They’re all written by women. Two are novels by post-apartheid South African writers being Marita Van Der Vyer’s ‘Entertaining Angels’ and Pamela Jooste’s ‘Frieda and Min’. The third is ‘Oranges are Not the Only Fruit’ by English writer Jeanette Winterson and the fourth is a collection of three autobiographies by the late New Zealand novelist and poet Janet Frame called ‘An Angel at My Table’.
All are prize-winning writers, all broke new ground and while each tell very different stories set in different places and times, there is a common thread running through each: they tell stories about women that go on painful journeys of self-discovery and emerge stronger, more complete and with a defining sense of who they are.
While all four novelists would, I am sure, happily where the tag of “feminist” they are really “humanist” writers, telling stories about the female human condition.
For me, it was an un-expected journey into the female psyche that began by accident when I picked up the two South African novels in a tiny little second-hand bookshop in Norwood, Johannesburg, run by two elderly African ladies, while on holiday last year. Later, back in Melbourne, I found the two other books on a shelf of ex-library books for sale outside our local library.
Entertaining Angels (translated from Afrikaans) was the first book I read. Set in 1989, just before the collapse of apartheid, it tells the story of Griet whose life is in a downward spiral: her husband has thrown her out, she lost her baby and her attempt to kill herself by sticking her head in the oven – a la one of her literary heroes, Sylvia Plath – failed (rather comically) because a dead cockroach inside put her off. Griet starts to see a therapist and begins writing fairy tales as a path to healing.
It was a ground breaking South African novel when first published in 1992 in the early days of the ‘new South Africa’. Van Der Vyver broke free from her conservative Afrikaans culture with the story of a young, well-read, enlightened Afrikaans woman writing about grief, sex, Mandela and ‘The Struggle’ and literary heroes like Germain Greer, Virginia Woolf and Anais Nin.
Van Der Vyver’s writing has a magic realism to it as it flits between Griet’s contemplation of her real life journey – alone and barren living in an unfurnished flat with cockroaches – and her fairy tales adventures and travels back in time to Grandma Hannie and Grandpa Petrus’s old farm-house in the stillness of the Karoo.
Written from the perspective of an intense, questioning, deeply thoughtful young Afrikaans woman trying to heal herself in the days before the end of Apartheid, Entertaining Angels is deeply nostalgic, quirky, tender and wryly funny.
But everyone knows it’ easier for a man to live out of a suitcase. What do you do if you begin menstruating in the middle of the night and you discover you didn’t pack your Lil-lets? Or if you forgot your imported night cream….
Frieda and Min is a ‘coming of age’ novel spanning three decades of friendship between Frieda Woolf, a Jewish girl growing up in a traditional, poor family in a South African mining town near Johannesburg and Min, a fiercely principled young girl of the same age who dreams of becoming a rural doctor to black South Africans, defying the orders of the Apartheid regime and its puppets. Being Jewish and having grown up in the same mining town as the novel is partially set (Germiston is Frieda’s home town) gave it a deeply personal resonance, but for anyone else, it’s a classic story of two friends from different backgrounds and beliefs and how their lives unfold and diverge, and eventually come back together amidst personal and political upheaval. Despite having many stereotypical characters – the idealistic white girl taking on the evils of apartheid, the Jewish girl looking for a husband and marrying the wrong (rich) man – and plotlines, the writing is superb and fresh. Each girl tells their story in their own words and in the first person as they lose their innocence and come of age. In parts it reminded me of Neil Simon’s ‘Brighton Beach Memoirs‘ but with the Jewish family in South Africa and the apartheid themes of Alan Paton’s ‘Cry the ‘Beloved Country’ with a dash of JM Coetzee‘s stoic fatalism.
Frieda: My mother loves shul. She’s there twice a week. You have to take either a train or two buses to get there and everything costs money, but you couldn’t keep her away if you tried. Where we live in Germiston she may be the Jewish woman, but when she gets to Waverley, she is the Queen of the Waverley shul.
Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, is written from the perspective of Jeanette, a young gay girl growing up under the thumb of her religious, adoptive mother in an ultra-conservative English Pentacostal Community in a Northern industrial town. Jeanette has been indoctrinated into her evangelical beliefs, but as she grows older, she questions them. Then one day she falls in love with and has an affair with Melanie. There follows an attempt at exorcism, she returns to the fold, but later after another affair with a woman she runs away, discovering her independence and identity. Drifting into allegorical fairy tales, it has a dark humour (chiefly Jeanette’s at times terrifying mother) and provides a ride into the bizarre outposts of religious excess (exorcism and fiery sermons) and obsession.
I knew that demons entered wherever there was a weak point. If I had a demon my weak point was Melanie but she was beautiful and good and had loved me.
An Angel at My Table is the title of three autobiographies that trace the life of New Zealand’s most famous literary hero, Janet Frame, from her birth in Dunedin to her impoverished childhood in the coastal town of Oamaru and later her great journey to live in London and the island of Ibiza, returning seven years later as a famous novelist. The first volume deals primarily with her family – her sacrificial mother, her early attempts at poetry, the musing of a bright, highly sensitive, creative mind and the death of her sister Myrtle, who had dreamed of a life in showbiz. The most famous part of her life – Frame’s lengthy stay in a mental institute where she was wrongly diagnosed as a schizophrenic and narrowly avoided a lobotomy. Part three follows her journey to the North island of New Zealand, where she meets the short story writer Frank Sargeson, who invites the intensely shy Frame to live at his guest house and encourages her talent and is the impetus for her seven-year overseas odyssey. Perhaps no one has written as intimately about the inner workings of a fragile, doubting, creative mind as Janet Frame. Reading all three intricate autobiographies is an extraordinary adventure that requires a devoted reader, but the pay-off – sharing the monumental journey with Janet Frame – is well worth it.
(Back in London from Europe)…my own past continued to loom. How could I regain my confidence when I had never been able to tell ‘my side of the story. I knew it was time for me to find out ‘the truth [about my schizophrenia]’…In the meantime I found a job, a literary agent, and I bought an encyclopaedia of sex.