It’s always tricky disentangling a writer’s life from his fiction when you know that his narrator’s biography overlaps with his own. It’s all too easy to extend that overlap as you read, difficult to draw the line. South African by birth, Justin Cartwright is the descendent of Piet Retief whose search for fertile land took him and a small group of settlers into the territory of Digane, king of the Zulus, who slaughtered the entire party including the women and children. Cartwright’s narrator shares this ancestry. He’s sixty, ten years younger than his creator, at an age when he’s begun to think about where he came from and who he is.
Frank is preparing for a trip to Cape Town – partly to investigate his ancestry, partly to satisfy a yearning for what still feels like home. He’s the kind of man who describes himself as ‘fairly wealthy’ yet owns a house in Notting Hill, one in the New Forest and another close to the ocean in Cape Town. Frank has lived in England since his brief stint as a student at Oxford, dropping out to work for a stockbroker – now his closest friend – then making his money in the property business. As he readies himself to travel he muses on his famous ancestor, his South African childhood, his ex-wife whose increasingly deranged letters he hands to his lawyers, the effects of their acrimonious divorce on their daughter Lucinda and his distant cousin Jaco who seems to have become entangled in Scientology and is asking him for money. His visit to South Africa is not a solitary one: he’s taking his lover Nellie with him together with her teenage son and hoping that Lucinda, fresh out of rehab in California, will join them. Once there, his worries dissipate: Lucinda seems well and happy, Nellie and her son seem delighted with South Africa and all adore Isaac, the two year-old son of her ex-boyfriend Lucinda has brought with her. All looks set for an idyllic holiday.
Threaded through Frank’s narrative are memories of his childhood. Once a year he was sent to stay with his Tannie Marie, the great-aunt who lived on the family farm and read The Adventures of Pinocchio to him by candlelight, a scene which is a little too frequently reiterated throughout the book. Piet Retief’s story takes centre stage at the beginning while Jaco’s brief, explosive racist rants punctuate Frank’s somewhat pedestrian narrative half-way through. Frank’s feelings for his homeland are suffused with guilt: he makes sure his housekeeper whose husband has been murdered is financially comfortable but knows that theirs is an ‘unbalanced’ relationship; he realises that the family farm ‘practised a form of slavery’; he takes care to enquire after the black taxi driver’s family. He’s of the generation that turned their backs on apartheid but could never quite escape that association or the yearning for home, vividly expressed in Cartwright’s striking descriptions of the South African landscape. At one point Lucinda asks: ‘Are you ashamed of being Piet Retief’s descendent or are you kinda pleased, like people who are related to Billy the Kid or Bonnie and Clyde?’ It seemed to me that this is what prompted Cartwright to write Up Against the Night – and it’s was what kept me reading – but I’m not entirely sure that he came to a conclusion. The dramatic turn of events in Cape Town is a surprise, neatly confounding expectations. Something of a curate’s egg for me, then, but all told I’m glad I read it.
How do you feel about novels with a thread of autobiography running through them? Does it add interest for you or do you find yourself wondering what’s fact and what’s fiction?