“What exactly are you here for? What, Malachi?”
How do you expect me to answer, you shitting idiot?
I lift my bum off the seat, open my mouth wide. “Uugghh!”
I point inside my mouth, threaten her with the never-before-seen stump of my tongue.
Meirong grabs onto Janeé’s shoulder, holds her spoon up like a shield. Tamba begins to laugh, half-delighted, half-frightened that the lion might ignore the whip and eat the pretty trainer in lycra. ? [should be “Lycra”]
I sit down, shut my mouth. Janeé begins to gurgle, then a hurricane of laughter blows against her huge hull as she tilts alarmingly. The pendulum tips. Janeé snatches at the table, but she misses. I hear the thump of her shoulder as it hits the rig … Meirong falls forward and lands on Janeé’s hip, sits there like the cook is a tranquil park bench. Meirong begins to laugh in a high musical trill, the sound of a fairy who has drunk too much nectar. Tamba takes her hand and pulls her to her feet, honking with laughter. A strange sound issues from me. It is deep, yet open-hearted, arrestingly masculine. It is me, Malachi, laughing a mature happy man’s laugh, no trace of stones, no grit, no globules of grease caught in it. (170–1)
The above extract from Tracey Farren’s third novel, The book of Malachi, depicts the moment the protagonist, Malachi Dakwaa, finds his voice in spite of having undergone life-changing trauma which resulted in him losing his tongue. This novel is very different to Farren’s first two, Whiplash and Snake, in that it’s set in a dystopian future which isn’t too dissimilar from present-day Africa, except for the ways in which it is totally different. Without wanting to be obtuse, Farren has created a world which is just at the edge of most people’s nightmares.
When we are introduced to Malachi, through his narration, we have no idea of his background. All we know is that he has no tongue and is being transported somewhere to begin a job of some sort. It takes a while for the reader to become acquainted with this young protagonist whose interior monologue is relatively random and peppered with similes and metaphors almost to the point of irritation. When he finally arrives at his destination, a rig in the middle of the ocean, it takes the reader the same amount of time as it does Malachi to realise what is expected of him. His shock when he discovers that his job is to trim the fast-growing toe- and fingernails of naked human beings kept in cages for the questionable purposes of an enormous corporate, is equal to the shock experienced by the reader. As Malachi slowly comprehends the expectations his bosses have of him, the reader is drawn into a world which skirts normality, yet which distorts it completely.
This reviewer is reluctant to give away too many details about the actual events in this novel, as the shock value of the harsh realities of life on the rig is part of the novel’s strength. Suffice to say that the novel is captivating. Farren inhabits the life of her first-person narrator so completely that she even uses his love of language in a visceral way. It took me a while to realise that the many similes and metaphors in the opening chapters, narrated by Malachi, were, in fact, Malachi’s obsession with words, and not the author’s penchant for comparisons. The reader learns later that Malachi has inherited his father’s love for the magical quality of words, because his father was a teacher of English literature at Malachi’s school. As facts about Malachi’s past traumas are revealed, his unusual personality traits become understandable, and the reader becomes empathetic to his quirky habits. More than that, the reader becomes deeply engaged with this young man as he rediscovers his own humanity while performing almost inhuman duties.
The characters he encounters during his transformation from tortured soul to empathetic human being come alive through Malachi’s words, expertly crafted by the author. His growing awareness of his own capacity for caring for others gives him a lifeline to redemption. Many of these characters stand out for me: Tamba, Malachi’s roommate, battling his own addictions, but still warm-hearted enough to be concerned for his strange companion; Eulalie, one of the caged women, who has insight and prescience which, ironically, give the prisoners their best version of reality; Meirong, the corporation dogsbody who is as perfect as a china doll, and as brittle; the Solo Sailor, who is heart-breaking in her vulnerability; and many more.
Farren is an exceptional writer, one of the best I’ve encountered, and not just in this country. She is able to create a vibrant world which thrums with the same intensity as I’d imagine an oil rig would. The outlandish circumstances she has chosen for her story become tangibly real, and by the time the novel ended, I was bereft, missing the characters and the setting as if I’d spent real time in an actual place.
Farren has an ability to express the interior world of a character in a profound way, diving into the depths of human motivations and aspirations, even when a character is unaware of them. Although the novel deals with tough issues, the redemption at the end of Malachi’s journey is worth every disturbing moment of the journey. The writing is visual and visceral, the world created is tangible, and the character of Malachi has expressed his voice with utmost clarity. Farren’s novel obliquely comments on the very nature of humanity itself, even when it is disguised behind the exteriors of apparently hardened criminals, and shows that empathy can transcend all barriers. I can’t recommend this powerful novel highly enough.
Q and A:
I was amazed by the originality of your world of story, Tracey. Initially, I found it difficult to absorb the brutal setting of the novel, as it was tough to read. Slowly but surely, however, I became immersed in life on the rig and in the wordless world of Malachi. By the time I reached the end of the novel, I felt like I was losing a friend. Where on earth did the idea of the dystopian extremes of life on the rig come from?
