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Kate MosesIt is 1911, and the ostrich feathers found on every Edwardian lady's hat have propelled South Africa into a boom economy. A dissipated, exiled Englishman appears on horseback to "oversee" a branding session that is being managed perfectly well by so-called Coloured and Xhosa farm workers, who are herding ostriches -- the small, plain females and the dramatic, black-and-white males -- with thorny-tipped mimosa sticks. Ostriches are, apparently, skittish, humorless and deadly if provoked, which at last they are by the Englishman's horse. In the midst of a sea of bellowing ostriches, the branding fire is tipped over and one of the tallest and fastest males catches fire. The workers give chase, attempting to jump on the flaming ostrich's back to save the valuable feathers.
This extraordinary scene -- which appears early in Anne Landsman's first novel and is related by her contemporary narrator, a middle-aged alcoholic named Connie -- exemplifies what is most promising about this book: a dramatic setting ripe with sociopolitical undercurrents, historically accurate symbolism so rich you couldn't make it up and a parallel narrative that plays out the stillborn lives of two women from different eras. Unfortunately, little of what The Devil's Chimney promises is actually realized, and the problem is the author's choice of Connie as her storyteller.
Connie's life was emotionally stalled at the age of 18, when she married a resentful boyfriend and bore a baby who died mysteriously at birth. For this reason, we can only assume, she is obsessed with the story of turn-of-the-century Beatrice, who also bore a child under scandalous circumstances. Clearly the author intends her readers to understand Connie's fascination with Beatrice, who is simultaneously repellent to Connie because of her eccentricity (according to South African social standards) and admirable because of her strength and fearlessness. Unfortunately, Carrie's perspective is so limited, so crippled by loss, racism and cultural fear, that it blocks out Beatrice's more interesting story.
Take the burning ostrich scene, for example: What should be vivid and horrifying is rendered static by the detached, colorless voice of Connie ("Everyone was worried ... Some were kicked and burned"). The transitions from scenes of Connie's present life with her bitter husband, Jack, to Connie's telling of Beatrice's life story are equally stilted: After Jack pours an entire bottle of gin over her head, Connie states unbelievably, "All I can think of is Miss Beatrice's farm and how big it was."
Despite moments of poetry and originality that somehow escape the handicap Landsman has saddled herself with in Connie (a description of the vast South African night sky with "stars roaring over their heads," or of the limp bodies of dead ostrich chicks "like broken-down lamps"), the disingenuous narrative and its exasperatingly obvious symbols feel manipulated rather than shaped -- from the novel's dislocated prologue to its conveniently neat ending. It's a shame that Landsman wasted such potent material on an insupportable premise. -- Salon