Return of the “lonely voice”

Homing, by Henrietta Rose-Innes. Cape Town: Umuzi, 2010.

Henrietta Rose-Innes’s latest work brought to mind Frank O’Connor’s classic The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story (1963), in which O’Connor insisted that the short story “began, and continues to function, as a private art intended to satisfy the standards of the individual, solitary, critical reader”.

I felt very alone while reading this collection of sad, disturbing, poignant stories, a feeling reinforced by the fact that Homing offers the reader a set of intensely private moments in the lives of its fascinating range of characters. Rose-Innes, an accomplished novelist (Shark’s Egg, 2000; The Rock Alphabet, 2004), has returned the short story to one of its natural homes: the small lives of mostly solitary people, so the title of her collection, and of the lead story, is apt.

Short story collections position themselves on a continuum from short story cycle (stories linked thematically and often geographically) to a gathering of unrelated items. Homing tends towards the second of these extremes: it immerses the reader in a wide array of character-types, settings and themes – to powerful and lingering effect.

The title story concerns the lives of an aging couple whose quiet suburban home is encroached on, to the point of obliteration, by the development across the road of a modern hotel complex in the place of what was for so long an old-age home. In a complex impulse born of despair and longing, the woman, Nona, spends a secret night in one of the hotel rooms, and looks across at her house and husband as other guests at the hotel might well have done. She returns the next day, somewhat earlier than either of them expected, and the two resume their routine. Ray has been fretful that the pigeons that usually visit for a feed have been absent:

And so they reclined, Nona and Ray, their backs to the new hotel, saying a few quiet words to each other off and on. They watched the road and then the sky, and then the road again. That old road: altered but familiar, stolen from them and yet still theirs. Waiting, in that changing and mysterious light, for the birds to find their way. (23)

Rose-Innes is a consummate practitioner of the short story craft: there is perfect economy of description and action, the characters are few and are drawn sparingly, and there is an abundance of space and silence to be filled by the reader.

Whereas “Homing” tends towards the traditional (in the best possible sense), the very next story, “Work in Progress”, is all edgy self-consciousness. The unnamed first-person narrator, an aspirant young woman author, visits the apartment of an older male writer and encounters there not the man himself, but his freshly abused (ex-) mistress. The exchange between the young and untested woman and the older and beyond-it-all one is a study in the eloquence of silence and gesture. We don’t really get to meet the writer, as the young woman decides to leave before he makes an appearance, but his character is strikingly etched into the carnage that he makes of his life.

“The Unknown Soldier” is something entirely different again: Callum is left by his mother each Saturday at the local library for five long hours while she goes off to the gym, to have lunch with her friends, and to do her nails. The young boy’s boring routine is broken by a violent intrusion of a distinctively South African sort: a bleeding fugitive on the run from two thugs is assisted by the young Callum in the library. The interlude slips surreally into the otherwise unremarkable life that he leads. Making this convincing is not easy, but Rose-Innes creates just the right atmosphere of dreamlike horror.

A masterpiece is “Porcelain”, which deals with the relationship between two elderly aunts and their young niece, whose mother (Celia, the young sister of the family) suffered from years of bipolar disorder and ultimately took her own life. Rose-Innes’s description of the illness is a remarkable blend of the poetic and the incisively accurate: “And in the city, with its late nights and loud days, its electric light and shadow, Celia had started to separate. Her highs had become towering, her lows abysmal, until there’d been little left in between. Gradually she’d got lost in the troughs and ridges, the heavy waves of her illness – an illness that had probably always been in her, but that her sisters had not recognised until Celia was far, far out on a dark sea” (80–81).

As I observed earlier, the collection is widely diverse rather than homogeneous, but Homing is admirably consistent in quality, with hardly a story dipping below the standard set by the opening few. Rose-Innes draws her miscellany of characters convincingly and with just the right balance between compassion and detachment.


Hecate says:

“Work in Progress” is one of the best short stories, by anyone, I’ve ever read. It is what is not said, left out, that makes it so powerful.