Playing in the Light: A Novel

Playing in the Light: A Novel

by Zoe Wicomb

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By the Windham Campbell Prize winner

Set in a beautifully rendered 1990s Cape Town, Zoë Wicomb’s celebrated novel revolves around Marion Campbell, who runs a travel agency but hates traveling, and who, in post-apartheid society, must negotiate the complexities of a knotty relationship with Brenda, her first black employee. As Alison McCulloch


By the Windham Campbell Prize winner

Set in a beautifully rendered 1990s Cape Town, Zoë Wicomb’s celebrated novel revolves around Marion Campbell, who runs a travel agency but hates traveling, and who, in post-apartheid society, must negotiate the complexities of a knotty relationship with Brenda, her first black employee. As Alison McCulloch noted in the New York Times, "Wicomb deftly explores the ghastly soup of racism in all its unglory—denial, tradition, habit, stupidity, fear—and manages to do so without moralizing or becoming formulaic."

Caught in the narrow world of private interests and self-advancement, Marion eschews national politics until the Truth and Reconciliation Commission throws up information that brings into question not only her family’s past but her identity and her rightful place in contemporary South African society. "Stylistically nuanced and psychologically astute" (Kirkus), Playing in the Light is as powerful in its depiction of Marion's personal journey as it is in its depiction of South Africa's bizarre, brutal history.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Post-apartheid South Africa is indeed a new world. . . . With this novel, Wicomb proves a keen guide."
New York Times

"Delectable. . . . Wicomb’s prose is as delightful and satisfying in its culmination as watching the sun set over the Atlantic Ocean."
Christian Science Monitor

"[A] thoughtful, poetic novel."
The Times (London)

"Deep and subtle. . . . This tight, dense novel gives complex history a human face."

Product Details

New Press, The
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5.00(w) x 7.80(h) x 0.80(d)

Read an Excerpt

It is on the balcony, the space both inside and out where she spends much of her time at home, that it happens. A bird, a speckled guinea fowl, comes flying at a dangerous angle, just missing the wall, and falls dead with a thud at Marion’s feet. Amid scatter cushions and a coffee tray and the smell and roar of the sea, it lies on the brown ceramic tiles. There had been the usual squabbling, angry flapping and circling overhead, and then a heart attack in mid-flight, she supposes. Still warm with rage but undoubtedly dead, her bare foot decides. Marion bends down to check the eyes, bloodshot and staring, and the distinctive feathers, by no means as fine a plumage as it appears from a distance.

There is silence overhead. Will the others, the enemies, line up on her balcony wall to pay their respects? Should she withdraw? She would like to toss the bird onto the communal gardens below, but she is squeamish about touching it; and besides, its landing is sure to be seen by someone who would calculate from the trajectory precisely which balcony it's been hurled from. Someone with the correct respect for property, who may well ring her doorbell, bird in hand, to return the fowl to its rightful owner. That someone would have to hold it by its feet, head hanging, so that the feathers billowed, the guinea fowl declassified by the ruffling of its black-and-white patterned plumage. Marion reaches for a shawl from the back of the rattan chair, spreads it on the tiles, rolls the bird over with her foot—it is surprisingly heavy—and wraps it in a shroud of sage green. Fortunately it is Thursday, cleaning day. She leaves the girl a note asking her to take the parcel of bird away. One never knows what uses such people might have for a dead guinea fowl.

A respect for property is precisely what this new luxury block on the beachfront at Bloubergstrand can guarantee. Residents are more than happy to pay for smartly uniformed attendants who monitor all and sundry entering the grounds. Every car owner must stop at the barricades to fill in a form recording the names of driver and passengers, registration number and purpose of visit. Security—you have to pay for it these days, especially if you are a woman on your own. No point in having a glorious outlook on the sea, with the classic view of Table Mountain on the left and Robben Island on the right, if you are not secure. Here, your property is inviolable.

Marion’s apartment is modest—she has no need for more than one bedroom—but the flat is the fulfilment of an adolescent dream. There is a tingle of recognition when she flicks through Home and Garden magazines and her interiors seem to spring from the glossy pages. Thus the leather sofas arrived not with stiff, creaky newness, but with matt familiarity, settling into her home as comfortably as tabby cats. Or the four-poster bed, a house in itself, into which she can retreat from the larger one when she needs the cocoon of draped muslin after a hard day’s work, the noise of the world dampened to a distant hum. She remembers distinctly when she first saw such an astoundingly luxurious thing: subtly lit photographs of a country house in an English magazine, and a bed that was hardly an item of furniture. Rather a bower for an egte fairy princess, who would lie for a hundred chaste years in gauzed limbo, waiting for the world to change into a better, a more hospitable place. Marion knows that the bed is extravagant, foolish perhaps for such a small flat—but what the hell, she deserves it, this marker of her success.

But lately, the four-poster has turned against her. There have been times, propped up with her magazines, when something buzzes in her ears, a sense of swarming that grows louder and louder, even as the sunset, which she can see from the bed, curls in serene pink and gold across the horizon
and the cool Atlantic laps at Robben Island. Then, for a moment, she seems to gag on metres of muslin, ensnared in the fabric that wraps itself round and round her into a shroud from which she struggles to escape.

