Karl wakes up in a house outside of a miserable mining town - it’s a space denuded of furniture, an anti-space in a sense.
What he does have is a Ford Falcon in the garage, a firearm, and a bag full of cash. What he doesn’t have is any knowledge of who he is, no identification card, no credit cards, and no wallet.
Johan Vlok Louw establishes his mastery over language and plot swiftly in A Gap in the Hedge, a novel that could easily be rated as one of the best novels to be published of its genre in South Africa.
“His body is sore, stiffened by sleep. The thin camping mattress and a blanket rolled out onto planks has been too hard, the rest too absolute He gets up stiffly, goes over to the door, and tries the handle. The door is locked, with a key in it.”
The metaphor of a closed and locked door is a signal right from the start that there are mysteries to be unlocked.
Because Karl is an enigma to himself, in the deserted veld around the house, outside of the town he will decide who he is, but the colouring-in process will take longer. There is a house neighbouring the one he has woken up in.
He starts up the Ford and heads into town, a town where people apparently know him. From the rental agent who confirms that rent has been paid on the house upfront to the owner of the general dealership, there is a recognition of Karl. He starts to buy things and he builds up a waiting-type of life.
Things shift when Karl spies a young boy from the other side of the hedge after a largely dysfunctional family of three moves into the house next door. The boy, Henri, is 10, and lives with his mother and his fairly low-life father who has issues with Henri going through the hedge and gardening for Karl, but no compunction about being a small-time drug dealer.
As Karl tries, albeit not very strenuously, to stitch together an identity for himself and to find his place in the plot he seems to have woken up in, there are other things going on in the novel. People around him carry out acts of criminality, Henri’s father moves his “business” up a notch and we meet the town’s policemen.
The plot of this novel is extraordinary and to say too much about it would be to give away a deeply satisfying story. But, alongside the excellent plot line there is something else that lifts A Gap in the Hedge to punch above the ordinary.
There is a visceral feel to the writing, a way that words are used to aim sucker punches at the reader’s soul.
This is Vlok Louw’s third novel. His first, Karoo Dusk, told the story of Billy and his family who live in a Karoo town with his mother and father.
The book was hailed as a modern-day South African-type Western, with all the trappings of reckless youth, guns and cars. It set the tone for the author’s second and third novels, which also deal with young men and their relationships to world and the environment they find themselves in. In Eric the Brave, Vlok Louw put a group of South African army conscripts in South-West Africa. JB Roux in a review for LitNet said that the author “paints realistically, with short accurate strokes of the brush”.
It’s a good description of Vlok Louw’s style.
As the story continues to unfold it’s very clear that this is not an ordinary crime novel. In fact it isn’t really a crime novel at all, because the reader is made to work quite hard by the author to pick what the real story or Karl and Henri is.
While Karl seems to be a fairly ordinary man, the device of his “forgetting” is a useful and well-played device to start unlocking the story of the bad things that have happened to him.
And there are definitely bad things, but Vlok Louw chooses to obscure them in an almost fable-like manner.
Who is Henri, who is Karl? How is the character in the novel who will lead the police to their suspect in the killing of a young girl?
These are all valid questions and one of the reasons why many readers will choose to re-read this novel, because beneath the text there are hints and clues that hover just outside of one’s field of vision.
These hints and clues are carried within a true literary story about identity and reckoning and carry the reader on to a resolution that will leave you gasping.
Karl can garden, go to town in his Ford to buy things and take them home, but all the time there is a sense of a shadow walking beside him.
“I reckon it’s very mean to cut a man out of the world and leave only his shadow.
“What if it gets lonely, misses itself? Because it does, you know? I knew a snow angel once and he told me so.”
The key from the first chapter, on the inside of a locked and mouldy room, is a signifier of a theme that will run throughout the story. A sense of unravelling in a harsh landscape that is both known and unknown to Karl.
It may be that the key will be turned and the full truth of Karl be relieved, it may not be. In the end, though, your head will be spinning. Vlok Louw has created a tough book that is beautiful at the same time.
It is a book that makes the reader think while being seduced by words.
A Gap in the Hedge is as fine a book as could be.
(A Gap in the Hedge, Johan Vlok Louw. Available on Loot.co.za (R198)