By ARJA SALAFRANCA
Craig Higginson’s latest novel, The Book of Gifts, is a beguiling read, steeped in the rhythmic patterns and sweeps of the tides and movements of water. It is also a novel that plumbs the psychological depths that swirl and shape us all. Fittingly, then, it opens in uMhlanga, where 11-year-old Julian Flint is on holiday with his family. There is his mother Emma, a celebrated sculptor; and his aunt, Jennifer, half-sister to Emma, a childless schoolteacher, who is married to Andrew, a psychotherapist. Into this mix comes Clare, also on holiday with her family, with whom Julian will fall deeply in first love.
As with any family, there are complicated dynamics, which children may not understand, but nevertheless absorb and often take on, often in unconscious ways. In this case, there is tension between the half-sisters, Jennifer’s jealously of what Emma has, and of her husband Andrew’s now distant gaze, which before their marriage, veered toward her half-sister. And then Andrew himself, flailing in his professional and personal life. The marriage with Jennifer has become, over the years, a ‘shadowy’ thing: ‘… Andrew has become so shadowy that the only way to survive the pain of this has to become as shadowy as possible next to him. For much of the time they have co-existed like two demure ghosts, only occasionally able to find their way back to a bat-flutter of their old physical connection.’
Jennifer has poured her affections into Julian, her nephew who has become a surrogate child of sorts, and which produces a claustrophobia that Julian will twist into. Julian’s father is absent, in Dubai. He lives alone with his mother in Johannesburg, where they all live. Emma is an uneven mother, fiercely loving of her son, yet torn between the need to make art, and not just for money’s sake: her art is at the centre of who she is. In this, Higginson is presenting a view of motherhood that is still not often told: that of the mother who will not, cannot compromise her art, as so many women have done before. It is also Emma that still engages our sympathies strongly.
The title comes from the gifts each give each other throughout the book. The story is told in a multi-layered way, with alternate chapters pivoting on each of the characters in turn, telling their point of view. The broader meaning of the gifts given is expanded into the gift of life itself, a mother to a child – and what that means, too, in the end, and what responsibilities that provokes. As Andrew says early on, foreshadowing the story that will follow, ‘A gift is never a destination … but a means to an end – a stepping stone towards somewhere else.’
The novel thus circles around the family dynamics of this quartet, and Higginson weaves a tight nest around Emma, Andrew, Jennifer and Julian as he astutely explains the family dynamics that encircle them. He carefully unravels the psychological nerves at the heart of each of the quartet. It is a powerful story, and a masterfully told one, with the action looping back in time to the centre of the drama, in an endlessly circling way. The writing, as always with Higginson, is lyrical and layered with descriptive detail that is subtle, but precise: ‘When he was a boy swimming with his father in a dam or the sea, he was always aware of the indistinct grey beasts revolving around him in the gloom, drawn to the bright moth-flutter of his ankles. To be a swimmer is to dwell in the nebulous realm of the unconscious, where there is no beginning and no end and nothing can ever be fully apprehended.’
The Book of Gifts came out into a world just beginning to navigate the horrors of a global, pandemic and the resultant hard lockdown in South Africa. It was against this backdrop that Higginson and I spoke about this novel, writing, and living under the threat of a raging new virus. We spoke on Zoom, with the occasional lapsed reception, but it gave me a glimpse into his writing space and the home he shares with his wife and daughter. He told me that he was now teaching drama at St John’s High School, having spent many years as a TV writer. Higginson is also an accomplished dramatist and playwright. We spoke about how the lockdown had affected us.
Higginson mentioned that teaching had been taken online, of course, and was both rewarding, yet tiring. Yet, he had found a silver lining in the strange circumstances. “I’m finding that while teaching during lockdown that it has brought out a new level of kind of honesty and openness from people, because people are speaking from their bedrooms and from their homes, and they’re not in a classroom situation. There is a kind of nice sincerity a vulnerability which is great.
“What’s happening with this lockdown is because our mortality is so much in the air and the prospect of the possibly of death, and a lot of the things that we took for granted are sort of under threat, we’ve also all been rushing on this little treadmill and have not stopped, and a lot of us, including me, are reflecting on how we are living our lives.
“I think about death every day. And I think about time passing all the time anyway… But I’m not really used to being surrounded by everyone else sort of slowing down and thinking about death all the time, the passing of time. It’s terrible. You know, what it’s doing to the economy, and people are vulnerable, and people are desperate, and people are losing their jobs. I’m trying to find a positive space within us, I suppose. And so I’ve been trying to do yoga, and I’ve been sort of doing all those things I’ve been putting off for a long time. I think a lot of people are struggling. But people are regrouping, families are regrouping, relationships are regrouping.”
Yet fiction as always has been a salvation for Higginson: “Certainly, I find that in my life, when the worst things that have happened to me, I’ve managed to turn into triggers for something much more positive. And in my own writing to think of times that were difficult or relationships that might have been difficult, I’ve reacted to those by turning them to fiction. And I’m quite grateful for the pain and suffering because I was able to kind of transmute it into something more positive. Discomfort makes us change things. So it’s necessary.”
Fiction as salvation, then. Higginson was working on a novel at the time of our conversation. While he wasn’t going to reveal what it was about, he did turn his laptop around so that I could see what he had created: an intricate map and plotlines, it was like peering into one person’s creative process. “I feel like at least I’ve got a map,” he smiled, “even though it will probably all change. Otherwise, it’s like water. If it’s not channelled, it just becomes a puddle.” The new novel was “a much, much larger, more historical, big bone thing than the last three novels I’ve done, which have been more minimalistic, and layered and stripped away. It’s set in South Africa. And its most of it’s set now. And but it’s also got a thread that’s historical.
“But you know, what I’ve been doing the last few books is sort of setting up a kind of genre then and then kind of deconstructing that genre and unearthing the human beings inside it. It’s kind of a murder thriller novel, because it’s going to be about black vengeance and the cycle of violence and retribution and revenge. It’s sort of set up like a kind of murder mystery, and structured that way, as a sort of who’s responsible for this terrible event that happened earlier. And so it goes back in time… It’s a layered and ambiguous thing, you know, so there’s not a perpetrator and a victim and a guardian, a baddie.”
Returning to literature as salvation again, Higginson commented: “Literature is a place where miracles can happen. I’m feeling more and more that writing and literature can be a place of healing. It is as much digging and rendering the uncomfortable and ambiguous, so that we open again, to each other and ourselves. I think literature can be redemptive. And I think that, that one should try to do that.”
The genesis of The Book of Gifts came from one of Higginson’s plays called The Red Door, which has never been produced. Higginson started working on the idea back in 2011: “It’s been sitting in various computers for quite a while.” Gift-giving was at the heart of the idea of the novel, before arriving at the central theme, “of the positive gift, which is the gift of life and the gift of disinterested love, and all the unacknowledged gifts that that a parent gives to a child.” There are other gifts people give each other, “The gift of listening, or the gift of buying someone a pair of shoes or, you know, whatever it might be. So it was the sort of the idea of this exchange thing that I find very interesting.”
I said to Craig, “The other thing I liked or loved about the book was that we keep going towards the event and then we keep going back and you move around a lot in time. That must be quite challenging. Why did you come to that decision? Was that organic or did you plan that?
“Initially it was moving forward chronologically, but from quite early on it was moving backwards because it was about trying to find the trigger. I think with each with each time you write something, you’ve got this content that you start finding, and then you got to find the form that best expresses it. And it often takes a while to do that. And that’s why every book is difficult, because you’ve got to find a new form, or this new content, you can’t just repeat what you learned the time before, because that form was organically evolved, to best express their content. So you’ve got to start all over again, with the next book. I think the story moves forward with the meaning of the book. Because it is about peeling back the layers and going backwards and backwards and backwards to try and find to arrive at some sort of little nuggets of truth or the actual true event that actually happened.”
I also asked Craig about the nuts and bolts of the structure of the novel. There are no quotation marks, no indications at all when dialogue begins. And yet, this works, and as a reader, I found myself easily navigating what was text and what was dialogue.
Higginson said he was “blurring the line between the interior and the exterior. I’ve also tried to write quite a clean text so there’s no semi-colons, there’s only ever commas and full stops and dashes. I’ve been trying ride in the opposite direction of sophistry, you know, trying to [have] stripped down language that’s less, and has the quality of poetry. Very layered, and they’re quite metaphorical … like the stripped away quality that you get with good poetry.”
We ended our interview talking about my own responses to the novel.
I said: “I was moved by the fact that I felt so much for Julian. Jennifer moved me too even though you did portray her as evil. And at one point, I was kind of sitting back thinking, Oh, wow, she’s really a dreadful woman. You showed me she wasn’t a dreadful woman; she’d encrusted herself in all that in order to live, in order to go through this life that she’d had and the feelings of insecurity and inferiority that came from her childhood. I love the descriptions of Emma’s house of her studio, up in the air, it felt like it was up in the hills, And I like the descriptions of a sea of Julian and Clare in the sea. And then at the end, you had them swimming, and you had Andrew swimming in the sea. And that description when Emma runs through that sort of like a dream narrative in a way, in Johannesburg, and the rubbish heaving up into humanity. And I like the back and forth with time. That gave me the deepest sense of what of what life is about, really, that we all think we live linearly. We do know today’s Tuesday and Wednesday, and all of that. But actually, we constantly go back to the past, we constantly go into the future. We constantly try to excavate everything – not just the present with the past, the future, but the meaning of how things change. And that’s what the book showed me.”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/4″][vc_widget_sidebar sidebar_id=”default_sidebar”][/vc_column][/vc_row]