I finished the last chapters of Elleke Boehmer’s new novel, The Shouting in the Dark (Sandstone Press, 2015) all in a rush, sitting on a warm stone wall overlooking the playing fields in the early morning sunshine at the University of Sydney. Turning the last page, I looked up blinking, a little unsure of where I was.
The book traces the childhood of Ella, only daughter of Har and his third wife Irene who were Dutch migrants to South Africa after the Second World War. Previously married to Irene’s sister, for whom Ella is named, and with a string of past romances behind him, Har lives in the wake of his wartime experiences fighting on the Tjerk Hiddes in South East Asia and the Pacific. Although returning often in memory to these places, he seeks to cast off Europe by rooting himself and his daughter in the African south. Irene, meanwhile, is a debilitated and dislocated figure who is consumed by her estrangement from life in the Netherlands. Ella grows up, buffeted by the presence and absence of her parents’ pasts and by their inability to recognize her own needs and desires.
Memory and its legacies is a major theme of the novel and Boehmer’s working through of the generational effects of war is moving. The Shouting in the Dark conveys vividly the long term effects of conflict, both on those directly caught up in war, and their families. If Ella’s father batters her with his furies, he is also himself trapped in the grip of anger and lament. Continually asserting his authority as head of a patriarchal family, it is an authority that is anything but assured. His rule is one of fear, rather than love, and the contradictions and corruptions of his and Ella’s domestic world are mirrored in the broader political context of apartheid-era South Africa.
But the book is also about the power of words and language. This is appropriate for an author who has made her academic career reading and writing about words and those who produce them. Throughout I was struck by how omnipresent the Father’s voice is, and how little direct speech of the daughter we get. Boehmer evokes so well the sense of burrowing down and being battered by all the angry words. And yet for Ella words are both a curse and a salvation.
Is Shouting in the Dark a confession, of sorts? This happened to me, says the bullied daughter of the aggressive war veteran, wishing for his death and the escape she thinks it will bring.
I suppose every telling is a kind of confession; a backward gaze that at the same time looks forward, seeking to open the future as it pays its tribute to the past. If so, it is always a hazy one: coded in ways we half understand. Which is why the image Boehmer gives us of Ella’s father, there on the ship deck, looking through cracked glasses darkly, with the world hurling missiles at him, and him firing angry, fearful, determined shots back (p.264) is what stays with me. To some extent it is a predicament that we all share: this cloudiness of knowing; this incapacity of our equipment. And that is why it seems such an achievement of Boehmer’s to offer fellowship instead of fire, to open up instead of close down, to speak words in the light instead of shouting in the dark.
This is a longer version of a review recently published in Journal of Postcolonial Writing, 52:1 (2016), 125-126