Choke Chain

by Jason Donald

It starts with a Highveld hailstorm and ends with bloody mutilation, and yet this novel of growing up on the wrong side of the tracks also offers hope and insight.

There's a delightful evocation of the limitations of youth, with all its bravura - and its ignorance that there is much more to life than watching videos.

At "big school", embarrassed because his mother hasn't been able to kit him out properly, the 12-year-old Alex gets as far away as possible from the taunting and finds himself spying on a gang of girls, smoking and skinnering on the far side of the sportsfield.

It seems one of their friends has a much older boyfriend - at least 40 - and is pregnant, so goes the crude gossip. Then Paula appears, to be taunted cruelly by her peers in the way that only children can.

"'So what about school? You've still got two years left,' said the one with big hair. 'How do you expect to get a job if you don't finish Matric?'

"Paula rolled her eyes and shoved the gum back in her mouth. 'Jissus! You lot are so immature! Get this through your thick skulls, school is bulls**t. I'm gonna move in with my boyfriend, who is a real man with a real job. I'll be watching videos all day while you pathetic losers are swatting for exams and learning your lines for the school play.'"

Videos? Rather an indictment of the limits of ambition. OK, so DVDs hadn't been invented in the 1980s.

It doesn't take long, however, before Alex is confronted by the fact that Dad's new young lady friend, whom he had met so recently at Dad's new flat, is that fellow scholar - and pregnant to boot.

"How could Paula be Poppy? One was only a few years older than me and the other looked like a grown-up woman. But she was her. Behind all the make-up and high heels, behind the school uniform, it was the same girl. The stupid way she flapped her cigarette around as if she was a movie star. I saw her with my own eyes at Dad's flat. She lived there now, with Dad and his new bouncy bed."

Mum is a little fragile, a little flaky. Dad is "working on a plan". He always is; the sort of "plan" that's either close to the edge or right over it.

He cultivates the mean, all-knowing look. He's a braggart. Mouthy, too. (Though he can wax quite lyrical on the psychology of hitch-hiking.)

Dad and the boys (Alex plus younger brother Kevin) are out shopping for school clothes. There'll be a bit of a fiddle at the store: the sort of fiddle that the manager can recognise but not prove, so will pay for and absorb the loss.

"After a few minutes Dad said, 'You know, if I had to, I could survive on the street.' His eyes narrowed and swept across the traffic. 'A man needs to learn how to survive out here on the streets, because you never know.'"

But again, because he sees life as a sort of zero-sum game, life's always a battle in which you do someone else in before they do. Thus when it's time for a new car after all the hailstorm damage, it's time to fake a hijacking.

And Alex has to learn how to lie to the cops.

Dad's prejudices are casual, nasty, overt and irrational. But it isn't enough to be anti-black. When you're close to the bottom of the pile in your own pale race group, it's nice to find someone within that group at whom you can still sneer.

"Dad sipped his can of beer and stepped out of the garage into the white-hot sunshine. His eyes narrowed into slits.

"'Who's that kid you were with?'

"That was a question for me. 'That's just Vim. He lives around the corner.

"I lifted one foot at a time, rubbing each burning sole up and down my shin.

"'Vim? Sounds like toilet cleaner. Does he go to your school?

"'No,' said Kevin.

"'But you're friends?'

"'Ja,' I said.

"'Ja?' Dad frowned, scrunching his beer can between his fists. 'Listen to yourself, boy. You're starting to sound like one of them.'

"I kept quiet. Dad wasn't interested in an explanation."

But he isn't going to let it go.

"'Listen to yourself,' said Dad, 'jabbering away in Afrikaans like you've forgotten how to speak properly.'

"'But we have to learn Afrikaans at school.' The words came out without thinking. To disagree meant starting an argument.

"'You're right,' he said, not mad at me, just thinking. 'Guess there's nothing I can do about the school system in this country. But that doesn't mean you have to act like some inbred Afrikaner straight off the farm, walking around barefoot all day like an animal.'

"He rubbed the stubble under his chin.

"'It disappoints me, you know, to watch my own sons forget who they are, where they came from,' said Dad. 'Why can't you make English-speaking friends?'

"'But what difference does it make?' The words popped out of my mouth as if someone else had said them."

Disagreement. Bad mistake. Now comes the hiding.

Early on - long before Alex makes his unhappy discovery about the school-age girlfriend - we learn that the relationship between Dad - Bruce - and Grace is on the rocks. The casual brutality of a man unable to express himself in any other way; the silent inadequacy of the woman unable to handle her feelings … all these add to the fragmentation.

"'You'll learn that women are full of awkwardness,' said Dad. 'Half the time they don't even know what they're all worked up about. It's best to leave Mom alone until she works it out of her system.'"

That's how he puts it, but even Bruce isn't so stupid that he's not frustrated by self-knowledge of his own inadequacies.

Where will it all end? In this first novel by Jason Donald, perhaps a little too tritely. But that's not to knock his achievement, which gives us a picture as clear as the African skies of the potential for corruption in familial relationships.

Dust, sunlight and colour are what Choke Chain is all about, in the metaphorical as well as the physical sense.

And meanwhile, "Male hoopoe birds, with their little brown Mohawk haircuts, hopped across the upturned ground looking for grubs."

It's those little touches that'll get you re-reading, and hoping that this isn't a one-off for Donald.

  • Choke Chain is published by Jonathan Cape at R240. More reviews and book news on the Books page in the Tonight entertainment supplement.