Johannesburg by Fiona Melrose: Mrs Dalloway goes to South Africa

Cover image 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.

20 thoughts on “Johannesburg by Fiona Melrose: Mrs Dalloway goes to South Africa”

  1. Great review of what sounds like a really interesting book. Alongside A Room of One’s Own, Mrs Dalloway is my favourite Woolf book of the few I’ve read (struggled through The Voyage Out and Orlando). I know one shouldn’t be influenced by such things but…gorgeous cover!

    1. isn’t, just! Thanks for your kind words, Cathy. I have to say *whisper it* I’m not a Woolf fan but I liked the idea of setting a novel against the backdrop of Mandela’s death and Melrose handles it beautifully. Highly recommend it.

        1. I haven’t but will certainly be doing so after reading this. I’m usually a little cautious about second novel but if Johannesburg is anything to go by Midwinter has to go on the list.

  2. Mrs Dalloway is one of my favourite Virginia Woolf books (and yes, I am a fan), so this is most certainly on my list of books to read! Plus, I love South Africa, for all its difficulties.

  3. I generally enjoy literary updates, even if I take issue with some of the decisions the contemporary author makes. (I also really like circadian novels.) Midwinter didn’t fully convince me, but I’m willing to give Melrose another try with this one.

    1. I haven’t yet read Midwinter – rather too much Twitter-hype around it when it was published for me – so I have nothing to compare this one with but I thought it was both beautifully done and heartfelt.

  4. Lovely review, Susan. The nod to Woolf, of course, is appealing and the setting seems to add a layer of complexity. Mrs Dalloway is one of Woolf’s books I’ve never quite gelled with, it’s brilliant, no doubt about that, but I still find it difficult to like. As another poster has mentioned, would be interested to see what a Woolf fan makes of it.

    1. Thanks, Belinda. I’ve never quite made the connection with Woolf that other readers have. This is the third take on Mrs Dalloway I’ve read – the others are John Lanchester’s Mr Philips and Michael Cunningham’s The Hours – and I’m sure there are more but this is by far the best I’ve come across. It’s a very appealing structure.

  5. Can’t wait to read this . I am confirmed Woolf fan ever since doing a Woolf course at Waterstones Piccadilly a couple of years ago ….before that I’d felt I ought to like her but didn’t quite ‘get’ her . Fascinating to see how this plays out against the turbulent politics of SA .

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