Margaret Lewis is the heroine of this story. It is 1920, she is nearly 17, her older brother has been killed in the war and the family finances are in crisis. The estate will have to be sold and the family plan to move to the Drakenberg area of South Africa (taking maid Nansi) where she believes her father has inherited a farm (actually a bequest to her).
She seems very young, has led a sheltered life with education in a local school and has been allowed to mix with the local (often tenant) families. Her best friend Wil Hughes has worked on such a farm with his father, but with tenancies withdrawn has moved away. On arriving in Durban, a local solicitor Percy Flynn will inveigle himself into their family life and encourage them to stay in the rented home of the family of Mary Jamieson. This deepening dependency is aided by the illness of her father – who will die of TB after a matter of months. With financial difficulties Maggie and her mother decide that they will move to the farm Thornybrook themselves rather than taking Flynn’s advice to lease it out. When they arrive they discover it is seriously neglected. To the annoyance of Flynn, Wil will be offered the job of farm manager. A tale (no spoiler here) will unravel.
This is a novel that explores the nature of place – and indeed where people feel they fit within it. First we have a detailed description of rural south Wales after the First War. The landscape is lovingly depicted in a very visual way and through the eyes of the young Maggie we are shown “old ways” with perhaps slightly less certainty. In South Africa we are first shown – given the feel of – the city of Durban, albeit largely from the white privileged perspective with the occasional foray into life for the non-whites, then the area of Drakenberg Mountains – wild, undeveloped, with heat and extremes of weather that impact on the landscape. Maggie will largely be introduced to the place through the privileged eyes of Mary; Wil is used to tell the reader the likelier lives of the indigenous people who work on the farm. He beds into the farm and breaks the backlog of neglect while still being largely excluded from white lifestyle and local values. He will ultimately stay on in South Africa although Maggie will leave.
Collins is a good visual writer and creates her pictures of landscapes with seeming ease so readers may well enjoy this novel. Her story telling is maybe slightly less assured. The tale of how Maggie grows from innocent teenager to early adulthood may be of interest to some for the passage itself with her growing awareness of other people, their needs and the constraints on their lives. But the underlying storyline of using this “passage” to explore the nature of inequality and discrimination in South Africa seems more contrived and, therefore, less likely. It left the question in this reader’s mind – what is the point of this novel? That may seem harsh, but if Collins could meld the landscapes more effectively with all the people – making all of them more believable – then this could be an extraordinary novel. However, because issues underlie the tale this might be a good book for book clubs interested in the past and its different values.
Hilary White 3/4
Unleaving by Sian Collins
Gwasg Gomer 9781785623080 pbk Oct 2019