by Hannah Vincent
In the perfectly evoked arid landscape of South Africa, eleven year old Indigo and elder brother Robin are spending Christmas with their dad following the death of their mother, Karen. No more Nan fussing over accident-spoiled wet sheets; no more humdrum arguments about which school shoes to wear; no more problem-solving to the accompaniment of a boiling kettle. Such was the cosy, suburban environment Indigo and Robin left to come on their holiday. Instead there is newness and adventure all around: servants; lions; possible intruders; locked gates; smart restaurants with sea views of giant waves. Indeed, everything is different in South Africa. Bar one thing - even here nobody is talking about Karen’s death. Secrets buzz in the South African air like mosquitos; there is the constant worry of truths half told, of smiles forced onto grief-stricken faces. Even the Christmas tree is fake.
This is the backdrop to Indigo’s attempts to make sense of, and come to terms with, her mother’s death. The narrative is mainly told from her point of view. Funny, sulky, brave, fragile Indigo, who is faltering in the unfamiliar landscape, trying to fall asleep in an unfamiliar bed, in an unfamiliar room, in an unfamiliar house with, ‘lions, mosquitos and muggers all around.’ Rarely has a child narrator been written so convincingly, and with so much obvious (and deserved) affection from its author. But we hear also from Karen and Nan (Val), generously allowing the reader an insight into the lives of three generations of girls and women from the same family. Their unfurling stories add lip-biting tension and are key to Alarm Girl’s success.
Another character in the novel is South Africa. As in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Alarm Girl explores the continent of Africa through naïve eyes. However, times have moved on and as such there is a welcome post-colonial reading to the novel. A particularly memorable moment is when Beautiful, Indigo’s father’s new girlfriend, performs a traditional dance in front of the family at the behest of Indigo’s grandad. The reader feels a sense of discomfort as we question whether Indigo is seeing the ‘real’ South Africa. As the novel develops, she discovers another untruth: the country is not all luxury pools and high-class restaurants.
Though this is a novel slender in form, it's a hugely sating read. It speaks of family (truthfully), of loss (sensitively), of growing up (tenderly, beautifully). It also speaks of many other experiences and emotions that make us human – but those won’t be revealed for fear of spoilers. Needless to say, I recommend you read the novel and find them out for yourself: Compelling, beautiful and poetic, this is a book to get utterly lost in.
Review by Alison of the Brighton Belles bookgroup.
Published by Myriad Editions – 177pp