Right now, South Africa is pretty dystopian in its lawlessness and casual taking of human life. In our country, every one of us is born as a laughing, loving baby, but some get to watch their mothers being beaten, or go hungry while their fathers slave in the sumptuous gardens of the rich. Some children are left to be raised by computer war games, or made to believe that fewer hits on their social media page justify their suicide. South Africa is a place with strong apocalyptic characteristics, and I wrote this book to explore the present through near-future fiction. While I was writing it, I was living in a frightened white suburb, where people hide their shame behind lined curtains, while outside people pick through their bins for bones or bread, or steal copper pipes for a hit of tik to escape their dystopian reality. Only the cats seem to thrive – on their diets of expensive vet food – slinking out at night to claim the desolate streets. I wove all of these elements into the book, but deliberately set the story in the middle of the sea to downplay the surroundings and focus on Malachi’s struggle to see beyond the prisoners’ deeds to their humanity.
Malachi is not necessarily a sympathetic protagonist in the beginning of the novel. I didn’t relate to him initially, because of his strange predilections and his rather annoying attachment to similes and metaphors. Eventually, learning about his background as the son of an English teacher who loved words, and who suffered enormous losses due to violent rebels, made me more sympathetic to him and his story. It’s a good ploy to be obtuse about your hero’s origins in the beginning of the story, especially to pique your readers’ curiosity, but weren’t you concerned about leaving it too long before revealing Malachi’s vulnerability?
I was worried about alienating the reader, but hoped that they would move from detachment to curiosity to affection, just as Malachi himself moves from disconnection to love. It seems that it has worked, as people come to trust that Malachi’s good heart and his self-deprecating humour will carry them through the evil he walks among. I took this risk in the hope of creating a story that “moves” people, not just emotionally, but in their patterns of thinking. I really love the way that fiction has the power to shift us from alienation and prejudice against the “other” to a deep sense of affinity. At first, Malachi seems to be barely living, until we discover his hidden intensity and begin to feel for him. I did, however, deliberately plant one of his greatest vulnerabilities on page three to hook people’s curiosity about his hidden suffering. Right from the beginning, we realise that Malachi is in the habit of harming himself with electricity, and this lets us suspect that this man is tormented, not the unruffled, aloof man he pretends to be. By gradually revealing Malachi’s character, I hoped to rattle the reader’s judgements enough to make way for surprising new thoughts about the prisoners.
You have created a vividly diverse range of characters in your novel who accompany Malachi on his journey on the rig. Each one has their own quirks and peculiarities, which you describe with an intensive eye for detail. Characters such as Thamba, ? [earlier “Tamba” – which is correct? Also below] Meirong and Eulalie will stay with me a long time. Where did you get your inspiration for these characters, as well as the eccentric prisoners at the mercy of the harvesters?
I think the characterisation feels alive because, when we meet them, every one of the characters in the book is clinging to some desperate regret as if their life depends on it. The week on the rig drills quickly into this regret and becomes a huge turning point in all of their psyches. The characters you mention represent the archetype of the heartless professional (Meirong), the spiritual intuitive (Eulalie), the frivolous playboy (Thamba), but, like all of us, they are full of contradictions. I wanted to create characters that are at times guided by light, at times gripped by shadow, as Malachi tries to figure out what lies beneath them.
This novel differs from the realistic worlds of your two previous novels, Whiplash and Snake. These novels took place in the harsh reality of present-day life, where people are capable of dark deeds against their fellows. In The book of Malachi, the horrors of the future are even worse than those you’ve written about before. Do you believe that humanity is headed towards an even more savage future than the reality we find ourselves in today? Or do you believe that the intrinsic goodness of humanity will save us in the end, as it does in The book of Malachi?
Malachi is not alone in this quest. He relies on the spiritual insight of the wise, old woman, Eulalie, jailed for poisoning a prime minister’s wife. The two of them come to see that humans insist on suffering, and the guiltier we feel about making others suffer, the more destructive we become. At this point in our history, we are either about to drive ourselves out of existence, or about to see our beauty and take an accelerated, more feminine path to survival. One of the critical things is for us to accept that we are all connected, even if from the outside this seems preposterous. We might ask ourselves, “What could I possibly have in common with a murderer?” but, if we return to the idea that we are all born as innocent, loving infants, and hold up this love, this godliness, as sacrosanct, we still have a chance. I believe that this deeper way of seeing is a strange, powerful form of forgiveness that has the power to save our species. As Marianne Williamson, a true “seer” running for the presidency in the US, says, “We don’t need a department of war; we need a department of peace.”
Lastly, your writing is very cinematic, and the climax of this novel was as exciting and nerve-wracking as any thriller I’ve watched on screen. Your novel Whiplash was produced as a successful and compelling film, Tess, and you have just been funded for the film project of Snake. Do you hope to turn The book of Malachi into a film as well? Do you feel screenplays are able to deliver the complexities of the novel in a satisfying way, or do you regret the omissions you have to make in the interest of visual storytelling?
I intend to write The book of Malachi as a screenplay, or even a three- or four-part series. I think it would be easy to shoot, as most of the action happens in a single location, and the interior of a huge tanker in the docks could easily be cheated to feel like a deep-sea rig. The coldness of the industrial, metallic environment would create an amazing contrast to the softness and vulnerability of naked skin, throwing the fervour of hope and the sweetness of forgiveness into relief. On the rig, the characters can hear and feel the sea, but are imprisoned in the rig until the scary, suspenseful sequences near the end of the story. I’m already excited about the screen role of the ocean in the unravelling of Malachi’s dilemma.
Thank you for completing these questions, and thank you again for your beautiful words. You are an incredibly gifted writer.