So, here is blog post number three of the Caine Prize series. This week the group is reviewing “What Molly Said” by Timothy Keegan of South Africa. If interested, you can download and read it here. We’ve got two more stories to review before the award is announced, so this post brings us past the halfway point.
For starters, this story was really good. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and I hope the last two Caine Prize readings continue on this trajectory. The story didn’t read like it was a story about Africa written for Westerners, it read like a story written for readers. Quick set-up: the story is about a woman and her reactions and actions following the news that her estranged daughter has been killed. The story follows her, but includes her angry brute of a husband to whom she is devoted and the inspector who is investigating her daughter’s murder.
A few things struck me in this story. The relationship between Molly and her daughter Sarah is strained at best, but the unrelenting conflict between the two is described as the glue that held them together. In trying to cope with the loss, Molly wonders “why should you change the habits of a lifetime just because your reason for being had come to an end?” It hits at how important Sarah was to Molly, despite repeated mentions of how difficult their relationship was. The story does a good job of driving home the type of relationship they had.
And it was two men that caused, or at least added to this strain. One is the son-in-law, Tommie, whom Molly resents for two reasons. She sees Tommie as the reason for Sarah’s estrangement. She believes that he filled her head with reasons to hate Molly and her husband, reasons to never go back, which leads Molly to believe that he is a bad person. She also sees Tommie as an outsider in every way. Not only is he black, but he is a Mozambican, an activist, a radical, a thug. With the story set in South Africa, it has special meaning to see the ever-present existence of an “other.” Because of her disdain for him (telling the inspector that she hates it when he refers to Tommie as her son-in-law), she eventually comes to the conclusion that her daughter’s no-good husband was also her murderer.
What’s interesting is that you never really get to know Tommie. You understand Molly’s opinion of him. Because of the type of person he is (black and foreign) you see both the inspector and Molly’s husband treat him with the same regard. But he’s the type of character I would have liked to learn more about. He’s Mozambican, but he’s half-Portugese. He’s an immigrant to South Africa, but he’s very involved in the anti-aparthied movement and is involved with the ANC. He’s a psychologist, and his wife was killed in their home. Everything else is left up to the reader to invent.
The only other character of any depth in the story is Molly’s husband, Rollo. He is a devil of a man – an aggressive drunk with a side of philandering. It’s clear that he beat Molly after spending evenings at bars, and that his presence drove a wedge between Molly and Sarah. His control of his home is so absolute that Molly wonders to herself whether or not he will want to go to her daughter’s funeral (and as a result, whether or not she will be able to go). He has no real redeeming qualities. When made aware of his step-daughter’s death, he shrugs it off and finishes his day at work instead of consoling his wife. When confronted with his upset wife, he tells her that, once she gets over the “shock” of her daughter’s death she’ll realize that she’s better off.
His devlish ways extend even further when Molly find a letter Sarah wrote to him, threatening to come forwards with what he had done to her – giving the reader and Molly a motive for him to be Sarah’s killer. The reader simultaneously realizes why Rollo was so quick to say that their lives would be better off without her and just how powerless Molly is in her own life. His control of Molly, and her dependence on him, lead to her turning a blind eye to his multiple sins – sins including drunkeness, infidelity, aggression, battery and probably rape and murder. But it’s not just him having control over her, it’s her full submission to the life she’s living. In the beginning of the story it is explained that she married him in order to find support and live a good life. But she’s not living so much as surviving, holed up in the house she never leaves, being beat and berated by her husband, not talking to her daughter (mostly because of the abusive husband). She’s forsaken any hope of agency or independence in the story, which makes the reader (or me, at least) want to shake this woman and make her realize what she’s doing. In the end, the story is about Sarah’s murder, but the focus is how Molly deals with everything, and it is that story which is really fascinating.
Two other themes occurred in the story that drew my attention. One is race. Race is a huge part of the story, but it’s very subtle. From the get-go you get the impression that Sarah is white and she left her family for Tommie, who is black. But this isn’t in writing until much later in the story. Not only is this kind of a metaphor for Sarah leaving the abusive white family for an activist black community (in which she was an activist), but it’s also a metaphor for South Africa at the time. Rollo says that Sarah had it coming, getting involved with those types of people – surrounded by radicalism and drugs, the comment seems to really be about race. The inspector talks about how people in the new South Africa are supposed to be equal, but he still views two types of victims: the ones that live sordid lives and get what they deserve and the ones that are innocent and quiet and should never encounter such crimes. You can probably figure out which is which. Molly’s hairdresser also makes comments on the interracial anti-aparthied couple living in a white neighborhood. And the pinnacle of the race theme is when Molly, Rollo, and the inspector attend Sarah’s funeral. The speaker draws attention to them, and the audience of black radicals turn to face the older, white people in the back of the room. While the reader doesn’t know how the eyes treated these characters, one does know that Molly becomes anxious and Rollo angry.
Another theme is memory. While I’m not any sort of expert on South Africa, I can imagine that this takes place before or in the beginning stages of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The TRC’s main focus was to provide amnesty (in some cases) in exchange for testimony. It was seen more important to create a national history – a national memory of the tragedies – than to bring justice to criminals. And so memory has since become a foundation of South Africa’s state. With this in mind, there are two references to memory. In the beginning, the reader is made aware of why Molly dislikes Tommie. In doing his part to “turn” Sarah against her mother, Tommie helped Sarah face issues that she had in her past. Issues that she had repressed. Issues having to do with her family, and Rollo in particular. And so Molly sees this as turning her daughter against her, when really Tommie was trying to help Sarah face her memories. Meanwhile, the inspector tells Molly that he is beginning to get news about whether or not Tommie was involved in Sarah’s death because witnesses are beginning to come forwards. He tells her that the neighbors are beginning to remember more since he gave them a few days. A few days to dream up how to pin everything on the local black radical. Lastly, you see throughout the story that Molly has decided not to suppress memories so much as ignore them. Rollo’s sins are mentioned multiple times, and Molly clearly is aware of them, but instead of addressing them she puts all of the blame on Tommie. She takes her memories and turns them away. When faced with even more grave incidents in her family’s past, she destroys them completely.
So, in summary, the story about Molly really revolves around the type of person she is and how that changes given the circumstances. She begins as a woman you should pity who is stuck in a series of motions rather than life. She ends as a woman who not only rejected her daughter’s pleas but in the end even rejected any chance for justice, independence, or even satisfaction. The story was incredibly well-written, and I really enjoyed following the other themes as they went and watching the characters develop (or stay assholes), and this is definitely my front runner so far. Because, you know, I’m qualified to award prizes in literature.
For the co-blogging experience!
The Oncoming Hope
Method to the Madness
Africa is a Country
The Reading Life