The opening pages of Zukiswa Wanner’s latest novel are very sad but maybe this is what propels one to read on. It is evident from these pages that Martin and Germaine have always been close, but the misfortune they’ve just experienced, the self doubts and belief that they failed their only son could tear them apart. “When Zuko was born, we were ready and prepared to be parents but nothing…….prepared us for this. The loss of our child….”
Just like the title suggests, the book is set in the three cities and the story revolves around the O’Malley family. It a story told from three perspectives – with Martin and Germaine making most of the narrations.
It all begins in 1994- in London, Martin O’Malley; a young black man on a night out with his best friend Sufyian. He is nursing a broken heart and trying to find his niche in society as an economist. As all this happening in his life, back home in South Africa the world is changing too. South Africa is about to unite in its first ever democratic election.
He meets Germaine, an intellectual beauty and a ceramist. Could this be the woman to help him forget Soraya? Their meeting, made possible by fate, leads to marriage. A few years later, they are blessed with a baby boy, Zuko.
The story, written from two different perspectives of Martin and Germaine makes it captivating albeit with a poignant ending. It is from their narrations that we get to know about their backgrounds, families and friends. We are introduced to Liam, Martin’s brother an aspiring politician in the new South Africa, Sindiwe, their mother; Priya, Germaine’s best friend; and her mother a successful actress.
It’s after Zuko’s born that Martin makes a decision to relocate from London to Cape Town, South Africa. A rather out of the ordinary decision- he never grew up there but still thought of it as home. He says ‘odd how I have been brought up to think of South Africa as home, and yet I was born and grew up here (London)’. But still, he believes it’s the best place for his son to grow up in. And he’s proven right-when they get to Cape town, he gets a job, Germaine’s career as a ceramist is thriving and Zuko could be the next swimming champion.
All this changes when Martin decides to take on a job offered by Liam. They move to Johannesburg. Jo’burg offers a fresh and exciting change, only for a while until Martin’s father makes an appearance. Where had he been all these years? Sindiwe had remarried; to an Irishman who was the only father Martin had ever known. And now this? It was rather ironical that this man, the person he’s admired for years was indeed his father. He was a well known successful and wealthy man.
Sindiwe and Germaine have reservations about the sudden appearance of Martin’s dad which confuses him as the old man is repentant and says reconciling with his only son is his last wish as he is dying. It’s only after his death that the news breaks, the business deal he convinced Martin and Liam to invest in most of their savings turns out to be a hoax. Maybe Sindiwe had been right after all.
This is what destroys Martin’s family. Zuko runs off to his Uncle Liam’s house when he sees his parents fighting. And the events of that night are what lead to the rage, anger and disappointment that appear in the opening pages of the book. But could Martin have prevented this? Could he have stopped Zuko from doing what he chose to do after his uncle’s betrayal? And by doing nothing, even when his son had confided in him, did he, in a way cause Zuko’s death? He says,
“I really could have prevented this. But how was I to know that his ex-wife’s allegations were true? One never wants to believe the worst about those they love………and I never shared what I knew with Germaine. She certainly would never have allowed it to get to this”.
The book does cover a lot of ground on issues to do with family, betrayal, child sexual abuse and some bits of South Africa’s political history during that era. Sometimes as seen in Zuko’s case, betrayal comes from a person we least suspect. And maybe, Martin, although he’d heard of Liam’s sexual preferences couldn’t have expected him to do anything to Zuko. After all he had never believed Liam’s ex-wife’s allegations. But surely after Zuko had opened up to him, he could have done something to defend and protect his only child. He decides to do this when it’s rather too late. Germaine could have been defended her son, given the strength and courage portrayed in her character.
Zukiswa Wanner is a South African journalist and founding member of ReadSA initiative, a campaign encouraging South Africans to read South African works. Her second novel, Men of the South was shortlisted for the 2011 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. London Cape Town Joburg is her third novel and was published by Kwela books.