Things I Thought I Knew by Kathryn White, Umuzi 2011.
Lily is a bi-racial South African born in 1980: her mother is a white artist and her father a black academic. The family spends a seemingly idyllic few years in a small resort town in the Transkei, but their rural idyll is interrupted when Lily’s parents separate. Lily goes to live with her mother in East London, while her sister Jules, who cannot “pass for white” as Lily can, stays with their father in the Transkei, and eventually goes with him to the UK.
This family schism, like several plot elements in Things I Thought I Knew, is never fully explained. The Immorality Act would have prevented the parents’ co-habitation, and explains their hideaway in the Transkei, but these limitations were lifted in 1985, a number of years before the fracture of the family takes place.
Perhaps we are to assume that the couple simply separated, but even though the political cause of the rupture is not adequately explored, White presents this traumatic event in Lily’s life as symptomatic of the divisive South African society rather than just a domestic upheaval.
Lily is deeply affected by the trauma of her uprooting from her Transkei home and from her father and sister. Even before this event, though, Lily reveals mental quirks in the form of psychic visions that are vaguely connected to some affinity with her “African” spirituality. These visions do more than lend a magical-realist edge to the narrative. When Lily’s premonitions are revealed to the reader, they literally pre-empt the unfolding of the narrative, working against the normal trajectory of a novel. For instance, we know from the moment they meet that she and her house-mate Garth will end up in a relationship. This narrative pre-emption is compounded by White’s use of chapter headings, which read somewhat like the overly descriptive headings of a nineteenth-century novel. One chapter-rubric reads, for instance: “On Afrikaans people; the girl with the consumption; Graeme and Jules arrive then leave” (21). These premonitory summaries align with Lily’s sense of the “things she thinks she knows” about the future. They are perhaps also part of an attempt on White’s part to introduce a post-modern tinge to her text, in that she does not allow the reader to enjoy the conventional readerly pleasure of being surprised by the outcome of the narrative.
Lily’s unique mental make-up also allows her to see the dead from all past eras. Lily’s ghosts are sometimes amenable, occasionally grotesque, and even humorous, ranging from her childhood friend's murderous nanny Deliwe to Professor Harold Bartholomew and Ms Forever, who make Lily hold a memorial for Huberta the Hippo. One might ask how these visions of the dead contribute to the thematic concerns of the novel. Perhaps they represent the layers of history from which South Africans cannot escape. When Lily goes into the cathedral in Grahamstown, for instance, the ghost of an old man implores her to “remember, remember” and explains that “our decisions are your current reality” (100). Because of Lily’s bi-racial status, White seems to be suggesting that she is particularly affected by the inescapable nature of South Africa's history.
It is soon evident, however, that Lily’s supposed psychic powers are seen by others as a form of delusional mental illness, perhaps a kind of schizophrenia. Her mental instability eventually comes to a head when she experiences a series of fits which culminate in her being sent to a psychiatric hospital where her visions are medicated away. It is unclear, both to Lily and the reader, whether her premonitions are “real” or a symptom of a chemical imbalance. Either way, her breakdown is attributed symbolically to her position between races and cultures. In this way she mimics Nyasha’s position in Tsitsi Dangarembga's Nervous Conditions. Like Nyasha, Lily experiences a psychological breakdown, which is provoked by her inability to negotiate her identity across her two cultures. Dangarembga is explicitly evoked when Lily calls one of the black anorexic patients at the psychiatric hospital “Nervous Conditions”, referrring to Nyasha's eating disorder in that novel. Mental illness and the difficulty of negotiating one's racial and national identity are compared in the following passage:
They tell me that I am paranoid. That I am not alienated from my country; that my mind is alienated from my body. Apparently it's not the great fight of good versus evil, white versus black; it is my white versus my black. They tell me I am safe, that the psychosis has made me paranoid, not psychic … I must know that the criminals are inside my head, not outside wanting to kill me. (122)
The reference to crime is interesting, especially as Lily's extreme fear of criminals is dismissed as a symptom of paranoid schizophrenia, but is in fact shared by many South Africans.
Lily’s character, as a bi-racial, psychic South African, could have provided for an illuminating exploration of interesting themes around cultural identity, but White does not fully realise these possibilities. The novel devolves into a rather saccharine romance, with ideas relating to destiny and fate winning over the more interesting political points the novel appears to be hinting at. The fraught love triangle between Lily and fellow Rhodes University students Garth and Adam, does not carry much emotional weight, perhaps due to the fact that the reader does not easily identify with Lily. She is largely represented as a victim of her circumstances – both of her fractured family, her bi-racialism, and of her mental illness, and she seems to rely on men to compensate for her lack of agency. From a feminist point of view, this is certainly problematic, and from a more banal perspective, it simply means we do not really care which man she chooses to bolster her troublesome self-image.
Where symbolism and socio-political aspects do make an appearance, they are often rather heavy-handed and muddled. Lily's name, for instance, is a little too clearly a reference to the whiteness she is trying to come to terms with. Malone, her rival in love, is also very obviously Lily's foil; Lily calls Malone “the opposite of me” (42). Malone is a Creole woman from the West Indies, and is described in a rather sexualised manner as “a small heifer” with “tousles of warm hair and ample breasts” (42). With her “sugar cane patois of the Caribbean” (42), Malone is clearly more in touch with the “black side” of her Creole identity, while Lily is identified by others as “white”. This opposition between Lily and Malone is not problematised to any extent by the text. The fact that they are set up as combatants over Adam, the male prize, is rather unpalatable from a feminist perspective, and by dealing with Lily and Malone's bi-racialism in a very erratic way, the novel fails to challenge the inscription of racial categories that apartheid sought to demarcate.
The novel's narrative perspective changes throughout the text, from first-person to third-person, in a manner reminiscent of the perspective-switching in Damon Galgut's A Strange Room. As in that novel, this switching is meant to convey a sense of the protagonist's alienation from themselves, but Lily's self-estrangement is not that well-conveyed, especially as much of novel is spent tracing her and Adam's “destined” romance. The changing narrative perspective therefore seems tacked-on, even pretentious.
The conclusion of Things I Thought I Knew is particularly tricky. The tragic outcome seems to be presented as a kind of shocking twist, but it is partly anticipated by Lily's premonitions. Is it a vindication of her visions? Is she re-iterating the hackneyed trope of the “wise fool”? Is she suggesting that Lily's psychic abilities should not have been medicated away, or that Lily has insight into our “mad” South African society because of her proximity to lunacy? I think it is potentially problematic when mental illness is treated, as it is in many contemporary films and novels, as a shorthand for some sort of transcendent wisdom. Also, considering that the ending involves a violent, criminal act, a sadly ubiquitous hijacking, the reader is prompted to ask whether White is suggesting that South Africa's future is irremediably crime-ridden. Unfortunately, even tentative answers to these questions are swept away in the overblown melodrama of the novel's conclusion.
This is not to say that the novel has no redeeming aspects. White clearly has a flair for description, and some of the most vivid passages are in the dreamy, nostalgic section set in the Transkei, for instance: “Over the short hills, so thick with sand that every step was exhausting, was the sea. As you reached the top, the wind hit you thick and choppy, a wet force of drowned sailors' cries and gulls with heavy wings” (10).
One wonders whether this novel could have benefited from the hand of a stricter editor, as sometimes its tantalising insights are lost in tangents of varying relevance and interest. This is an uneven, strangely plotted novel, which cannot decide whether it wants to be a magical-realism tinted love story or a socio-political commentary.