Some fiction makes us work a while before words and images and meanings begin to integrate. What we seek is that longed-for subliminal collaboration between author and reader - the point at which you're not so much reading as simply seeing and knowing, impelled on by a need to know more.
Pool, the opening story in Dawn Promislow's debut collection, arrives at clear seeing in the first short paragraph, then the images segue into intrigue: "The room was spare and clean, like a jail cell, almost. … She peeped in whenever she could. Maybe Ficksen would reveal to her some essential clue about himself." The story is a model of clean and uncluttered prose, tight structuring and firm control over its effects. A young apartheid-era South African girl is drawn to the dark and silent otherness of a family servant, "a shadow."
Then we shift to Ficksen's point of view, but Promislow, in an inspired choice, still doesn't let us get inside him. We see what he sees, but finally remain as separate from him as the girl and her family, even when disaster strikes.
In Jewels, young Carol is fascinated by her nanny's brown skin, "smooth and glossy as polished stone." She visits Eva's cramped room, drawn by the scents of soap and Nivea cream that envelope her. A photo of Eva's three children sits on a milk-crate table. Later, Eva confides to Carol that she despairs for her children's future. Carol attempts an act of charity that fails. We watch her moments of quiet contentment with Eva begin to weigh on her with guilt, "like stones."
Bottle's title is its central symbol. Two nannies go with a white family to their seaside house and are treated by their employers to some leisure time on the beach - the first time they have seen the ocean. The women fill bottles with souvenir seawater, to be carted home to cramped rooms in Johannesburg.
In Somewhere, an empty-nester housewife chafes at her unwavering routine. Each day, Cecile drives the five minutes to her small dress shop, though it essentially runs itself with the help of a single employee. One morning, she simply drives past the shop and out onto the highway. As the landscape unspools before Cecile, Promislow's sharp description evokes an exhilarating shift from stifling routine to a fresh and vibrant being-in-the-world. At home later, savouring her secret freedom, Cecile fibs just enough to let her husband believe she spent an ordinary day at the shop.
Spanning 26 years, Billy takes us from a boy's impoverished childhood in a shantytown to a post-apartheid life transformed: as an adult artist with his own "Jo'burg" apartment. Promislow's prose stays out of the way while the realities of Billy's childhood rise to the senses from the page: cruel heat, dry stream beds, scrawny chickens, tin walls too hot to touch, dust roads stretching away to the horizon, rare storm bursts that spur rarer laughter.
Just a Job, like Billy, unfolds in an anecdotal first-person narrative that manages to retain the spare clarity of other stories' more authorial voice, while happily avoiding some of their thematic underscoring. The job in question is a woman's housekeeping work for a divorcing white couple. We gradually catch that we're witnessing a half-conscious passion, inevitably unresolved.
Secret presents a white shop assistant, her Afrikaans boss and a newly employed black "packing boy" who proves to be unexpectedly educated. This story cuts spectacularly to the true terrors of apartheid. The climax shocks, as police brutality rips apart a quiet afternoon.
A few stories feel laboured. What She Carried offers a weighty analogy (a woman unwittingly carries both her boyfriend's baby and his illegal drug shipment) that finally overwhelms its underdeveloped characters. Another tale presents a painter and her intriguing canvas-in-progress, then lavishes the painting with symbolic importance in the closing paragraph. Promislow's most notable lapse is her too-conspicuous nailing down of themes, often with closing messages that have already been more subtly revealed simply by the turns of her storytelling.
At their best, the stories have a compression of description and a simplicity of narrative arc that can indeed be jewel-like in lucidity. The real strength of the collection is its success at bridging the polarities of race and class that so distress its liberal white folks, characters whose pained awareness of the brutally enforced otherness of black lives forms the spine of many stories.
Between and within stories, Promislow shifts us repeatedly from white households to the lives of the servants who do their dull and dirty work. We're admitted to both worlds, yet the essential otherness of the black world remains intact, never allowing us to forget the entrenched privilege distorting the white viewpoint. The deadlocked society of apartheid is strikingly rendered.
Jim Bartley is The Globe and Mail's first-fiction reviewer.
MEET DAWN PROMISLOW
The Basics: Born and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa. Left for England with her family in 1977. Has lived in Toronto since 1987.
The Credentials: Returned to South Africa to study English and French literature at the University of Cape Town. Attended the Humber School for Writers in Toronto.
The Work: Her journalism and fiction have appeared in Saturday Night magazine, Maple Tree Literary Supplement and TOK: Writing New Toronto.