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Playing In the Light
Zoe Wicomb

Playing In The Light - Zoe WicombPublished by The New Press

Price: UK £14.99

Playing in the Light opens with a successful white Cape Town businesswoman visiting her father, a retired traffic policeman. Apartheid has ended, the rainbow nation has been born, and at the travel agency she runs, Marion Campbell is slowly making adjustments, like appointing its first black assistant. Her father John, an unreconstructed Afrikaner, is depressed at the metamorphosis that has left the country he once served proudly as a reservist going to the dogs, blarry kaffirs dragging it further into anarchy, further from the idyllic past when they knew their place.

At first, you might think that's all the story is going to be, and so accurately are the characters portrayed that it would be enough. It would be a story of quiet accommodations, of the slow tensions of change: Marion relaxing in her luxurious apartment overlooking the beach she has long since learnt not to walk on at night; Brenda Mackay, the new girl at the travel agency, calmly challenging old assumptions; John drinking whisky, dreaming of golden childhood summers on the veldt. The Truth and Reconciliation Committee hearings might be on the TV and in the newspapers daily, yet lives like these are where those abstract nouns are made flesh.

But Wicomb, subtly seeding her story with symbols, allusions and half-buried memories, goes deeper still. As she gets under the skin of her two main characters, she uncovers something else altogether. Another skin, and a skin of a different colour too.

THEY CALLED THEM "PLAY-WHITES", PEOPLE like John Campbell and his wife Helen. If apartheid had been absolutely impermeable, if officialdom implacably unable to be bribed with money or sex, if rules were irredeemably incapable of being bent, they would have been categorised as "coloured" from birth through every single year of their lives.

But in South Africa, being white meant opportunity, whether getting on or getting out. So among some families classed as coloured but who could pass for white, sacrifices were made.

And what sacrifices! For John Campbell, for his dead wife Helen, it meant turning their lives inside out. They couldn't be seen with their darker-skinned families, so that meant a whole string of absences, from empty pews at weddings to missing mourners at funerals. The family home had to be abandoned, sisters and brothers had to be effectively renounced; grandparents who could only come and visit if they pretended to be, and dressed as, servants. Surnames had to be changed; ancestors' photographs painted over, lips and noses thinned; thick-soled feet scraped tender. All the time a fear of exposure, of what a casual incriminating word, an unnerving remembrance of love, a racially inappropriate memory, could lead to. Constantly, consistency: and no room for trekking off into dreams (or not real ones, anyway); constantly, fending off inquisitiveness, the answers readily prepared, aliases and alibis already present and correct; constantly, constantly, fear.

Would a second child come out white, like Marion had? Perhaps not, so no second child. No second child, and another absence for tension to fill, like air rushing into a vacuum. Another absence like the empty chairs round the Christmas dinner table and all the myriad other ways in which appearances have to be kept up, and meanwhile, all the time, the tension growing and growing "as if the very plaster was giving its all to prevent the house from exploding".

So Wicomb pulls Marion from that sterile luxury flat, where her (unnamed, naturally) "girl" will tidy up unpleasantnesses, on through a journey through thickets of lacerating lies back into her family's past. At the same time, this is a voyage into the new South Africa, where the old divisions have been constitutionally shrunk away, but where they still remain, like hidden cancers.

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