BY BEVERLY RYCROFT
We look at the world once, in childhood.
The rest is memory.
Dominque Botha’s debut novel has much of memory and of poetry. The epigraph to False River consists of three lines of poetry from Paul Botha (1970-1997), but the memories recalled are those of his sister, Dominque.
And she has a gift for retrieving them. Through Dominique, we experience for ourselves the people, languages, colours and events of her childhood on a Free State farm.
In the 1970s, seasons and days on a farm were still marked by the annual trekking of cattle, the curing of biltong, the harvesting of crops and churning of butter. The young Dominque observes in carefully-selected detail both the landscape and the people inhabiting it: the Botha family and the workers from the nearby township, their neighbours and visitors. Her pared-down tone is perfectly suited to the rhythmic shifts of time and memories, and also the occasional, strategically-placed bathos: “Pa believed you must give unto Caesar what is due unto Caesar, even if he is a heartless shit.”
Pa is irascible, charismatic, and outspoken. Dominque’s mother is principled and a zealous social activisit. With Pa, she tries to “cross the divide of the district road” through inviting black people to discussions at their house. In a society both paranoid and schizophrenic, such efforts at rapprochement could be fraught. And win them and their children few friends in their own circles.
“I hear you teach kaffirs how to read at night,” says Dominque’s teacher, cornering her in the supermarket one day. “I don’t know how you can stand the smell.”
Paul Michiel Botha the 6th is Dominque’s adored older brother. Destined to inherit the family farm and continue the tradition of a long line of Bothas, much is expected of him. And from the opening chapters it’s evident that Paul’s sensitive, probing intensity will be posited against these heavy expectations, embodied predominantly in his father.
Dominique’s primary story, then, is that of the archetypal battle between father and son. But it is Dominique’s unflinching skill as both observer and recorder, that carries the tragic arc of their history forward. And it is her voice that shifts centre-stage in its aftermath.
From a young age, Paul leads Dominique into exploits she is too timid or dutiful to dare herself. Even when she challenges him, her brother easily overrules her. Ironically, in the opening chapters, both Dominique and Paul are punished when Dominque uses eggs from her mother’s chicken-coop to make mud pies: “(Pa) hit him first and harder because he was a boy…”
Throughout childhood, boarding school and beyond, Paul moves further and further away from his family, both physically and emotionally. He is dishonourably discharged from the army for attempting suicide. His father resolves to cut him off. He becomes addicted to drugs.
Dominque continues to rescue or cover for him. Or merely watch in helpless awe.
One afternoon, before Paul finally hitch-hikes away from the farm, he persuades Dominque to drive down to the False River with him:
I waded in deeper and Paul pulled me towards him. The current dragged us and then slung us into its vortex. I tried to swim towards the bank but it was futile. Paul held my arms down and shouted, “Stay calm. Just stay calm.” The river chucked us onto the other bank much further down and we scrambled onto the sandy verge.
Paul collapsed laughing…I wanted to cry. “I don’t want to swim back again. I can’t. There is no way.”
But she does. The False River that drew Dominique and Paul into its vortex allows them to be carried back to the other side. And in the inevitable, heartbreaking ending, it is Dominic who finally counter-commands her parents to insist her brother’s body be brought home. Back to the farm Rietpan to be buried besides the other Paul Bothas.
The novel that began with lines written by Paul, ends with a poem by Dominique, dedicated to her brother.
Dominque Botha tells a tragic story. She is a solitary Greek chorus, observing and recalling with poetic ease, though always allowing the reader to draw her own conclusions. There is no didactic flourish to her presentation of her memories. Her distilled prose, like water from the river, both displays and magnifies what it carries. A worthy winner of the 2014 University of Johannesburg Debut Prize, it is little wonder this haunting novel has been shortlisted for the Sunday Times Literary Award.