A Biracial Family Risks Persecution in 1920s Cape Town

SCATTERLINGS, by Resoketswe Manenzhe

I have never needed proof that a novel about an unhappy marriage can be the most capacious kind of book. But if I did, I could find it in abundance in the pages of “Scatterlings,” theSouth African writer Resoketswe Manenzhe’s debut, a novel that is at once exquisitely intimate and globally ambitious.

The tale begins quietly enough, with a family of four in Cape Town in 1927: the existentially troubled Alisa van Zijl (née Miller), who is Black and English; her husband, Abram van Zijl, or Bram, who is white, Dutch, English, African and frustrated by his wife’s undefeatable sadness; and their lively, sweet daughters, Dido and Emilia, who love to listen to stories, especially their mother’s. Soon, however, this foursome find themselves contending with not only the usual family dilemmas but also the ones laid at their doorstep by the South African state via the newly passed Immorality Act, which effectively renders relationships between white people like Abram and Black people like Alisa against the law. A man found in violation could spend as many as five years in prison; a woman might serve four. These are only the official penalties; beyond lies a world of shadowy, horrific censure. Although Abram briefly and optimistically clings to the fact that technically the law makes allowances for couples who can prove that they are married, when a grotesque bureaucrat appears to survey their estate and lob innuendo in their direction, Alisa considers her worst fears confirmed: She and her daughters will never belong in their home.

Abram and Alisa are together partly because of their fundamentally different philosophies. Alisa, who was born to an enslaved father in Jamaica, was adopted by white English parents after his death. Though they were kind, as she came of age she could no longer bear being pushed to the fringes of English society because of her Blackness. Now she struggles to find a place that feels like home, and is attracted to Abram’s effortless way of belonging to the world — a privilege afforded by his whiteness. But their differences drive them apart, too. The fissure in their marriage becomes a gaping chasm when, in her grief over the act, Alisa poisons herself and sets a fire, intending to kill both herself and her daughters. The family cleaves in half, as only Dido survives.

In the wake of Alisa’s and Emilia’s deaths, the bureaucrat returns to hurl more encoded threats (“People living in sin, sir. You, yourself … oh! But I shouldn’t say these things, eh. Vulgar things. … It’s a lucky thing you have children”). Dido and her father are now in terrible danger. “This northerner man, he was designed to frighten Abram into a precise epiphany — for his crimes against the State, he had to surrender the estate or suffer something else,” Manenzhe writes. When grief-stricken Abram protests that both his daughters are citizens, born in South Africa, the official concedes the latter, but insists: “That isn’t how things are done. You know this, Mr. van Zijl.” And “the truth was Abram did know this. By the Union’s account of things, Abram’s tragedy had unfolded entirely as a result of his own recklessness.”

The novel moves easily and subtly between registers, explaining the new laws, the old laws and their targets, like Abram, who has “flouted the natural responsibility bestowed to him by his race, gender and class.” The close third-person narration also seamlessly eases between points of view, traveling from Alisa to Abram to Dido, the children’s Nanny Gloria and others. The book does not hide from Abram’s anger at Alisa. But as it explores Alisa’s past and what brought her to Africa, it damns not only South African apartheid but also histories deeper and beyond.

Dido’s passages are among the book’s most moving, especially as she mourns her younger sister, whom she used to chase around, “like two mad people.” After Emilia’s death, the book offers a broken mirror: Dido “tried to invent new games that wouldn’t need Emilia. When she ran through the vines, she felt an emptiness behind her. It felt unnatural. That was the space where Emilia would have run, with her hair waving wildly behind her and her laughter interrupting the eeriness of the fields.”

The setting is often characterized by a restless, thoughtful prose that describes a world in constant motion, both at the family’s home and beyond. As Dido runs, “a dust devil scooped ash from the ruins and spiraled up, up and up until it stood as tall as the burnt walls,” Manenzhe writes. “The voices of the workers, too, rose and receded in rhythm; they erupted into laughter, inflections of shock, a hubbub of secrets and other things lingering on her periphery. Sometimes it sounded like a song or the buzzing of bees; other times, like Dido’s name being called and echoed through the wind.”

Having buried Alisa and Emilia there, Dido and Abram would prefer to stay on their estate, but friendly nuns bring word that the bereaved father and daughter are being surveilled via Dido’s school. Two men arrive there asking “strange questions,” the women report. “Whether we taught mulatto children at the school.” Abram and Dido flee to the home of an estranged friend, whose rift from Abram began over his marriage to Alisa. Dido has already disguised herself as a boy, pretending she is not her father’s child. Now they must seek refuge in the home of someone who could easily betray them.

From the very first page, these characters’ fates and histories are stitched together by folklore passed down by Alisa, Nanny Gloria and others. Dido looks at the Milky Way and understands its origins by way of a tale told by her mother; as she tries to move past Alisa’s death, she listens to stories, reads them, and is called upon to interpret them. The stories themselves call to one another across the book in a structure that makes itself apparent only slowly, and in sentences that take their time. Manenzhe’s words are full of a wild, roaming intelligence that drifts into both intense philosophical exploration and acknowledgments of the unknowable. Yet the book is a swift, brutal read, full of suspense about the big and small questions of living, struggling with its characters’ beliefs about belonging and rootlessness.

It is Nanny Gloria, also known as Mmakoma, who perhaps sees this dilemma most clearly, worrying that her young ward has no ancestors. She goes to Abram to ask that he allow her to tie the family to her own. “The child must belong somewhere, Meneer, lest she wander the world like her mother,” she says. Mmakoma also speaks to him frankly about what he has failed to see in Africa.

In this book, the people must run, but the ideas stay, indicting a society that sees Africa as a home for the world even as it tries to deny Black people a place to belong.

V. V. Ganeshananthan is the author of “Love Marriage.” Her next novel, “Brotherless Night,” will be published in January.

SCATTERLINGS | By Resoketswe Manenzhe | 279 pp. | HarperVia | $26.99

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