale, still exists.
White Dog Fell from the Sky is published by Penguin, R200, and is one of AERODROME’s WinterReads.
JENNIFER MALEC is the assistant digital editor of Kick Off.