Sisters, in love and malice

MORE THAN AN exercise of escapism into the flaws and faux pas of privileged fictional characters, Craig Higginson’s most recent novel, The Book of Gifts, is a yarn about values and the fragility of young sensibilities. It’s a quick read because it is well crafted and the words flow fluidly, but it will leave you troubled and thoughtful.

From the outset, you get to meet 11-year-old Julian, who remains the purest and most likeable character in this work, through all its grubby bends and surprising nuances. He’s fiercely intelligent and has a will of his own. He also has an aunt who loves him with a passion that is unsettling from day one.

The novel begins with a holiday romance and the crazy kind of importance invested in a brief and nebulous friendship that has nothing to do with adults, that you may recall from Steven Woutelood’s film My Extraordinary Summer with Tess. The writing is devastatingly lucid and the images hold on, like childhood memories of 50 years ago.

And as the work unfurls, so may you think of the relationship between Oskar Matzerath and the adults in Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum, as you might hold the complicated relationship between sisters in DH Lawrence’s Women in Love, briefly between your thoughts. But like works of the ilk of Ian McEwan’s Atonement, there is a series of hidden horrors which the to’s and fros of strong narrative tides conveys in an unstoppable flood of perspectives, in The Book of Gifts.

It’s a novel that in a strange sense begs for the meatiness of Women in Love or the revolting asides in the Tin Drum. Higginson’s adults in this work feel as though they need more descriptive flesh on their bones. They’re polite — oft hypocritical; they create in their own earnest (and sometimes spiteful) ways, they drink too much alcohol, they’re generally flawed, but well-intentioned, as grownups with responsibility tend to be, and they err. Sometimes unforgivably. But we don’t know the colour of their thoughts – or their stockings – or their lovely qualities. This book feels like it could have been a lot longer.

Conjoined with some achingly beautiful writing; passages that flutter between dream and reality casting out underwater shimmers of mystery and danger, and gifts which sometimes feel obvious and forced and at other times, surprising, yet dangerous, the narrative contains many denouements which are handled in a very direct way. The pace of a revelation knocks you in the solar plexus, but not in the way that Brent Meersman may do it with a reveal that feels cinematic: Higginson’s revelatory crises in the tale are almost pedestrian and direct and may take weeks after you have finished reading the work, to be fully digested in your heart.

  • The Book of Gifts by Craig Higginson is published by Picador Africa, Johannesburg (2020).

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