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Maya Fowler

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Dawn Garisch’s “Trespass” an accomplishment of note

When it comes to book discussions, much is made of voice. In Trespass, Dawn Garisch delivers, and it’s pitch perfect. So much so, I could really “hear” this voice in my mind’s ear, this fifty-something woman, stuck in the first half of the 20th century, empty of hope, full of regret. Her reproaches (“silly girl; stupid, stupid girl!”), her long conversations with God, her naïve world view, her self-flagellation, strict judgmental attitude and an overarching fear and yearning combine to paint probably the most vivid character I have read this year. It is a monumental achievement.

Creating compelling characters remains, in my opinion, the writer’s greatest task. Characters that are complex enough to capture the imagination, but simple enough for the reader to identify with them. Characters who slowly unravel, so that you can see how they have been shaped by environment and time. But most of all, nuanced characters, ones that you like and dislike at once. In this regard, Garisch had me spellbound. I can’t think when last I had such a strong emotional reaction to an ink-and-paper person. From the start, Phyllis Wilds elicited in me equal measures of disdain and pity.

I think it’s a remarkable feat: This character, so very far removed from me in every way, is someone I should struggle to understand. But without ever resorting to sentimentality or my other pet hate, unsubtlety, Garisch puts the reader right inside this woman’s bruised spirit, right behind the dull, tired eyes, those eyes that still muster the occasional flicker.

The image that struck me most deeply was of the empty nest Phyllis finds on the grounds one day. She tells us it had fallen out of a syringa tree, and describes it follows:

“It was lined with feathers, and inside it was a broken egg filled with a black substance, probably an unborn chick gone bad. It has no smell, and is starting to unravel, so it must be an old abandoned nest. It is untidy and broken and pointless, somehow, the life within it subverted, failed, turned to dross. Yet it was home at one time, and although I do not like it, something made me notice it, then come back and examine it, and then carry it to my room.”

The parallels between the nest and Phyllis herself are striking and heart-wrenching – the lost potential, the unravelling, the decay, the failure, the pointlessness. And that one little part, “it has no smell”, which suggests to me that Phyllis expects, like this nest, which is simply turning to compost unobtrusively and inoffensively, to exit this world having made no impact whatsoever. And then that raises the question: will she leave without a trace? Or will her trespasses leave their mark? And to use Phyllis’s own words, has she sinned, or has she done the Lord’s bidding?

While this is an incredibly moving read, Garisch has a light touch. She manages to weave in humour, some of it dark, some less so, for instance the occasion of Phyllis’s visit to Rory, the art teacher, and his “friend” Pierre at the flat they share in Tamboerskloof. In her diary, Phyllis recounts enjoying the masterful French dish “cockohva” that Pierre, also a talented hairdresser, served. After several sherries and even (hold your breath) a spot of dancing to the outlandish music of some fellow called Presley, Rory offers Phyllis his room for the night, saying that he “didn’t mind sharing with Pierre”. The ever-naïve Phyllis is most disconcerted at the effect on her reputation, and asks to be driven home instead. On the way, she worries Rory might try to squeeze a goodnight kiss out of her.

Trespass is a charming but disturbing read. It will be haunting me for some time, and I mean that as a great compliment.


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    November 17th, 2009 @23:51 #

    You've definitely shuffled this book closer to the top of my "must-read" pile. Thanks!

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Liesl</a>
    November 18th, 2009 @06:03 #

    Yep, Trespass is in my "must read" tower too.


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