Winnipeg poet Méira Cook’s debut novel focuses on South Africa’s volatile post-apartheid climate through the stories of two fatefully intertwined families: the wealthy but failing Du Plessis clan, represented by Dr. Benjamin Du Plessis, and that of Beauty Mapule, their brash but loyal servant of 30 years, who looked after Benjamin when he was a child but now goes out of her way to make his life difficult. Beauty, whose desire to own her own house is thwarted by her circumstances, embodies the rebellious spirit of a people whose aspirations have started to grow stronger than the hold of their masters. Through the families’ conflicted relationship, we witness how environment (both physical and psychic) can drastically change the course of a life.
The novel is driven by a fascinating cast of characters and superb technique. Meticulous use of language, including Afrikaans and three local dialects, lends flavour and poetry to the writing. Cook’s purposeful repetition of vivid imagery (“Leaves fell and then dusk. Leaves fell like hands in the garden of the House on Sugarbush Road”) effectively conveys the drought and heat, the tiresome effort of daily life, and the threat of political unrest. Each sentence is artfully composed: memory is “a kind of thin emotional residue like the coating left in a glass after the fruit juice has been drained.” The pace and strong sense of place propel the reader forward then ambush her with gobsmacking tragedy and chaos.
One character muses, “Perhaps our stories are important … because we own very little else.… Or maybe our stories are as unimportant as we are.” The House on Sugarbush Road explores precisely how much our stories do count. Cook has written a powerful, lyrical novel that ends quietly but with profound impact.