Each mortal thing by Michiel Heyns: a review

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Anthony Akerman
Title: Each mortal thing
Author: Michiel Heyns
ISBN: 9781776380152
Publisher: Umuzi

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Heyns is a masterful storyteller and the narrative often veers off in quite unexpected directions.
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“Fucking foreigners. Good thing they’re buggering off back home.” This was the imprecation of a harassed Englishwoman as she dragged her distressed young son off the tube. It had been his offer to help the boy find his lost sandal, as much as his South African accent, that had marked him out as a foreigner. Terence Winshaw – the protagonist of Each mortal thing – was one of the approximately 250 000 South Africans who were living in the UK on that sweltering July day in 2019 as he alighted at Heathrow. If the young Englishwoman had been more observant, she’d have noticed that he had no luggage and therefore wasn’t buggering off anywhere. He was there to meet Natasha, a young South African from Beaufort West whose debut novel, In the shadow of the milkbush (a translation by her best friend from her original Afrikaans), he’d recommended to Oryx Editions, a small London publisher. Natasha’s reimagining of Olive Schreiner’s The story of an African farm gave a voice to a peripheral black character in the original and had been shortlisted for the Elizabeth Gaskell Prize, and Natasha had been flown out for the awards ceremony.

Several factors – among them, the “feckless greed and stupidity” of the Zuma government and the limited employment opportunities for a young white man who’d been awarded his Cambridge PhD on Gerard Manley Hopkins – had been decisive in Terence applying for a post at Bentham College in London, where he’d joined the diaspora of “fucking foreigners” so disapproved of by the xenophobic Englishwoman. Terence’s social world – with one notable exception – is largely populated by expats. His girlfriend, Jenny, is a hard-nosed and privileged American law student; Natasha’s publishers are Adam and Selina Rawitz – described as ex-South Africans – and their South African-born, gay son, Simon – an actor trying to break into the profession – became firm friends with Terence while he was an undergraduate at Cambridge and Terence was doing his PhD.

For me, this made the world of the story intriguingly familiar, as 50 years earlier I’d inhabited the South African expat and exile diaspora when I went to theatre school in England. I’d left the country to get away from South Africans, and yet I gravitated towards them. Of course, that wasn’t because the English were all like the xenophobic woman, who, the more observant Terence noticed, had a nasty bruise on her arm and probably saw his intervention as just another potential male abuser trying to push her around. Another aspect of the story world that resonated with me was that many of the characters were involved in writing, teaching literature, publishing and, albeit peripherally, the theatre. Most of the characters have a penchant for the apposite literary quotation – and these have been italicised in the main body of the text.

Kindness is Terence’s default setting and something Jenny considers his Achilles heel. Jenny, with whom he has an athletic sex life when she’s not working on her mergers and acquisitions paper, doesn’t understand why Terence was prepared to endure the inconvenience of catching the tube out to Heathrow to meet Natasha. How hard can it be for her to find her own way? She’s probably just taking advantage of him. Again. Isn’t that pretty much what she had done when she sent him the manuscript of her novel? Natasha had sat in on a few of his tutorials when he was a postgrad student at UCT, so it wasn’t as if she actually knew him. But Terence had liked her novel and had shown it to Simon, who’d passed it on to his parents. It had sold surprisingly well, and Terence had been told confidentially by one of the judges that Natasha was the winner. What could possibly go wrong?

Jenny operates on the periphery of Terence’s world and doesn’t understand it or particularly want to. She and best friend Simon are oil and water. But she suspects Natasha of playing Terence, that the little-girl-lost-in-London act could be just that – an act. For one thing, she’s a South African, and Jenny can’t compete with that. Then, of course, she’s a writer, and she and Terence will talk interminably about boring books and literature. And who the hell was this Olive Schreiner anyway? She feels excluded – even if she deliberately excludes herself – and her female intuition tells her that Natasha could again take advantage of Terence’s misplaced kindness. And, predictably, the suspicions she manifests become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The wheels obviously come off, or we wouldn’t have a story. I won’t give anything away, but trust me when I say that Heyns is a masterful storyteller and the narrative often veers off in quite unexpected directions. While Terence is totting up all he feels he’s lost, the sight of a homeless young man and his dog sleeping rough outside the Oxford Circus tube station puts things into perspective for him. I’d glanced briefly at the blurb on the cover before reading the novel, and my initial response when I saw the reference to his involvement with a homeless man was a sinking feeling. Is Terence going to go on the skids? Is his life going to unravel and be taken over by someone who drags him into a vortex of misery in which he loses everything? I didn’t know whether I’d have the stomach for that kind of story.

I needn’t have worried. The friendship that develops between Terence, the down-and-out young man Andy and his faithful dog Robbie is the warm, beating heart of this novel. It vindicates Terence’s default setting and his faith in humanity’s inherent goodness. And – at the risk of provoking Jenny to look up from her law books in exasperation and make a scathing comment about my inherent sentimentality – it brought tears to my eyes on more than one occasion. Michiel Heyns’s story is a celebration of what Wordsworth describes in “Tintern Abbey” as: “that best portion of a good man’s life,/ His little, nameless, unremembered acts/ Of kindness and of love”.

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