The Shouting in the Dark
by Elleke Boehmer
Dingwall, Scotland: Sandstone Press, 2015
Set in the 1970s, when hardliner B. J. Vorster is Prime Minister of South Africa, Elleke Boehmer’s portrayal of a young girl growing up in a dysfunctional Afrikaans family in the small dormitory town of Braemar, fifty miles inland from Durban, South Africa, is almost Gothic in its disturbing darkness, both physical and metaphorical. Much of the narrative takes place at night, when the young protagonist, Ella, reveals most about her angry father and depressed mother, and their entwined lives. Indeed her life for much of the novel is defined by what happens in the stultifyingly confined family home during those long hours of darkness.
Ella lives with her parents, Irene and Har, who immigrated from Holland after the Second World War. Both parents are seemingly damaged beyond repair by the time we meet them. Har’s first wife, after whom Ella is named, was Irene’s sister, who died tragically young of cancer. Har returned to Holland, courted his dead wife’s sister, married her and brought her back to South Africa. As Ella’s mother, Irene, explains to her: “See, he wanted someone after his loss, Ella, and not just anyone. Loving my sister as I did, I was happy to stand in. How could I have known it would be like this, a lifelong walk in her shadow” (p. 63).
The first (deceased) Ella’s portrait has pride of place on the sitting room wall and watches over the family, ensuring the impossibility of happiness for anyone else. It was like a South African Rebecca de Wynter, sucking the life force of those left behind, for she is the good wife, the vibrant wife, the wife who should have lived. Har soon comes to despise his second wife – who, as a result, is enfeebled, made weak, and is afraid of her own shadow.
Named for her dead aunt, Ella grows up in an atmosphere of regret mingled with fear (from her mother), coupled with anger and disappointment (from her father). She survives, initially, by making herself as invisible as possible, watching, listening, but almost never acting. As the bildungsroman of her life develops, her father’s unreasonable behaviour, his racism, his all-consuming anger for everything and anything in turn initiates in her a burgeoning hatred for him and everything he stands for that eventually sees his death (and that of her mother’s) as her only possible salvation: ‘She imagines the great gust of freedom she’ll feel rushing past her ears on the day when their two deaths – the one preferably straight after the other – when their deaths open a door, letting in the light’ (p. 155). When he dies, she will be free, but he will have to die first. Pathetic and weak, the mother is a shadow, and sometimes a malevolent one, whose own fears and neuroses also inflict lasting damage on her daughter.
As we watch Ella grow, her father’s intense psychological abuse is coupled with the reader’s unease that there might be something more physical to the abuse. When Har commands Ella to sit on his lap in her underwear, the reader is given a sickening jolt of this possibility: ‘“Make your mother jealous,” he says, dragging her onto his knee. “Show your father how good and developed you are”’ (p. 38). The possibility of such abuse is never referred to again, but thus Boehmer adds layer upon layer of complexity and unease to this beautifully crafted, disturbing novel.
One of Ella’s mechanisms for understanding the life into which she has been born is to listen, but rarely to speak. And the best time to listen is at night, when her father, out on the verandah, chain-smoking, and drinking bottle after bottle of ‘Old Brown Sherry’ with various cronies, recounts details of his life in the Dutch navy during the Second World War. Night after night he talks and talks and Ella, behind the window, listens and absorbs. Her mother, disturbed at finding her continuously out of bed night after night – and whose other daily anxieties are projected onto Ella – fears for her daughter’s health. Such lack of sleep cannot be natural in a child. For Ella’s own good a contraption is bought which binds her into her bed at night, strapped in so tightly that she cannot move. Her mother feels happier, knowing that Ella is now asleep in bed, but Ella is not asleep; she is still awake and she soon learns to loosen the straps which bind her until eventually she is to be found once more, roaming the house at night, lurking behind windows, listening. Tranquillisers are prescribed, which make Ella so drowsy she can barely function. The adults in her life – her parents, the doctor – tell her this is a good thing, but instinctively, the young girl knows this is wrong and learns to fake swallowing the tablets.
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