Thursday, 3 August 2017

Review: 'Johannesburg' by Fiona Melrose

I never thought that moving to China to teach English would mean that my circle of new friends would be almost entirely made up off South Africans. Thankfully thye're utterly lovely people, and getting to know them has also made me more curious about South Africa and its history. We all know Nelson Mandela and now, thanks to the Daily Show, we also know Trevor Noah, but its history and culture were still unknown to me. So when I saw Johannesburg I jumped at the chance to get a sense of this amazing city. Thanks to Corsair and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 03/08/2017
Publisher: Corsair; Little, Brown Book Group

6 December 2013. Johannesburg. 
Gin has returned home from New York to throw a party for her mother's eightieth birthday; a few blocks away, at the Residence, Nelson Mandela's family prepare to announce Tata's death... 
So begins Johannesburg, Fiona Melrose's searing second novel.
An irascible mother, an anxious daughter trying to negotiate her birthplace and her past, her former lover, their domestic workers, a homeless hunchback fighting for justice, a mining magnate, a troubled novelist called Virginia - these are the characters who give voice to the city on a day hot with nerves and tension and history. 
Set across the course of a single day - that of Nelson Mandela's death - Melrose's second novel is a hymn to an extraordinary city and its people, an ambitious homage to Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway, and a devastating personal and political manifesto on love.
Whether it's James Joyce's Ulysses or Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of Vanities, many authors have used fiction to immortalise their cities, to show us the streets they so love or that particular way the light has of hitting the roofs. It's difficult to truly encompass everything a city has to offer in a novel without the author coming across as a tour guide, but Melrose finds a way. Rather than wax lyrical about different buildings or streets, she aims to show the lives lived in Johannesburg. In a way Melrose makes the reader a bird flying over the city, landing here and there before flying off to visit someone else. It gives Johannesburg a distinctly poetic and lyrical quality, both achingly immediate and oddly removed. You have to mine some of the passages for their meaning, consider what it is Melrose is actively trying to tell you, but this effort is worth it in the end.

Johannesburg covers only a single day, but splits its narrative between a set of different characters. Melrose aims to include as many different perspectives into her novel in order to truly bring Johannesburg alive on all its different levels. The day is the 6th of December, 2013, the day Nelson Mandela died. It is also the day of Gin's birthday party for her mother, another day of hard work for domestic workers Mercy and Dudu, another day of protest for the homeless September, and a day on which a dog is lost. Initially it is difficult to see how all these stories work together and occasionally you do get confused as to who is speaking, whose life we are currently observing. The characters I feel got the most time were Gin and September, drastically different but both with their own kind of burden to bear. I would have loved to hear more of Mercy and Dudu, who I thought were amazing characters and had a lot of interesting insights into their city and country. Whether I know more about South Africa now I can't really say, but Melrose does infuse her novel with the kind of spirit I have seen in my friends as well, with the difficult but passionate love they have for their country.

Melrose has a talent for describing a larger scene and then zooming in on a surprising detail. A clear example of this is the style of the novel. Most of Johannesburg is written in third person, allowing the reader to both get close to the characters while maintaining something of a distance. Occasionally, however, Melrose dips into a first-person narrative to share her characters' most intimate fears and thoughts. It was towards the end I truly started to understand Johannesburg as an 'homage to Virginia Woold's Mrs. Dalloway'. Melrose lets her characters' thoughts ramble in a way that initially seems odd. I mean, why dedicate so much time to things that are seemingly pointless? It isn't until later, when the reader has spent more time with the characters, that this writing pays off because we can see what it is these characters obsess about, can't help but think about and even prefer not to think about. Many things are hinted at but not really developed and at the end of the novel you don;t necessarily know much more about any of the characters. The ending is not typical and may leave some readers a bit unsatisfied, but I enjoyed the elegiac nature of it.


I give this novel...

4 Universes!

Reading Johannesburg was a very interesting experience. Melrose shows you the day in the lives of many different people and rather than pass judgement or explain, she leaves it to the reader to draw their own conclusions. Her love for Johannesburg shines through, however, and that is the real heart and soul of the novel.

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