Memories of trauma are like incomplete puzzles, sometimes unreliable, making it difficult to separate fact from fiction. 28 years after a tragedy that killed one of his brothers, John Hyde, is confronted with his past, which has become so fragmented he starts to doubt what happened.
As an eight-year old, John witnesses how his older brothers, Paul (10) and Peter (12) fall from a ledge near a rock pool in the Karoo. Paul is killed and Peter injured. But what really happened? Did one push the other? Or was it just a tragic accident?
Years later, after John has fled to London and cut himself off from his family, a man begins to follow him. He sees the man every night. The man looks like his brother, Peter (who has always born a striking resemblance to John). It’s not clear at first whether these are visions in John’s imagination, or whether Peter is stalking him. John thinks he had “sloughed off the skin of [his] past…, the bones, blood and gristle of it too. A lizard, shedding everything until just spirit, emerging anew from the undergrowth”. But the man doesn’t go away, and the past can no longer be suppressed. The only way to discover the truth is for John to return to his childhood home in Port Elizabeth and relive the events that tore his family apart.
The story is intensely painful, but also ghoulish and frightening. The spectres that haunt John are described as vividly as if they’re real. Or perhaps they are real. Some of his childhood memories, though, are faded like old photographs. “Do I remember this?” he asks himself, as he recalls sitting at the kitchen table following Paul’s death. “Or, do I only remember sitting at the table and the rest is made up? Embellished by time and the dislocation I feel being back here?”
The first two and last two chapters are written in the third person, providing a sense of John’s detachment and disconnect to his past, viewing it as something distant, as if it happened to someone else. “I think of me as other, as somehow not the same flesh and blood as I am now. Between him and me there is a break, as fissure”. The rest of the chapters are written in the first person – often terrifying accounts of John’s visions, memories, and lucid dreams.
The prose is simple: at times visceral and at others impersonal. Like a maelstrom this novel drew me in, and gripped me in its chilling vortex. It is a devastating story about family, loss, despair and redemption that keeps you in its clutches.
“I feel it before I see it. In the darkness, a few metres away, the boy stands. Me. He is turned away, his back towards me.
He is turned away, his head bowed, but I know he wants to do me harm, to be rid of me, to stop me remembering. I know him. I know all about him. Or I will. I am starting to remember everything.
I shuffle back. I can hear my own breathing. The boy turns and takes a quick, step towards me. I feel my back against the wall now and move slowly along it towards the door. The boy sees what I am doing and takes another step closer.
He frightens me, this child, this boy-ghost. He frightens me, but as before, I want to take him in my arms, cradle him, hold him, and though he would struggle, hold him until his thrashing dies down, until he understands, until he understands the great void of thirty years. Until I understand”.
Rating: 4 out 5
Boy on the Wire is published by Umuzi.