It was clear even before I opened Fiona Melrose’s new novel that it was going to be an homage to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway: it follows a set of disparate characters through a single day as one of them prepares for a party on December 6th, 2013. Just as Woolf’s novel reflected the preoccupations of her time, so Johannesburg offers us a snapshot of South Africa’s capital on the day after the death of Nelson Mandela, regarded by many as his country’s saviour.
Gini has flown in from New York for four days to arrange her mother Neve’s eightieth birthday party. She knows that Neve is resistant to the idea of celebration, forever carping about small imperfections and making clear her disappointment in Gini’s single, childless state. It’s a day in which she will seek out the finest blooms in the garden, venture into the supermarket to buy chickens and search for the family dog who finds herself on the wrong side of a locked gate. As she sets about her work, constantly anxious that all will go well, Gini will encounter many characters: Peter, now a corporate lawyer his back turned on his socialist past, still unable to shrug off his love for Gini in the twenty years since she left South Africa; Richard, widowed and longing for the solace of the coast; Mercy, the family servant who lives far from home and thinks of her children, and September who has been protesting the violent suppression of a strike. Mandela’s death and the grief surrounding it is the constant background beat to this day which will prove momentous for some and perhaps redemptive for others.
As you would expect there are many nods to Woolf’s celebrated novel throughout Melrose’s own – from Gini’s Aunt Virginia, a writer who excoriated apartheid policies and walked into the sea, to the careful selection of the gorgeously described flowers that will adorn the table at the party. It’s all beautifully done, nothing clunky or self-conscious as Melrose deftly knits the many threads of her narrative together, shifting smoothly between her characters and offering a microcosm of this complex country where white privilege often shuts itself away behind razor wire and navigates the constant stream of black hawkers from comfortable, air-conditioned cars. The dog’s escape takes both Gini and Neve into places that their privileged position has never transported them, despite Gini’s altogether more enlightened attitude to race. It is, of course, far more complicated than that as this absorbing, beautifully structured novel makes clear. Corruption and racism may never be far away but perhaps there is some hope of redemption. ‘I am my brother’s keeper’ spoken by September’s sister is a phrase which resonates throughout this ambitious, expertly executed novel: we are all our brothers’ keepers wherever we live and whoever we are, although some of us seem not to recognise that.