Published in 2011 by Jacana Media (South Africa), Denis Hirson’s The Dancing and the Death in Lemon Street is an elegant, bitter-sweet novel that leaves its reader sore and admiring altogether. Admiring for this meticulous account of the first months of 1960 in an anonymous white suburb of Johannesburg – where lawns are razor cut and black maids discretely pop up in tubular pastel dresses as soon as called – is an evocative tour de force. In his precise, well-mannered style, the author spirals between the two sides of the sluggish Lemon Street, going from one household to another to brilliantly recreate an entire world through words and memories. But among petty events and daily-life episodes, he progressively raises the tension to finally achieve a sour tale that reads like a genuine descent into the heart of Apartheid.
The people of Lemon Street are ordinary and inoffensive; the kind of folks one passes on the pavement without even taking notice. A sharp-edged widow, Felicity Glanville tries to surmount her loneliness – and her latent resentment too, for her late husband died in a car crash with an unknown “native” at his side – by plunging herself into the most absorbing tasks. She hardly finds peace between her ballroom dancing and cookies recipes though; which is unfortunate for Rosy, the young maid who has the biggest difficulties to contain her Madam’s furore at her smallest inadequacies. Secretly in love with Elias, a jaunty man from the township that casually shows at night, Rosy is also the best friend of Victoria, the Reynolds’ ageing maid.
The Reynolds are the perfect household, or so it seems. Oliver, the father, is a successful businessman, his wife Claire a gifted painter and their two beautiful children as gay as one could hope – if a bit too lively at times. Oliver gets angry sometimes at the “natives’” laziness, which invariably irritates Sam and Sarah Miller, their friends and neighbours who have strange ideas about race equality and “might be communists”. This microcosm’s subtle balance will suddenly collapse when one of its members, pushed by lurking distrust and a strong – if always discrete – sense of racial hatred, will decide to seek revenge.
With an acute sense of human psychology, Hirson succeeds in depicting Apartheid’s extensive horror through banality only. No one among his characters is evil per se, neither does he use historic events to bolster the plot – the Sharpeville shooting and the assassination attempt on the racist regime’s mastermind Dr. Verwoerd are just mentioned through newspapers headlines and do not affect the course of events. The author shows us instead with much candour how the neat separation between the haves and have-nots fostered a strong sense of indifference on which the dreadful Apartheid enterprise could quietly prosper.