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Jo’burg: A portrait with broken dreams

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YOU WILL RECOGNISE many characters in this debut novel by Peter Harris, not by their names, but by their amoral attitudes and cavalier actions that enable them to play loose and fast with money, values and other people’s lives. Bare Ground is absolutely unputdownable; it’s ideal holiday reading – not because it’s frothy and easy, but because it is crafted with such a deft understanding of the complexities of madness, human nature and greed with such an intelligent approach that you will race through it, your heart in your throat, in a bid to know what happens next. And you will be surprised by the nifty bends in the story, from its prologue to its very last word.

These characters are the ones who populate our news right now; you’ll find many a ‘flabby fellow’ in the tight fitting suit of a government minister, with mayonnaise from an expensive club sandwich dribbling down his front, and his face, distorted by the reflections in a whisky glass. Hell, you even encounter the president himself, who remains nameless behind dark glasses and much unmirthful laughter. He’s a man to be avoided, or cherished and adulated, depending on how much you – or your loved ones – have benefited from him over the years.

Bare Ground is the complex tale of Max Sinclair, a man born of South African privilege who seems to be piling riches on riches as he goes. With Oxford credentials, he was raised a lonely child, but has grown into someone controversially respected. Perfect though he may seem, from his sharply ironed impeccable clothing to his taste in the most expensive cars and whiskies, he’s a man not without personal horrors.

It’s also the tale of Sifiso Lesibe, an earnest hard-working geologist from the Eastern Cape who studied at Rhodes University. Like anyone in his shoes, he’s ambitious and wants good things for his young family. In every way, this chap is ideal grist for the mill of sordid hypocrisy, writhing snakes and gifts – a multitude of gifts cast in the sickly sweetness of dangerous traps, hidden resources and corporate crime on a massive scale.

And then there’s the straight lawyer, and the guy with struggle credentials who smells a rat and finds a notebook. There’s the wives who have more perspicuity than their men credit them with, and the contexts and childhoods which have left their mark on each individual. Stereotypes abound here, and the narrative is laced with the relentless sound of singing cicadas, a cipher of horror and insanity that subsists just under the surface of the unfolding events.

More than all of this, it’s a story about the mining history of this city, and how even the mine dumps, detritus of an earlier history of mining technology, become useful means to continue squeezing money from it. Think the biggest mining consortium the country has seen being put together, but also think kick backs and cartels, deals and sinister manoeuvres, the kind that keep the backstabbing in corporate jargon alive and seething. It’s a racy tale by any account, but it is written so well and has its characters and their contexts so intently and wittily described with such strong and convincing narrative line work and colour that you feel you are a part of it all.

Everything from opportunistic crime at Johannesburg’s traffic lights to the dirty little street urchins, some more horribly deformed than others, comes under the loupe of this exceptionally fine novel, playing its role in the richly textured portrayal of contemporary Johannesburg with all its rough and tumble, underhandedness and disparities. If you’re not from Johannesburg – or South Africa – you may find some of the references to real monsters in contemporary society a bit obscure, but that will not hurt the rollercoaster you will find yourself on in every one of Bare Ground’s 291 pages.

  • Bare Ground by Peter Harris is published by Picador Africa, Johannesburg (2017).
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