A new Zoë Wicomb novel is always cause for celebration. October is Wicomb’s long-awaited third novel, and her first publication since 2008’s collection of interlinked short stories The One That Got Away.
Mercia Murray, the protagonist of October, is an academic based at a Glaswegian university, who “has been left” by her partner Craig. Glasgow, where Wicomb herself lives, recurs as a locale and motif in her work; the relationship between ex-colonial power and colony, between North and South, is an ongoing concern. Travel is never merely for a holiday or adventure, and the phrase “citizen of the world” is used sardonically by Craig. Mercia lives in a “grand nineteenth-century Glasgow apartment built by sugar and tobacco lords from the spoils of slavery”. The name of the Scottish town of Falkirk is “stamped in relief on the three-legged cast-iron pots at home, pots manufactured for the colony, for Africans to cook their staple mealiepap over an open fire”. In an unforgettable turn of phrase, Mercia refers to these objects as “the potbellied omphalos of authenticity”. Thus, the relationship between centre and periphery, the relics of colonisation, and the exchange of goods and migration of people are key themes in Wicomb’s novels.
As part of her attempt to heal, and to distract herself from heartbreak, Mercia begins writing a history of her family. She finds that “her research project on postcolonial memory is slowly being supplanted by the memoir”. Wicomb’s novel is interested in the history of erasures in familial and national narratives – the need to unearth these stories, and the concomitant fear that “this can do no good, this harking back, broken – a far cry from the summery hark of angels”. Given Mercia’s profession, October also considers the nature of intellectual inquiry and academic research itself, often with amusing results. As Mercia’s father asked: “Doctoring books, what good could that do?”
Mercia is called back to Kliprand in the Cape, responding to an urgent missive from her alcoholic brother to take care of his son. She must negotiate between her longing for home and her reluctance to return; between nostalgia and her desire to escape. She has been reading Marilynne Robinson’s Home, from which the idea of home as a kind of “exile” is taken. Robinson’s novel acts as an intertext to Wicomb’s: the story of Mercia’s family has echoes of the Boughton’s in Home.
Mercia decides to return to her childhood home in October, when “the sadness of retreating light strikes” in Glasgow, but which in the Cape spring is, as the poet C. Louis Leipoldt wrote, “die mooiste, mooiste maand [the loveliest, loveliest month]”. She exchanges the mournful autumn for the possibilities of rebirth enacted by spring.
Wicomb’s writing comes alive in her descriptions of the landscape. October is also a paean to the seasons, the yearly migrations of wildlife and an illustration of how our emotional life is intertwined with these natural cycles. The novel celebrates a life lived in familiar intimacy with nature, but also explores the submerged violence of this world. In this sense, I was reminded of Zadie Smith’s “Elegy for seasons”, which mourns the impact of climate change on seasonal rhythms and rituals.
The narrative is related in fragments, which alternate between Mercia and her sister-in-law Sylvie’s memories, and her reconstruction of her parents’ lives. Struggling to get hold of the slippery past, to craft it into a coherent chronological narrative, Mercia realises that it is “shameful that she, a woman devoted to the close reading of words and actions on the page, failed to keep track of events in her own life”.
As events unfold, Mercia must confront her own prejudice, her anxiety about “the arcane field of motherhood” and her realisation that she has been influenced by her father’s belief in his family’s superiority to the other locals of Kliprand. Her brother Jake notes, “my leftie, egalitarian-minded big sister is the one to be appalled” when he married Sylvie. Sylvie and Mercia’s relationship is beset with wariness and misunderstanding, and Sylvie mocks Mercia’s awkwardness: “if you like you could take back some of my culture in a Tupperware”.
Ultimately it is Sylvie’s story which is revealed as the emotional heart of the novel, and the revelation of her secret past is sure to provoke strong reactions in readers.
October is a startling novel. No doubt readers will be inspired to re-read it and revisit her earlier work to pass the time until Wicomb’s next book.