The saying that a man cannot cross the same river twice, because the river has changed and the man has changed, is a truism nowhere better illustrated than in South African writer Tony Peake’s latest novel, North Facing, a gripping and extremely moving account of Paul Harvey, a man in his sixties, coming to terms with the shattering aftermath of a stupid act of bravado at 14, which takes place at his boarding school in Pretoria. It is an act of ignorant betrayal by young Harvey who is led to it against the grain of character in his desperation to be accepted by a group of fellow pupils. But it has enormous consequences that ambush our protagonist as he embarks on an adult journey of self-exculpation.
The reader of this deftly written and subtly plotted novel is drawn into a preternatural awareness that something dark lurks behind the woodpile of the story, waiting to be triggered by the unwitting actions of the boy at the centre, too young to understand the train of events he sets in motion. The narrative is gulp readable and the final twist at the very end an emotional cliff-hanger, but this would be to miss the deeper allegorical sub-surface messages and sexual sub-text. Peake captures exactly the nuance and ambiguity of a child who “can’t really comprehend the meaning of far off events”, living within dimly perceived horizons set by adults.
North Facing is one of a recent stable of coming-of-age books set in South Africa where moral issues are revisited in later life. The excellent Verwoerdburg by Johann Rossouw, with its interrogation of a personal past set in apartheid days, and similar thematic treatments by JM Coetzee and Justin Cartwright, spring to mind, but Peake takes us into a new literary space currently occupied by writers of the ilk of Annie Ernaux, the French author of The years (described by the New York Times as a Remembrance of things past for our age of media domination and consumerism).
Like Ernaux, Peake superimposes the narrow drama of his protagonist on the backdrop of wider world and South African political events, “dimly perceived”, through a lens of memory, language (a liberal use of sixties idiomatic Afrikaans, with no translation, which adds to the almost uncanny atmospheric verisimilitude), news headlines and cultural impressions. The Cuban missile crisis overlaps with the arrest of Nelson Mandela, the way blacks and whites address one another, the master-servant relationship, the slang of the boys at school. All this is so accurately captured by Peake that words become pictures in the mind, as if the Pretoria past had been Photoshopped. If you are old enough to have lived through that period (I also went to school in Pretoria in the ’sixties) you are instantly transported back to a forgotten world. It’s as if a door has unexpectedly opened, and with a pang the reader is prompted to put down the narrative and consider his own inward mind.
Pace Ernaux says that of all the ways in which self-knowledge may be fostered, perhaps one of the greatest is a person’s ability to discern the past, at every time of life and every age. Peake’s attentive ear for the genre of collective memoir, where the passing of time is recollected in side events, layer upon layer, as refracted through the young eyes of Paul Harvey, makes us blush not only for his youthful indiscretion, and the shame of it, but for our own shame at not completely understanding the cruel sociology of the country we were living in, and for much the same reasons – we were too young. North Facing forces you to “know the place for the first time”.
Highly recommended. Tony Peake is in the top rank of South African writers right now.