Martin Amis once said that the writer’s life is half ambition and half anxiety. While one part of your brain is jabbering away to the effect that, with proper application, you might be the next Jane Austen, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, a larger part — almost always more tenacious and assertive — is busy insisting that you don’t have it in you to pick up a pen.
In Fiona Melrose’s second novel, which follows the subtle and reflective Midwinter of 2016, this confluence of aspiration and unease can be felt with unusual force. The book takes place over the course of a single day — 6 December 2013 — in Johannesburg, the city in which Melrose was born and in which she still spends much of her time. It tells the story of the inner struggles of a number of characters as they measure out their lives in a metropolis that is awash with injustice and pain, and swaying to the strange currents (the book is full of aquatic imagery) that have been generated by news of the death of Nelson Mandela the previous day.
As talk of his passing ripples across the city, we meet Gin (‘Ginny’) Brandt, an artist in her forties who has returned to Johannesburg from New York to organise a party in honour of the 80th birthday of her irascible mother, Neve; Gin’s sometime lover, Peter; Neve’s black housekeeper, Mercy; another domestic worker, Duduzile, who makes a living in a nearby house; and Duduzile’s brother, September, a homeless hunchback who was once shot during the course of a rally for workers’ rights.
Almost all of these figures are beset by a fear of loss and by the misery of their respective, and collective, histories. Yet they all know that life has to be lived. September is determined to find sustenance and justice. And Gin is preoccupied by the bottomlessly horrible task of ensuring her mother’s birthday party is a success. There are flowers to buy….
Attentive readers will have recognised that there is more than a touch of Mrs Dalloway (1925) to all this. And Melrose makes no secret of the debt: her book is billed as a homage to Woolf’s novel, carries an epigraph from its pages, and is enjoyably full of allusions to Woolf’s life, thought and writing.
One of the few shortcomings of Melrose’s handling of this enterprise — talk about ambition and anxiety — lies in her decision to cleave as closely as she does to Woolf’s plot. This can make the text that lies behind her narrative feel like a crutch rather than an inspiration. Coupled with a tendency to burden sentences with a superfluity of adjectives, it can also infect her prose with a sense of imposture.
This is a pity, for when Melrose is writing freely (as she often does) she conjures a panoptic vision of a world that, while remaining true to the spirit of its source, is imbued with an attentiveness, resonance and insight that are all its own. Woolf produced blooms that are impossible to emulate. Johannesburg provides evidence of a novelist who can grow inimitable flowers herself.