Perfectly malevolent

13 November 2012 - 02:02 By Diane Awerbuck

Oh, the places you'll go. There are many places Sarah Lotz and Louis Greenberg can't go to any more. Their first outing as SL Grey produced The Mall, which flipped the rusty, septicaemic lid on social hierarchy, consumer culture and public space.

In The Ward, their second and more terrifying offering, they peer into the bedpans and fridges of a South African hospital that harvests donors for modification-loving clients. