More often than not, I’m put off by plain, bare-bones, minimalist writing, and here’s why: simplicity of language should point to clarity of thought, but too often it signifies nothing but the desire to be — well, bare-bones and minimalist. Flip through literary journals, and you find a bland sameness to much of the prose, tepid language that avoids passion and serves no literary end. So imagine my surprise when I encountered the pared-down prose of Dawn Promislow’s first short story collection, Jewels. It’s the text equivalent of seeing straight to the bottom of a very deep lake. Its writing is spare in the service of clarity, each sentence shaped by the effort to see truth and bring it to light.
Promislow was born and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa; she’s lived in England and now resides in Toronto, but her subject-matter is the disfiguring quality of life as it was lived under apartheid in her homeland. While bringing the particulars of her characters’ situations to life, she also illuminates universal themes: the human awakening from innocence to knowledge, the awareness that much of life is beyond our control, the truth that everything passes and nothing abides. There are fourteen brief and understated stories in this slender book, many of them told from the point of view of genteel, middle-class white women who slowly become aware of apartheid’s corroding horror as it leaches into their gardens and homes.
In the opening story, “Pool,” the author skillfully overlaps the points of view of a young girl and her family’s house-servant (Ficksen) who cleans their pool. Ficksen is the centre of the story (the only one named), and he’s never been in the water. The ending is no less powerful for it being expected. Likewise, in “Secret,” the white first-person narrator describes life in a placid rural town where she’s employed in a shop; a black man, Philemon, comes looking for work. When the police chase him down, the woman awakens to the fact that her world is awash with cruel secrets that no one has ever revealed to her.
Equally poignant are stories told from the point of view of black South Africans. In “Bottle,” a nanny, Bella, brings joy to her husband as she shares with him some ocean water collected from her first visit to the sea with her white employers. The first-person voice of a servant, Ester, is beautifully rendered in “Just a Job,” when she finds a position with a kindly couple, only to witness the breakup of their marriage.
Yet for a glimpse at moral catastrophe, nothing matches “Wan,” a story that packs a lifetime of guilt, remorse and devastating secrecy into six short pages. It’s told by an artist preoccupied with painting a canvas of pure space (a bit obvious, perhaps, that it’s white); she’s haunted by the fact that her husband’s given shelter to a colleague on the run for political reasons. Distressed by his presence and unable to work, she embarks on a desperate course of action, bringing herself face-to-face with the reality of the police-state that was the guarantor of her lovely home and the peace of her artist’s studio. “But my canvas,” she says at the end. “…It’s perfect, as I envisioned it… I did it, I did it, and you can see it, you can see it, you can see it…” In her agitated words, we hear the voice of madness trying to crush the voice of a guilty conscience, and it’s Promislow’s gift that allows us to hear both.
Jewels is a work of beauty, hard-won honesty, and the quiet unfolding of insight. It’s also, as the title suggests, a gem.
(Jewels by Dawn Promislow was published in Toronto in 2010 by Tsar Publications).