Playing in the Light, by Zoe Wicomb

I was quite taken by the cover of this book, a muted picture of a the corner of a shadowed room with a faintly glowing window in the darkest wall. It’s not the first time I’ve chosen a book simply because of the cover, just as I sometimes use my friend’s method of selecting wine based on whether I like the picture on the label; the uncertainty creates space for discovery.

This novel takes place in the “new” South Africa of the 1990’s where people of all races are trying to work out where they stand in the new social climate even as they struggle with resentment and reconciliation. It follows an Afrikaner woman named Marion who owns a travel agency where she has just hired Brenda, her first employee of color. Marion owns an apartment by the sea, appropriate for someone whose father has always called her his “meermin” or mermaid. Although her parents came from a “dirt-poor” background, they prospered in Cape Town, and Marion herself leads a carefully ordered and affluent life, running her business and visiting her aging father, until dreams and chaotic memories begin to disrupt her equilibrium.

I enjoyed the writing. Wicomb’s syntax is unassuming but subtly spellbinding. Many dialect words and expressions are inserted, but their meaning is clear and they are not intrusive. I found the descriptions of the interactions on the street, in the break room at the travel agency, the father’s run-down cottage, and the home of Brenda’s family powerful. However, I simply could not warm to Marion. Several times I almost abandoned the book, not so much because Marion was such a cold, solitary person, but because I could find no common point where I could engage with her.

When there is a main character I don’t like or am not interested in, there must be some compensating factor to keep me reading: a fascinating story or enthralling writing. The writing here is good, but the reason I didn’t abandon this book was the metastory, the larger issue of who holds the power in social relationships and what they do with it.

Power isn’t supposed to be a factor in a friendship, but it is. Sometimes friendships coalesce where one is the leader and the other the follower. Or friends can be experts in different fields, e.g., one knows all about music while the other is a visual artist. But the relationship doesn’t stay there. The follower matures and becomes powerful enough to challenge the leader. The artist learns more about music while the musician doesn’t look up from her score. The balance of power between two friends fluctuates, particularly in an environment such as South Africa where the power relationships between the larger societal groups are also changing.

I thought this book remarkable for taking on such an unusual and fascinating subject. For the most part, Wicomb handled it deftly. The ending was a bit of a clunker, just the last few pages—disappointing after so much lovely prose and so many nuanced insights into these characters and their relationships.

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