We sat down at the beautiful Winston Hotel in Johannesburg to chat to Claire Robertson about her new book, The Magistrate of Gower. Claire’s publishers describe her as the author of The Spiral House, winner of the 2014 Sunday Times Fiction Prize and a South African Literary Award, and short-listed for the University of Johannesburg Debut Prize. Of course this doesn’t say much about Claire as a person, but succeeds in very quickly giving you an idea of just how brilliant an author she is.
Robertson has an impressive collage of storytelling that she has collected over the more than thirty years she spent in media and journalism, both locally and internationally. Some of her most prominent work was done as a journalist at the front-lines of our country’s transition to democracy, so she spent many years navigating storytelling from what is supposed to be a neutral, politically correct, forced perspective of a writer having to tell the chosen truth.
Nationalism can be attractive especially if you are a bruised people. Claire Robertson
After many years of writing for others, it comes as no surprise that it was a conscious decision to no longer ‘sell her words’, move to the historically significant Simonstown and start working on her first novel; The Spiral House. Claire is infatuated with the way in which history is told. How a certain perspective becomes truth and how society is so easily swayed to buy into it. This self-consciously constructed truth is the foundation on which The Magistrate of Gower’s premise was built.
The next chapter is the main character, Henry Vos’ life begins at the turn of the century at the end of The Boer War, when he leaves his rifle and lists his name and age to be taken to British Ceylon as a prisoner of war. In one scenic train trip to Diyatalawa camp in Ceylon, Vos leaves the few remnants of his young adult life behind and finds himself free enough to chaperon a British colonialist’s daughter on the island, but still stuck in the confines of his status as prisoner. Instead of falling in love with the girl, he falls in love with a boy, is caught in the act and returns to South Africa disgraced.
Having embarrassed the Afrikaner Volk, the events on the island are swept under the carpet and the narrative follows the journey of Henry Vos as his life intersects with the larger South African narrative; the ushering in of Afrikaner nationalism is gaining momentum, which eventually turns into the political system labeled apartheid. The book highlights how society’s fears and desire for control, plays itself out in trying to control the sexual behaviour of individuals. Henry and the town’s lone Jew find themselves on the same side of the wrong team, expelled from the backwardly conservative town of Gower.
The female protagonist Adaira becomes a kind of narrator with a role to play in each sector of town-life. Starting as an outsider, she quickly becomes part of the social fabric of the town that eventually unravels exposing its weaknesses and false sense of order. The magistrate of Gower is a heartbreaking tale of impossible love at a time when the world was desperately trying to figure out who was in charge. All the characters living in this fastidious small English town in South Africa, driven by imperialist agendas and bureaucracy, are Afrikaans. The battle for control is therefore never one of race, but one of class.
Robertson insists that she is not a political writer and although her immaculate attention to historical detail cannot be denied, this is a timeless narrative that has in the past and is sure to repeat itself in the future. Her first novel, The Spiral House, which was published in 2013 earned her much acclaim amongst the literary elite of South Africa. On the evening of her book launch for the Magistrate of Gower, Michele Magwood of the Sunday Times gave her the most wonderful accolade, referring to her as a measure of excellence in South African literature.
I am certain that Claire’s brave and emphatic storytelling in The Magistrate of Gower will simply reinforce this statement and will leave a mark on South African literature for years to come.