Karoo Boy by Troy Blacklaws

I met Troy Blacklaws at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali in 2008 and read his novel Karoo Boy shortly after. Blacklaws was born and grew up in South Africa during the 1960s and 1970s, and his writing is imbued with a strong sense of the African landscape. The following review is taken from notes I made shortly after reading Karoo Boy.

The novel begins with the death of the main character’s (Douglas) twin brother, Marsden. Marsden is hit in the head by a cricket ball thrown by his father on Christmas Day. Karoo Boy is a description of the way life stretches out after such a random and meaningless tragedy, how it draws itself along like a dog with no back legs, leaving lazy marks in the dirt. It isn’t long before Douglas’s father leaves, unable to cope with his guilt (perhaps having had the desire to get away from his family even before the death of his son). Douglas, his mother, their maid Hope and their dog Chaka escape Cape Town for a little town in the Karoo. Klipdorp (a fictional town based on numerous desert hamlets) is a nothing place – full of heat and dirt and dead hyenas in the water tank. Douglas’s mother is an artist, and spends her time with a brush and a bottle of gin.

The picture Blacklaws paints of South Africa is vivid and beautiful. He has a way of describing things that is at once poetic and as clear and real as looking at a photograph. One such passage describes the way a half-drunk man plays a pinball machine:

He lets go of the flipper buttons to take a swig from a bottle of Black Label, but his darting eyes still follow the zigzag path of the ball. He clunks the bottle down onto the glass deck just in time to flip the ball with a flick of his hips.

Some passages are a little too pumped with adjectives, but overall, Karoo Boy leaves the reader with a vision of South Africa that glows with colour and images – hot, arid landscapes of nothingness, cruising sharks, yellow-toothed baboons, dead things in the desert, African ritual and language, how easily and often and painfully things die, the unbelievable inhuman cruelty of some whites against blacks. Blacklaws also interrupts his story with italicised passages here and there – I eventually discovered that these are memories, triggered by an encounter or an experience. The way these memories are written is reflective of the way memories come back to us – quickly, and without warning, jolting us out of reality and then just as quickly ending and throwing us back into the world again.

Karoo Boy is thread through with violence, from the opening chapter and Marsden’s death to the climax of the novel. Blacklaws’s depiction of South Africa comes across as so colourful largely because it is rife with living (and often dangerous) things. South Africa is full, as Douglas notes, of things that can kill you – “It seems unfair, in a world of hard balls and sharks and lynxes, to expect me to outfoot all the dangers fate throws my way”. The book is witness to the threat of sharks, packs of baboons, and the killings of white rabbits in science class. There is also a keen awareness throughout the novel of apartheid South Africa, and Douglas’s observations of white against black violence are extremely powerful. The instances are simply described, needing no emotional diatribes to convey the inhuman nature of what was being perpetrated in 1970s South Africa. The most hard hitting passage, I found, is when Douglas and his friend Moses (a black man whose papers have been stolen, forcing him to remain in Klipdorp for the rest of his life) discover Moses’s cats have all been shot, and are dying painfully in the dust at the back of the gas station:

Moses plucks up a ginger cat by its scruff. With his free hand he catches the slimy guts as they snake out. He holds the head of the cat to his collarbone. I hear a sound, like a distant lowing, well up in Moses. Then he lets the guts go. He hoods the cat’s head with the blooded hand, and gives the head a twist, as if shutting a tap.

Karoo Boy is at heart a coming of age novel, a novel about the way life goes on after tragedy – “I am not floating”, Douglas says, “and I am not sinking”. There is always the memory of his brother and his father’s absence, but then there are small moments that keep him clinging to life, like seeing “the sun filter through Marika’s [his Klipdorp love interest] skirt”. I wonder how much of this book comes from Blacklaws’s own life and how much of it was born simply of South Africa itself, and its unbalanced beauty and terror.

Troy Blacklaws is the author of three other novels, his latest titled Cruel Crazy Beautiful World. Read more at his website troyblacklaws.com.

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