Tuesday, May 20, 2014

October by Zoe Wicomb

Scotland / South Africa.
I am not sure if this book is more biography than fiction or the other way around. There are many similarities between the protagonist's and the author's lives. As I am not sure what is fact and what is fiction, I will review it as a fictitious tale.

Mercy, or Mercia, is an English senior lecturer at a Scottish university. She left South Africa in the early Seventies to settle overseas after deciding to make a new life for herself away from the political-discriminatory establishment, as well as her personal family situation. After many years her father dies and her brother, a totally and too-far-gone alcoholic, writes her a letter and pleads with her to return home.

Her life partner, a Scottish poet, has just decided to leave her after many years of sharing a life outside marriage with no children born from the relationship. She never wanted children and regards herself as a feminist.

To clear up her own emotional turmoil, as well as life, she decides to take a break and return to the dusty, semi-arid village in the Namaqualand region for a holiday, where she grew up with her brother, taken care of by their father after their mother died many years earlier. What she encounters there, the poverty, the desperation, the neglect, as well as the intelligent ignored little boy(her brother's son), shocks and depresses her. Her brother pleads with her to take the child.

The tiresome, slow moving narrative provides an in-depth look into the life of the brother and sister; their bitter relationship with their abusive father; the situation in which the little boy was born; her 'snobbish' attitude towards her sister-in-law; her broken love affair with her ex-life partner and her confusion with her true identity. 

After coming back and being suddenly thrust back into her past with all the emotions around the political as well as social memories of their world brought to life once again,she expects to feel the same as when she left, but too many changes occurred and the new experiences of her old world turns everything she held dearly as the truth upside down. What began as a social visit turned into a challenge in which she must navigate a new life for herself from it all. The little boy becomes a catalyst for the memories she kept locked away deep inside her. His innocence and trust in her unraffels the feelings of apathy and emotional arrest she so dearly cultivated to protect herself against a cruel South African political system and a new reality in Scotland which redefined her. 

When she is finally ready for an emotional as well as geographical turning point, sure of her new direction, a family secret destroys everything she ever held sacred. She had to become a middle-aged woman before she finally could face her true reality. There is a heritage she cannot escape, responsibilities she never wanted, consequences to the choices she made. 

The scenery in the book is excellently described. The protagonist's feelings are laid bare and dissected. For both international, as well as South African readers, the story will be both enchanting but equally heartbreaking. The Afrikaans words which is not explained in the narrative can easily be translated online. There are not too many of them. The words also do not interrupt the overall story and how everyone's life is interconnected with each other and nature. A fascinating experience!

There is such a wealth of emotions exposed in the book, so much human nature to discover as the reader becomes intimately involved with the characters as they develop and provide more colour and texture to the story. The reader is left with an insight into a multilayered true South African experience. Or rather, a glimpse into the world of a Colored family in a remote part of the country. It is not everyone's story. But it is an important as well as endearing one to share. I felt infinitely enriched by this book.


“Mercia Murray is a woman of fifty-two years who has been left.” Abandoned by her partner in Scotland, where she has been living for twenty-five years, Mercia returns to her homeland of South Africa to find her family overwhelmed by alcoholism and secrets. Poised between her life in Scotland and her life in South Africa, she recollects the past with a keen sense of irony as she searches for some idea of home. In Scotland, her life feels unfamiliar; her apartment sits empty. In South Africa, her only brother is a shell of his former self, pushing her away. And yet in both places she is needed, if only she could understand what for. Plumbing the emotional limbo of a woman who is isolated and torn from her roots, October is a stark and utterly compelling novel about the contemporary experience of an intelligent immigrant, adrift among her memories and facing an uncertain middle age.

With this pitch-perfect story, the “writer of rare brilliance” (The Scotsman) Zoë Wicomb—who received one of the first Donald Windham–Sandy M. Campbell Literature Prizes for lifetime achievement—stands to claim her rightful place as one of the preeminent contemporary voices in international fiction.


Zoë Wicomb  was born in Namaqualand and attended the University of the Western Cape. After graduating, she left South Africa for England in 1970, where she continued her studies at Reading University. She lived in Nottingham and Glasgow and returned to South Africa in 1990, where she taught for three years in the department of English at the University of the Western Cape She gained attention in South Africa and internationally with her first work, a collection of short stories , You Can't Get Lost in Cape Town (1987), which takes place during the apartheid era. Her second novel, David's Story (2002), takes place in 1991 toward the close of the apartheid era and uses the ambiguous classification of coloureds to explore racial identity. Playing in the Light, her third novel, released in 2006, covers similar terrain conceptually, though this time set in contemporary South Africa and centering around a white woman who learns that her parents were actually coloured. She published her second collection of short stories, The One That Got Away. The stories, set mainly in Cape Town and Glasgow, explore a range of human relationships: marriage, friendships, family ties or relations with servants.

She was a winner of the 2013 Windham–Campbell Literature Prize for Fiction.

Zoe Wicomb resides in Glasgow where she teaches creative writing and post-colonial literature at the University of Strathclyde.


Genres : Scotland, South Africa, Namaqualand, Family, Drama, Literature
Formats: Hard cover , Audible
Number of Pages: 256
Publisher: New Press, The 
Publication date: March 4, 2014
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1595589627
ISBN-13: 978-1595589620
Purchase links:  Amazon USA | Amazon UK | Barnes & Noble

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