Eleven-year-old Ruthie Blackburn is at the heart of Méira Cook’s third novel. Cook grew up in Johannesburg and now lives in Winnipeg; like her previous novel, The House on Sugarbush Road (which won the 2013 McNally Robinson Manitoba Book of the Year Award), Nightwatching is concerned with ethnicity and class in South Africa.
It’s the summer of 1976, and Ruthie suffers from abject loneliness. Her mother died when she was born and she has been raised by Miriam, the family’s maid. Her father is absorbed with his work and her peers shun her. She spends most of her time roaming the town, often late at night when she can spy on neighbours. Cook does an admirable job of conveying Ruthie’s limited understanding of her world and creating a strong sense of place.
It’s an ugly world fractured by apartheid – in which the powerless are preyed upon mercilessly. Prejudice abounds regarding ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation. Children are victimized. Lacking a confidante, or even much of a companion, Ruthie struggles to make her way through life, but the obstacles are huge. This despite the fact that she is among South Africa’s privileged, being white – or, as she calls it (much to Miriam’s scorn), “European.”
Miriam and Ruthie love each other, but they inhabit separate worlds. Following the practices of many poor women, Miriam raises her employer’s child while her own daughter is raised by a relative in the township. Miriam is aware of the unfairness her people endure but she fears what can happen to those who resist the power structure.
Cook tackles a great deal in this novel. The third-person narration focuses mainly on Ruthie and Miriam, who are opposites in almost every way. Ruthie’s unhappiness makes her cranky and even mean, which is understandable, but it’s challenging to develop sympathy for her. Miriam has so many problems loaded onto her that she becomes a cipher. The strongest sections of the novel have to do with the children, as they are most vulnerable regardless of ethnicity. Other characters – such as Bettina, the next-door neighbour who is also Ruthie’s piano teacher, and Bettina’s friend Annemarie – tend to pull the focus away from Ruthie and Miriam.
The worlds of oppressor and oppressed intersect terribly when Ruthie’s father invites guests for the weekend, a visit that strains credulity as the interlopers feel more like authorial contrivances than people the Blackburns would have anything in common with, but the novel’s tragedy requires their presence. It’s apparent what Cook is attempting thematically, but the trajectory of the book is driven more by artificial plot manipulations than by the characters.
A forced narrative is not an issue with Monologue Dogs, Cook’s fifth book of poetry. In this volume, the author’s poetic voice is not tethered to plot, and one pleasing consequence is that the collection is able to engage in a wider range of ideas.
Monologue Dogs has four parts: “Bone Shop,” “The Hunger Artists,” “Mongrel Heart,” and “Crooked.” Each is distinct in form and content, although Cook is clearly a lyric poet. In “Bone Shop,” religious imagery is deployed deftly: references to heaven, hell, and gardens link up with images of animals and exploration. At three pages, “The Gamíadas of Vasco da Gama: An Epic” is one of the longer poems in the book. In it, the eponymous explorer ponders his life – one of travel, brutality, and leave-taking. He considers his legacy, noting what has been named after him, and considers fishermen who “pack their boats. / All they’ve caught is the moon, too small to eat. / They toss it back. They know that moons are treacherous / and heroes are frail and cynicism is the dearest illusion of all.” I can’t even pretend to understand what is going on here, but Cook’s play of language and allusion is beguiling.
In “The Hunger Artists,” Cook riffs on the story of Hansel and Gretel in a series of five-line monologues bookended with longer poems – the first about the siblings’ mother and the last about their “father,” Jacob Grimm. This section is highly imaginative and works effectively as a whole piece. “Mongrel Heart” builds on literary allusions, starting with poems referencing King Lear, moving on to a piece called “Five Act Iscariot,” a poem about Geppetto, another about Casuabon, and sonnets referencing Virginia and Leonard Woolf. It’s a wonderful suite of verses. In “Crooked,” Cook once again mystifies with a sequence of prose pieces that are all designated as “short notes” – “Short Note on Mistranslation,” for example, or “Short Note on Hunger.”
Some confusion aside, the poetry is ultimately the more satisfying of these two books: it has a richness and humour that is absent from the serious and sad novel.