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Sarah Nuttall reviews The Shouting in the Dark: Elleke Boehmer’s most exciting bio-fictional work since her debut

The Shouting in the DarkBy Sarah Nuttall

This book is for me Elleke Boehmer’s most exciting bio-fictional work since her debut novel Screens Against the Sky (1990). If that first book drew its energy from the depiction of an obsessional mother-daughter relationship, this one burns with an intense and destructive father-daughter relationship. Ben Okri calls it “a secret duel to the death between a father and daughter” and it plays out in a vividly historical sense. Boehmer’s narrator, who the reader has much difficulty not thinking of as herself (much like the narrator John in JM Coetzee’s Boyhood) becomes undone by her – in many ways – terrible father. What drives this story is Ella’s hatred of him, her desire to kill him, her wish for his death, her longing to be an orphan altogether.

Boehmer writes her way into the eruptions and emissions of intense emotion in this book, set in Durban in the 1970s, in ways she hasn’t before. That is, she inhabits her character’s affective life to a degree unreached in previous writing. Ella’s disgust at her father, and her derision for what she sees, as a girl, as her mother’s weakness, animates the prose. Her father spews and spills, every night on the verandah, his vitriol, his right wing politics, the pain of his shattering wartime experiences in the Dutch navy during World War II, his grief for the woman he in fact loved, her mother’s dead sister. Boehmer needed to find a prose form that could enter a highly charged and unrestrained emotional space, and she has done it brilliantly, in a highly crafted way.

If Coetzee’s Boyhood is, as with his other fictional and biofictional works, written with deep, if very restrained, emotion, brilliant verbal economies and narrative taughtness, Boehmer’s The Shouting in the Dark taps into a more expressive turn, which mirrors and mines the affective charge of a South African cultural and public life now avowedly post-TRC and shaped by new orders of private and public feeling, force and anger.

These are extracts from a longer piece that Sarah Nuttall is writing about Boehmers The Shouting in the Dark.

 
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