There is no point dwelling on such moments. From her bed, Marion can look out at the sea, at the speckled guinea fowl that strut the roofs below or perch on chimney pots, and take pleasure in this haven from the hurly-burly of work. The attacks are not serious, last for no more than a couple of minutes; it is just that she is tired, over-worked. An intimate friend might say that such a palaver is enough to warrant therapy, or at least a dismantling, a disrobing of the bed. But she has no such friend; there are no gatherings of young women who giggle and bare their souls and call themselves girls. And Marion has no truck with therapy. She despises those who do: indulgent, effete, English types, who do not know how to roll up their sleeves and get on with things. Why spend money
and time to discover the obvious: that as the only issue of older parents, she had a peculiar childhood; that her parents loathed each other; that her mother, like all mothers, was responsible for her insecurity?

Besides, she has come round to thinking that this is simply the human condition—even for men. Marion has advanced in the world precisely because she presses on. The strangling effect of muslin will simply have to be overcome, will necessarily fail in the face of her no-nonsense approach. If creatures must fall out of the sky to die at her feet, so be it. She is not superstitious; she attaches no significance to such things. And since she never sees the cleaning girl, whose wage is left on the table, she will never know what happened to the bird. Here by the cool waters of Bloubergstrand she’ll stay, with her heart-tugging postcard view of sea and mountain, even if her father does whine about it being so far away. Of course that is precisely why she has chosen to live here, miles from Observatory.

It is not that she does not love her father. He is an old man past the fury of manhood. The frown on his forehead has set into folds she calls interesting, folds that balance the craters on his cheeks and those around the sagging mouth. But there is an uneasy edge to their love, a fringe of cloud that perhaps is necessarily there between father and daughter. For all his jolly banter, Marion now recognises in his facial lines the guardedness, the hesitation that must have been there all along: he is a boer trespassing in the city, where the bucolic is mocked; he is wary of ambition. Marion supposes that it is due to humble roots, to lack of education, to the barefoot childhood on the farm from which he escaped to Cape Town, where he would never be comfortable.

Thankfully, her mother is dead, has died a self-willed and efficient death, and after that marriage of bitter bickering John has become her dear Pappa. He likes being called that, Pappa, which in his family is what you call your grandfather, but her old Pappa too is long since dead. His family members, unlike other people's, all disappeared into the jaws of the city or died young or, for all her father’s easygoing bonhomie, fell out with him years ago. Family! he used to exclaim elliptically, shaking his head and pulling a face that she could not interpret. As if between the thought and the utterance he had changed his mind, so that his expression hovered somewhere between distaste and regret. Nowadays, threatened with extinction, he whines, My beauty, my Marina, what about some grandchildren then for your old Pappa? In spite of himself, because he turns away immediately to complain about a shoelace or a pain in his chest, and she knows that he is embarrassed, that he does not really mean it, does not really want to be plagued by children crawling all over him like insects.

It is Saturday afternoon when Marion visits her father. She remembers to include in the food basket some walnuts, dried apricots and biltong. These are delicacies that John Campbell still thinks of as special fare: the stuff produced for a livelihood on the farm in the Karoo, but which the family was barred from eating, except at Christmas time. Except for what the brothers stole from the loft on lazy Sunday afternoons, pocketfuls taken to the mealie field, where they would lie hidden between rows of maize, chewing, and checking the lengths of their penises.

In the cramped tin-roofed terraced house in Observatory, he often thinks of the old farm: the house with whitewashed walls and black window frames; the loft, which stretched the entire length of the roof, with its black wooden door. All the farmhouses had woodwork painted in gracht green. Why not theirs? Why had he never asked his father? But his father was a man of few words, a man without letters who refused to answer questions. Or perhaps knew none of the answers.
Why do we have an English name?
Why, why why? his father mimicked. Is that all you can say? Ask no questions and you’ll hear no lies.

Yes, he thinks often of the house, of Ma and all the brothers, whose names he sometimes finds himself chanting: John, Pieter, Karel, Paul, Roelf and Dawid, in descending order and starting with himself—otherwise how would one remember all of them? And their adorable sister Elsie, slap bang in the middle.

Kembel, that was what the officer at the Traffic Department wrote down when John first said his name; and John, who could read and write perfectly well, knew that it would be a mistake to correct a man so dapperly turned out in khaki—yes, those were the days before the airforce-blue uniform. Why fuss over a spelling that made not the slightest difference? Or if it did, if that was all it took to turn him into someone new, a man of the city with prospects, who was he to complain? Th e name could easily be corrected later without offending the officer.

John has a special ear for traffic. Which is not surprising, given that his working life was spent on crossroads and traffic islands, appreciating the sounds that he came to identify as one might the separate instruments in a symphony. That, for the young man from the Karoo, was the essence of the city: a symphony of sound, of people chattering in Afrikaans or English or, in their neighbourhood, switching smartly in mid-sentence between the two; of buses, bakkies, cars and lorries. He loved the cheeriness of electric light licking at the slopes of Table Mountain, and especially the red, green and amber of robots that governed all that circulation of traffic. To be a traffic cop is to be at the very source of the movement and sound of the city, to know your way about its veins and arteries and to feel the power of the beast between your thighs:
the gleaming Harley-Davidson. And with pristine white gloves to guide motorists through the harmonies of weaving and crossing and finding their way through the traffic. At night, at home, when the silence of the house where Helen crocheted and he browsed Landbou Weekblad became oppressive, he would summon the music of that roar, hear the muted sound swirling about until it seemed to emanate from the centre of the room, from the fresh arrangement of artificial blooms replaced on Friday evenings by the flower company.

Meet the Author

Zoë Wicomb was born in South Africa in 1948 and returned in 1991, after twenty years of voluntary exile, to teach at the University of the Western Cape. The author of two previous works of fiction, she currently lives in Glasgow and teaches at the University of Strathclyde, Scotland. She is the winner of a 2013 Windham Campbell Prize.

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