The strength of Johannesburg, a homage to Mrs Dalloway, is its depiction of a city trying to shake off the past.
Book review: Fiona Melrose's Johannesburg
Johannesburg, Fiona Melrose’s second novel is set over the course of a single day, December 6, 2013 – her first, Midwinter, was longlisted for the 2017 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. In Johannesburg, Gin Brandt, an artist who grew up in South Africa but now lives in New York, has returned home for her mother Neve’s 80th birthday – she is throwing her a party, and there is much to be done before the celebrations that evening. All around them, the city buzzes with life, and death. At the nearby Residence, Nelson Mandela’s family prepares to announce his passing to the world. Alongside that of the two women, we are admitted entry into the hearts and minds of a rich cast of characters, most notably Neve’s housekeeper Mercy; another domestic worker in a nearby house, Dudu; her brother September, a homeless hunchback who sustained serious injury protesting for workers’ rights at the mine where he was once employed; and Peter, a labour lawyer, who has been in love with Gin since they were teenagers. He is now eagerly awaiting her return, hopeful for a second chance.
Sounds familiar? It should do since Melrose’s publishers are calling it “an ambitious homage to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway”. Ambitious is the right word – not many would be confident enough to take on one of the most famous and finest examples of modernist fiction and Melrose certainly gives it her all. Johannesburg is bursting with nods to the original. These range from the more obvious – structure, plot and the similarities between characters – to the subtle – the sections narrated by Neve’s dog Juno (Flush, Woolf’s genre-defying biography of the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel was published in 1933). Elsewhere, there are similarities in the detail of a certain image or particular choice of word that resonates with Woolf’s own, whether from Mrs Dalloway
Dalloway’s famous essay A Room of One’s Own is referenced on more than one occasion. “A studio of her own was what she had always yearned for,” admits Gin. “Not a husband.” Mercy, meanwhile, desires “her own apartment […] But she had no such room, no such kitchen to call her own and it was this lack she felt most keenly”. It is not that these do not ring true. They are just a little too conspicuous to be as satisfying as Melrose’s more understated offerings. Gin’s desire, for example, to “do something to make it right and set the day back in its hinges”, after news of another character’s death taints the perfection of her party, echoes with an early line from Mrs Dalloway regarding Woolf’s heroine’s pre-party planning: “The doors would be taken off their hinges;” thinks Clarissa Dalloway, “Rumpelmayer’s men were coming.”
Will it delight or distress fans of the original? A little of both, I fear. There is pleasure to be taken in these moments of recognition, but, bar the more obvious differences between the original and its imitation, since Melrose actually stays surprisingly true to Woolf’s story, the predictability of the plot becomes a tad tiresome and Melrose’s stream of consciousness has a tendency to topple over into hyperbole. What she does excel at though is successfully depicting what reads like a true cross-section of a still fractured and troubled society, especially when it comes to an essential truth seen from two different perspectives. “Commerce was the new coloniser and all else that had come before was diminished and expunged,” thinks Gin with a nostalgia born of privilege. For poor, misunderstood September, meanwhile, “This city had, over time, reduced him to mere units of himself.” It’s a world of inequality and violence, the white people who live behind high walls and electric gates are afraid to walk the streets, although they can buy off the police if they’re caught drunk driving, and trigger-happy guards patrol buildings with AK-47s – “The great liberator of Africa, thought September.”
Although a little too indebted to Woolf’s novel to be truly exciting, nevertheless Melrose takes an ordinary day and ordinary lives and renders them extraordinary.