Set in 1960s South Africa, the book moves between then and 1994 when Jane decides to return to South Africa with two old spiral notebooks, a snapshot and a battered book. Driven by reasons that are as yet indistinct, she is drawn to return to her past, mining the emotions that are inevitably attached to these.

Described as a coming of age book, it is about determining how the past has shaped who Jane has become and allowing her the space to re-identify with what impact this has had. She never really experienced any discernible closure when she fled to London in 1964, pregnant, unmarried and with a black baby. In 1994 it also required her to leave her older daughter Rosa, her husband and their children behind in London, when they made it clear they would rather she did not go. Both agonising choices.

The backdrop is an oppressive yet evocative South Africa, during the midst of Apartheid. You can the feel the political dangers, the way conversations have to be carefully navigated, the risk of betrayal and ultimately torture if a wrong judgement is made. Jane ends up sharing accommodation with Dan, a Marxist. Here is the first time as a women she has been listened to, allowed to have an opinion and flex her intellect. She is also indelibly influenced by Dan, someone she deeply adores but can only love platonically. Despite her adulation there is a lot about Dan that Jane doesn’t know, yet she seems unperturbed and barely conscious of this. Inevitably, the status quo cannot continue and the relationships formed amongst her cluster of what turns out to be mainly superficial friends must come to an end.

There is much locked into this book. Jane’s upbringing, her naivety, the politics, the complex relationships, the race issues that you could almost write a thesis on it – making it an exceptional book for a reading group. It is well crafted, with some mystery and intrigue regarding events, as well as being dappled with poetry from the spiral notebooks. Much is clearly influenced by/taken from Hartley’s own personal experiences, some of which can be captured in her other book When I Was Bad : A Memoir. Although easy to read, it is also very deep and poignant, leaving a lingering intrigue.

Sara Garland 4/5

The Love and Wisdom Crimes by Ruth Hartley
Atypical Books 9782955734414 pbk Jul 2019