Book Review – The Safest Place You Know by Mark Winkler
This is an astonishing South African novel.
Some time ago I reviewed Winkler’s Wasted, which was a disturbing pleasure to read. The first thing that jumps out on reading this (his third) novel is how different it is – in tone, structure, language, dialogue, characters, narrative. Wasted was urban and bristling. This is something else altogether. Authors dream of this sort of diversity and dexterity – it is a rare gift. It is as though Winkler has seemingly accessed an entirely new writer out of the same space in his head and heart. That is the first astonishment.
The second is the writing. From word to sentence to paragraph to chapter the language soars, sometimes so beautifully as to reach for poetry. Descriptions of simple things – raindrops or dust or a tree or a gesture is wrought from original and exotic material – I often found myself rereading sentences and paragraphs after simply gasping at the language the first time around. There is a danger in this of course, because those chapters (and there were a few) that do not reach the same level of excellence become starkly bland. But I quibble, because the whole far exceeds its parts.
The action unfolds in the early 1980s. Two separate lives, irrevocably damaged by cruel and abusive fathers, are thrown into a strange and poignant embrace on a wine estate near Paarl. The first is a 17 year Afrikaans boy, Hennie, fleeing an act of violence on his family farm, now in the final death throws neglect and drought. The second is a 30-something lawyer, Andy, the estranged heiress to a wine estate, irrevocably damaged and alcohol-enslaved, now returned to the estate on the untimely death of her hated father. The damage wrought by their respective fathers and the subsequent corrosive secrets carried by their children sit a the heart of this story, which unfolds as they both try to communicate, try to comfort each other, try to comfort themselves and try to find a way to leave the past behind. If I can misquote Philip Larkin – they really fuck you up, your fathers. Winkler looks long and deep into those wounds.
The cast is rounded out by the counterpoint of two other key characters. One is the estate domestic helper, Johanna, a white woman deposited reluctantly (and finally with great loyalty) into the coloured community by an act of apartheid madness, and the other a small child of unknown provenance, Charlotte, who arrives mysteriously on the estate, bringing with her a chimeric and other-worldly healing for all. For me this was the only off-key note in the book (I have difficulty with the introduction of magical realism into a beautifully rendered story of tragedy and redemption, but perhaps I quibble again). I will say no more about the plot, it unfolds and refolds with great sensitivity and care, and the character’s voices echo loud after the final page.
I am told there was a reviewer who compared Winkler favourably to JM Coetzee. Perhaps (I am poorly-read in the Coetzee department), but I would simply say that The Safest Place You Know has elevated Winkler into a cadre of uncommon talent, I would take a soft bet that he ends up being one of the great writers coming out of SA in the early part of this century