Home is where the hurt is: Diane Awerbuck’s Home Remedies

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HomeremediesTitle: Home Remedies
Diane Awerbuck


Click here to buy Home Remedies from Kalahari.com.


After finishing Diane Awerbuck’s latest novel, Home Remedies, successor to Gardening at Night, I sat dumbfounded, almost in tears, thinking to myself: How do I describe this evocative novel to someone who loves reading? How to make sense of this work without reducing its complexity to a few adroit aphorisms?

Carrying on from where her previous works, particularly Cabin Fever, left off, Awerbuck shows an almost-compulsive drive to excavate and finecomb both “lost” or stolen moments and momentous happenings as they happen. She is most at home unpacking the skeletons in cupboards close to home, her writings imbued with a verisimilitude and empathy for her subjects when documenting the extraordinary embedded within the everyday. The ghostly, the uncanny and the spectral haunt these pages, pages that document a “kind of revenge” for Saartjie Baartman. 

Awerbuck sets most of the action in Fish Hoek, not an overly familiar setting for local fiction over the past few years. Without setting up Fish Hoek as a generic sleepy hollow or microcosm for a broader South Africa, Awerbuck conjoins a varied, apposite blend of personas: Satanists, young professionals and parents, school kids, retirees. And frogs, many frogs. I will not spoil the delight by going into the significance of the frogs, but the Fish Hoek here is at once achingly familiar and disarmingly alien – quite the knack on Awerbuck’s part to overturn the familiar.

Home Remedies tells the story of Joanna Renfield (whose name is derived from the Hebrew meaning “God is gracious”), a mother working at the local museum of natural history. This museum – a chronicle of various forms of death and decay, the past cocooned into the present – houses relics and remnants, uncanny reminders of the (contested) past in a brittle-boned country in search of healing and wholeness.

Joanna’s home life is less than rosy. She cares for her young son while constantly at odds with aloof husband, Jan (who before committing to Joanna had dated only black women). Whereas Awerbuck’s collection of short stories Cabin Fever had the lost history of the Observatory Library Lady, here Joanna deals with the aftermath of a situation where DNA testing links the museum’s main attraction – a 12 000-year-old skeleton nicknamed Fish Hoek Man – to none other than Saartjie Baartman.

Almost immediately, the media goes into a feeding frenzy, the museum is given the expected makeover, and Joanna must make peace with having a new, bitter, pseudo-intellectual boss – not coincidentally a struggle veteran – who is hell-bent on making her life miserable while hogging all of the spotlight resulting from the DNA tests. Awerbuck has a field day exposing the hypocrisy, sycophantic behaviour and false prophets that have come to blight the gains of our young democracy.

To this one could add that any reader familiar with Awerbuck’s work would come to expect unexpected tragedy and horrific violence to strike, and that this tragedy and violence will be as much mental and spiritual as it is expressly physical.

Akin to the way that the DNA of Fish Hoek Man and of Saartjie Baartman are linked, Awerbuck cleverly parallels the tragic narrative of exploitation, displacement and death in a foreign land suffered by Baartman with the workplace struggles, domestic disturbances and psychic wounds of her protagonist Joanna. This overarching device never becomes a vehicle for anodyne ameliorations or all-too-convenient overlaps between the two very different women. Rather, through a measured, often painstaking process, Awerbuck allows subtle and minute resonances to emerge between Baartman’s historical personage and victim of trauma and the everyday difficulties of Joanna, an ultra-relatable, beautifully humane, very funny and flawed female heroine.

If all good fiction is concerned with forms of inversion (the ability to generate a set of important existential and philosophical questions from a range of seemingly self-evident observations); with revealing a particular kind of plurality or variety of voices and possible interpretations of events rather than allowing for the emergence of a singular, dominant voice; with the uncovering and extrapolation of the ongoing struggle for meaning and understanding even after arriving at a moment or moments of false euphoria or transcendence, then Awerbuck’s Home Remedies takes its place comfortably among Finuala Dowling’s Home-making for the Down-at-Heart, Henrietta Rose-Innes’s Nineveh and Terry Westby-Nunn’s The Sea of Wise Insects,  three of the finest literary works this year by white female South African authors.    

By placing the reader inside the heads of characters, real people who feel as much as they think, Awerbuck’s text stays true to life. She has a real knack for credible and memorable characters, but Joanna is truly a wonderfully rounded protagonist. Her observations on (her own) life are constantly poignant and hilariously self-deprecating, particularly her interior monologues, gems in a jewel-encrusted crown.

Awerbuck’s characters do not become ciphers or vehicles for banal ventriloquism about the state of the nation, purely grotesque or stultifying accounts of suffering and trauma or all-too-familiar insights into a society often measured through narrow prisms of race, class and gender. Rather, Awerbuck is adept at creating a dialogue with the reader through the novel form, utilising the fallibility, vulnerability and authenticity of her characters to allow readers to identify various parts of their own consciousness, ways of being, dreams, fears, hopes and ideals.

There is something about the human heart and its resilience that seems to fascinate Awerbuck. Apart from a notable exploration of femininity, motherhood and parenthood in the novel, the title Home Remedies brings forth a number of associations or allusions that cluster around the idea of a home as a place of comfort and solace, and of course also of being home, of feeling at home: displacement and feeling out of place; the trope of the melancholic as a productive site for reflection, acceptance and eventual and the idea of a remedy or cure, a muti/therapy for sadness and melancholia through a process of identification with the other; ethical responsibility as a remedial form of engagement with mutually shared afflictions.

This is a novel that operates like the best of short stories: it offers a particular view of a specific set of events, moments or thoughts; and this view is able to enlighten, educate and surprise, to distil a wealth of insights into a unit of carefully compacted prose. Elegiac, painful, probing, ultimately hopeful, Home Remedies rarely falters in its esprit de corps for the everyman, the victims of the violent march of history.

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