Reviewed by Carmel Bendon
Edited by Robyn Cadwallader
Between 1976 and 1992 the country of Mozambique was torn asunder by civil war as the Frelimo nationalist movement fought for independence from Portugal and against the insurgents of the anti-communist faction known as Renamo. When the white-minority governments of neighbouring Rhodesia and South Africa sided with Portugal and Renamo, the northern Transvaal area of South Africa found itself in a geographically vulnerable position between the warring parties. It is in this volatile time (1978) and in this dangerous territory that Tangea Tansley sets her third novel A Question of Belonging.
Ronnie (Veronica) Boltmann, her husband, Jan, and their young son, Rudi, have successfully managed to not only survive but thrive on their farm, Kloof, in this unstable territory. But when Jan is killed when he drives over a landmine planted on the road leading to the neighbouring property, Ronnie grapples with the question of whether she should remain on the farm that has been her home for the past seven years or move to the city. If she stays she knows that she is potentially putting her life and that of her son’s in danger but the question is more than a concern with safety. At the deepest level Ronnie is interrogating her identity in relation to place, history, family and responsibility. Does she truly belong on Kloof? If not, then where does she belong?
This is a novel of few major characters but those few are beautifully drawn to reveal their own difficulties around where, and how, they belong — not just physically but emotionally. Piet Toerien is the owner of Milkwood, the neigbouring property to Kloof. His secrets are revealed as the story progresses and, perhaps, for people like Piet, belonging involves running away from, as much as running to, something. Ronnie is definitely engaged in the ‘running to’ (or holding on to) variety of belonging and the difference in motivation between the two characters effects a subtle but fascinating tension throughout the story. Tansley further underlines this tension by using alternating first person and third person narration, representing the points of view of Ronnie and Piet respectively. The disparate points of view seamlessly intertwine to form a whole picture, just as the two farms, Kloof and Milkwood, are separate properties at either end of a forked road, and yet joined in their isolation and purpose; and emotionally intertwined by the (deceased) character, Jan — husband of Ronnie and best friend of Piet.
It is Jan’s choice to take the Milkwood fork one morning to visit his friend Piet that results in his death, and Piet is acutely aware that if Jan had not chosen to make the visit, he probably would have been the one to drive over the landmine. There is powerful symbolism in the ‘fork in the road’ metaphor here, in terms of the decisions we make about choosing our way and place in the world, and about the consequences of those choices. Often we cannot pinpoint the reasons that one place captures our heart more than another but Tansley’s evocation of the landscape of northern Transvaal, and of the Kloof and Milkwood homesteads, is compelling enough to anthropomorphise these places into characters insofar as they interact with, and exert an influence on, the humans who abide within them. Piet, for example, experiences the house ‘joining in’ during one of his visits to check on Ronnie as he notices —
… Kloof announcing itself, the coolness of the dwelling dropping about his shoulders like a cloak, a protective wrap. But today it is more pronounced, maybe in contrast with the heat outside or maybe announcing the spirit of Jan or one of the ancestors his friend liked to talk about (pp.54-55).
Also peopling this powerful place are the Africans themselves, dancing and celebrating each evening in the kraals, providing support each day to Ronnie in the management of her homestead. And yet, they too do not quite belong, and Ronnie includes this awareness in her deliberations about leaving the farm because she knows that if she sells-up, the native workers will be sent back to the ‘homelands …. where husbands, wives and families would be separated according to tribes’. (p.28) The responsibility weighs heavily on her. And the past does too. Those who founded Kloof and those, especially her husband, Jan, who lived their lives on the property, hover like ghosts behind the concerns of the day. Their stories exert a hold over Ronnie, increasing her sense of belonging. Throughout childhood and into adult life, Ronnie had no real relationship with her mother and she is, therefor, particularly enthralled by Jan’s stories of his great grandfather’s establishing of Kloof. The story offers her a sense of history and connection that she has not previously experienced and it fuels her reticence to move her son away from his rightful heritage and inheritance. But Ronnie is also aware that Jan’s great grandfather, and the subsequent generations of the Boltmann family on Kloof, are interlopers, colonisers of a land that is not theirs. It is through discussions with her own father, David, about her unease of staying on at Kloof that the nub of the question of belonging is brought to the fore. In response to Ronnie’s acknowledgment that she has a legal right to Kloof but that ‘it’s the belonging part that bothers [her] the most’ (p.163), David reflects that the answer is very rarely ‘pure’ because —
[c]ontinents have been discovered, countries founded, conquered and reconquered, flags planted in foreign soil, map lines drawn, redrawn, and drawn again … by generation after generation of procreation between conquerors and the conquered, the victors and their victims. … To get at the real truth of belonging is an impossibility, just as the lines on the map are not real for anybody. (p.163)
Overall, Tansley liberates belonging from one’s nationality or place of birth and locates it in an indefinable region that, I think, is more akin to ‘longing’. No doubt Tansley is drawing on some of her own experience here, having been born in Zimbabwe but moving with her family to Australia as a teenager and then, subsequently, from early adulthood, living and working on five continents. Tansley has said that this ‘nomadic path … gave rise to a gradual awareness of [her] own rootlessness … [and] wish for stability’. This realisation is certainly conveyed in the novel. And so, while Tansley’s satisfying and, at times, very moving narrative is convincingly centred on Ronnie’s and Piet’s struggles to belong, she also manages to provoke us, as readers, to think about our own questions of belonging in a world where few of us now stay in one place for our entire lives.
A Question of Belonging
Arena Books, 2018
Dr Carmel Bendon is a writer, academic and presenter on ‘all things medieval’. She has a PhD in Medieval Literature. Her specialist research field is Medieval Mystics and this was the basis of her successful (non-fiction) book Mysticism and Space. Her debut novel Grasping at Water was published by Odyssey Books in 2018. Her second novel, Knowing the Ending, will be out in 2020.