There comes a point in Diane Awerbuck’s Home Remedies (Umuzi) when you become disinterested in Joanna Renfield, the main character.
It may have something to do with the fact that Joanna detests herself and her banal, domestic existence. She is a mother trapped in a loveless marriage and, as is to be expected, her identity has undergone a crisis since giving birth to her son.
Her ever-expanding “writer’s bottom”, as her husband affectionately calls it, has caused her to detach herself from her corporeal being, too. She has also lost touch with her sharp, former self; a highly educated researcher and writer.
But this persona hasn’t been completely discarded; as she lingers on the periphery of her consciousness in the form of an alter ego voice dubbed Dr Renfield.
Dr Renfield is there observing, passing judgment on her life, highlighting the ironies, encouraging Joanna to retain the details, as if the minutiae are important material for a literary project.
Dr Renfield reminds her that her mundane existence could have purpose, or could be justified as a necessary “sacrifice” at the altar of art. But can Dr Renfield save her from the persistent suburban ennui that has engulfed Joanna?
Or is her alter ego the obstacle to her fulfilment as a mother? It’s a role Joanna struggles to reconcile with. ”It was a blessing, it was a curse,” she says of the contradiction that thwarts her efforts to claim a fixed position.
Ever the writer, the detached observer, she studies her son James as if he is an object of curiosity, though she can identify with his own naïve struggle to come to terms with his body and what it is to be alive. He is the source of the fundamental schism in her psyche. The layers of her identity have been stripped down, leaving her exposed, as if “peeled like an apple to the arsenic in its core”.
A darkness has been unleashed but Joanna’s keen sense of irony and sarcasm keeps her afloat. Awerbuck’s prose is sharp, dark and perspicacious. Awerbuck's prose is sharp, dark and perspicacious, though it is in service of describing the pedestrian burdens of motherhood and the concomitant disillusionment it can engender.
The ordinariness of her struggle doesn’t make it any less painful for Joanna. If anything, because it is so expected, she is resigned to her pain – “rage had no point”.
It is this sense of resignation that tests your patience as a reader. The narrative is paralysed by Joanna’s acquiescence. Joanna is a victim of life; a passive player.
Perhaps this provided the entry point for Awerbuck to weave into the narrative the fate of Saartjie Baartman and her contested cadaver as it is comes to be laid to rest in South Africa. The discourse on Baartman that Awerbuck introduces, feels like an awkward fit, though as a historian and ghostwriter of a book on Baartman, Joanna has been forced to engage with her legacy. Yet, this discursive turn feels like a clumsy adjunct designed to give the main material a socio-political spin and elevate it above being merely a tale of domestic woe – more than just a post-post-feminist meltdown.
Ironically, Joanna resents the way in which Baartman has been appropriated as a symbol of African victimhood: “Saartjie would never be just what she was, a tired, lonely woman in her thirties, who looked around, seen that she had made the wrong choices and given up.”
Of course, this notion of Baartman is a projection of Joanna’s, echoing her own predicament. Joanna seems blind to how she too has mobilised her own imaginings of Baartman in service of sentimentalising her conflict with her body and gender. The objectification of Baartman’s body highlights the “punishing and crude” condition of the female anatomy and the inescapability of it and it is this fact that also resonates with Joanna. Awerbuck seems more comfortable with universalising Baartman’s struggle.
Joanna is resentful of her boss at the Fish Hoek Valley Museum of Natural History. Viola wears her victimhood on her sleeve declaring her status as “African womanist of mixed race descent who has suffered atrocities at the hands of imperialist patriarchy.” Given this view, she naturally identifies with Baartman too – the ultimate victim of the imperialist gaze. Viola has engendered a strong link to Baartman as a means of reinvention, which is activated by claiming or collapsing the vast cultural, psychic and political territory that exists between Baartman’s body and her actual identity, posits Awerbuck.
Viola and others like her – she is representative of an attitude rather than an individual stance – have unwittingly exploited the disconnection in an effort to (re)claim their own victimhood.
This dislocation between the body and the self, obviously resonates with Joanna, who is paralysed by her divided-self. Yet, there is something very uncomfortable about her anger and resentment towards Viola. Her bitterness is linked to Viola taking credit for her work – she has ghost-written Viola’s book on Baartman – and enjoys the fruits of her labour.
It’s uncertain whether Awerbuck aims to challenge political correctness or is interested in presenting a white female who refuses to acknowledge or understand the persistent victimisation that others have endured. Is Joanna insensitive or does Awerbuck assume to excoriate an institutionalised form of victimisation, which relies on exploiting abuses from the colonial era?
This paradigm relies on establishing a heritage of victimisation that can never be transcended, which is a self-defeating gesture. It’s slippery territory for sure, where both Joanna, and by proxy Awerbuck, risk appearing as if they are denying abuses of the past.
As it transpires Viola has suffered abuse, though not at the hands of an expected perpetrator and when Joanna quite unexpectedly finds herself at the receiving end of a horrific attack and then a terrible loss, she doesn’t reconsider her view of Baartman or Viola but has a clichéd epiphany about her supposed domestic situation. It’s a disappointing cop out. The conclusion mirrors Thornton Wilder’s Our Town model. Joanna realises that her mundane life as a mother was ideal – now that it is beyond her grasp. And so it is that Awerbuck falls back on the domestic tale to resolve a sticky political discourse that was half-heartedly raised.
This is a disappointing work. Awerbuck is a talented scribe with a caustic sense of humour that tickles throughout, but this is a muddled novel and a failed attempt at marrying the ordinary, the personal with the political.- published February 17.