Playing in the Light, published in 2006, is Zoe Wicomb’s third novel in twenty years, though she has produced a collection of short stories since. It has yet to be published in Britain, but did receive more than one positive review in the Scottish press when it first appeared, perhaps because Wicomb taught (and, as far as I know, still teaches) at Strathclyde University. The novel also features a cameo appearance by Glasgow (and is therefore probably eligible to play for Scotland).
But this is not a book about Scottish football (that would be Playing in the Rain): the novel is, like its author, South African, and, like most South African literature since the end of apartheid, it deals with the relationship between the past and the present. The title is a reference to those coloured South Africans who were pale skinned enough to pass for white during the time of apartheid when the difference between the two could be significant in terms of wealth and opportunity. The main character, Marion Campbell, is a white business woman who discovers in the course of the novel that her parents were actually coloured but lived as white, isolating themselves almost entirely from their wider circle of relatives. This revelation occurs when she goes in search of information about an old family servant, Tokkie, whom she has fond memories of, only for it to be revealed that this was her grandmother, who visited her house in the guise of a servant to preserve their white identity.
Of course, Wicomb is not simply interested in Marion’s experience, or even in the historically accurate occurrence of ‘play-whites’; the novel is set in 1990s’ Cape Town, and Marion is the new South Africa coming to terms with the old. Her parents’ choices have a profound effect on her. On the surface she is a successful business woman, driving a Mercedes and living in a beautiful apartment with a sea view, but, just as “the cool Atlantic laps at Robben Island” outside her window, an ever-present reminder of apartheid (it is later described as “finger-wagging”), so too is her life far from complete. She lives alone, has never married, has no children, and no close friends. When a man shows interest in her she finds it impossible to let him close to her:
“She outlines her plan: they get on well together, have been good friends, so that there can be no reason to stop seeing each other. But only as friends, for a while at least.”
She, almost too comfortably, diagnoses the causes:
“…as the only issue of older parents, she had a peculiar childhood; that her parents loathed each other; that her mother, like all mothers, was responsible for her insecurity.”
What she doesn’t know is why: that she had no siblings because her mother was terrified they would look coloured; that the bitterness within the marriage began with the decision to ‘play’ white; and that this was the root of her mother’s own insecurity.
Marion is not a likeable character – in fact, in many ways, there is a blankness about her that makes her more interesting when interacting with other characters, particularly Brenda, the young coloured girl who comes to work for her. Brenda’s confidence is a counterpoint to Marion’s insecurity and represents what Marion might have been in a society no longer entirely defined by race. Only Brenda shows any real anger about the past:
“You don’t think that years of oppression and destitution and perversion of human beings, thanks to the policies that you voted in, have anything to do with you?”
However, she almost immediately regrets this, feeling “it is not possible for the people from the different worlds of this country to talk to each other.” It is exactly this that makes her uneasy friendship with Marion the most interesting relationship in the novel (closely followed by that between Marion and her father). A large part of the novel deals with the lives of Marion’s parents in flashback but, interesting as this story was, I missed the dynamics of the contemporary relationships.
However, Marion’s blankness works against the novel towards the end when she decides to travel and ends up, in a rather unlikely fashion, in Glasgow. The very fact that she has travelled is designed to be symbolic of a change in her character. For most of the novel, despite owning a travel company, she has “an aversion to travel”. This no doubt represents her unwillingness to look beyond herself, something which is, ironically, making her feel enclosed in a recurring nightmare:
“Then for a moment, she seems to gag on metres of muslin, ensnared in the fabric that wraps itself round and round her into as shroud from which she struggles to escape.”
That her desire to travel coincides with a need to read the landmark novels of South African literature stretches credulity, and the Scotland where she ends up seems little more than a sketch; a pivotal character, Dougie, unconvincing. This is unfortunate, as I liked the abrupt ending, where her anger at her own past is finally expressed.