“Her eyes had adjusted, and the lightwas that of another country.”
Durban North, 1997. Following two shocking and insidious incidents of violence, nineteen-year-old Mary Da Costa is flying to Auckland ahead of her parents to make a new start. She is riddled with reservations – New Zealand is where her late brother was supposed to move – and all she really wants to do is keep to herself and work on her art.
On arrival, Mary comes under the wings of the South African ex-pat community, struggling with its own tensions between homesickness and belonging. Finding work at a local dairy, she meets self-appointed Māori leader Nepukaneha Cooper – Buck, as he’s better known. He and his family have some history with these rugby-mad lovers of apartheid, even more now that they’re encroaching on his turf. If only he had the means to fight them off and realise his life-long dream of establishing a marae on the beautiful strip of coast he has always called home.
Meanwhile, adrift between past and present, Mary is forced to dig deep in order to find her own truths and place in the world.
Nick Mulgrew’s long-awaited debut novel – of grand metaphors, silences, absences, and two cities and countries in flux – is a delightfully innovative, surprising, and warm-hearted meditation on family, loss, and home, as well as a deft examination of dislocation, dispossession, and the cultural blind spots of two very different (and in some ways similar) communities.
Publication date: May 2021
About the author:
NICK MULGREW was born in Durban in 1990. He is a Mandela Rhodes Scholar, the recipient of the 2016 Thomas Pringle and 2018 Nadine Gordimer Awards, and the director of the award-winning poetry press, uHlanga.
Raised in Durban North and Orewa, he currently lives in Edinburgh, and is a PhD candidate at the University of Dundee. A Hibiscus Coast is his fourth book, and first novel.
The intricacy of a body in the dark
These are the days of the clouds
and colours of his childhood,
of the secrets of forgotten garages
with unwilling doors
and small-paned windows,
of the mysteries of broken glass, rust
and enigmas of dust,
And of the sides of houses too,
of shadows leopard-crawling over mossed brick,
and cool green thoughts and concrete
crumbling to nothingness at the edge
of tired swimming pools
spun with holiday light.
The intricacy of a body in the dark,
how it reminds him of a life
lived a lifetime away, where memory
tastes of salted skin
after a day at a beach,
part sunlight, part ocean,
and at the tip of its tongue
the bitterness of its end.
He stands, looking out at the waves
and last scraps of surfers,
imagining someone else watching him
flared against sky leaking into cobalt.
He has been turning
a perfectly good key in a lock
over and over his whole life
but the door remains locked.
He imagines she stands behind the door
brushing the years between them from her hair.
Now everything is silent and made of first light,
except for the sound of that key turning helplessly
and the distant keening of gulls.
— Stephen Symons
As always, the reading by the featured poet will be followed by an open mic session for poets from the audience. Poets are welcome to read from their own work as well as from the work of a favourite poet.
At the start of 2021, I am surprised again by the freshness that a new year inspires. Struck by the arbitrariness of the ten … nine … eight … countdown of the second hand to one particular midnight, yet the naive hopefulness that insists on rising with the ensuing dawn.
Despite the tsunami second wave of Covid-19 that swept us in, our fearful concerns about vaccine procurement, and the violent storming of the US Congress by right-wing mobsters, one dressed bizarrely like a Davy Crocket Viking. Despite humanity’s collective horrors, and my internal echoes from this day a decade ago when my son became a paediatric brain tumour patient, there is a quickening.
Perhaps it is like Jonathan Livingston’s seagull trying to master flight, and catching an unexpected updraft.
Or Emily Dickinson’s ‘hope’, ‘the thing with feathers – / That perches in the soul – / And sings the song without the words –’.
That liberating of the soul that I observed in my son, and those around him, when our physical surety is stripped away.
My internal little bird chirps at the sight of clear spaces in my diary, gaps which I despaired of ever conserving myself. This pandemic has pruned weeks and months that had become overgrown with obligations. Pared back a self-inflicted schedule that was like the tick-tock clock in the stomach of the crocodile that ominously pursued Captain Hook.
Yet my relief stands with a guilty conscience alongside the concurrent, living hell of healthcare workers, people struggling to breathe, or to support their families.
In his memoir A Grace Disguised, Jerry Sittser emerges from unimaginable personal tragedy to observe that he preferred the person he had become as a result of such loss. A paradoxical title that offended me, having felt the ugly underbelly of grief heave and repeat itself painfully in the wake of my son’s death. Until I read Sittser’s qualification that he would never in a million years have chosen this route to personal growth, would have chosen – if only one could – to remain his ignorant self with his mother, wife and daughter still alive.
‘Happy New Year’ we still messaged to others in 2021, although more soberly due to the alcohol prohibitions, the curfew, and the sobriety invoked by mounting Covid numbers and names.
My friend, a nursing sister, remembers the theory of pandemics from nursing college in the 80’s. To me it was an outdated word relegated to dusty, foxed hardcovers with blurry black and white photographs which never sell in charity bookshops.
This pandemic feels like humanity slithering down the longest snake, which I for one did not see coming on the snakes and ladders game of human history.
I punctuate my WhatsApp wishes (for now at least, before accepting, or not, the new T&C’s) with little illustrations. And suddenly remember P. B. Bear’s Birthday Party by Lee Davis. A charming children’s book from twenty years ago in which sentences were dotted with pictures – his striped pyjama top, a picnic basket, a slice of cake – instead of their corresponding words.
Who could possibly forget Ant and Bee thoughtfully organising a surprise birthday party for their friend Kind Dog, in which Angela Banner used the rebus form in the 50’s to teach her young son to read. The excitement of Ant and Bee’s invitations and preparations, the dog biscuit and pink frosting cake, Kind Dog in his new hat and kennel are happy images and feelings that have lived with me into my own middle age.
Into 2021, where we wrestle with social media privacy issues. Yet who remembers with me the old party line telephones and switchboard operators? Who watched ‘Nommer asseblief’ on SABC TV in the 70’s in which the switchboard operator doubled up as the small-town gossip?
My junior school prize-giving evenings featured, year upon year, our nicotine infused headmaster – in his mustard polo neck for the Hilton Village mist, reading from Ecclesiastes:
‘There is a time to reap, and a time to sow’, etc. That same thousands-of-years-old book that asks whether there is indeed anything new under the sun.
I find myself now, mid-late in my own story, truth be told, before a neglected sewing machine. Finding comfort in the crinkly rustle of unfolding and smoothing out pattern piece papers. The faint adrenalin rush that accompanies the no-turning-back-now snip of scissors through fabric. Those time honoured rituals of pinning and tacking. The hiss and spit of a steam iron and the singed smell of neatly pressed seams. The hum that is the vibration of the machine. And the soporific, train-like, tick tick, tick tick, tick tick of the needle as it falls and rises, falls and rises, falls and rises again.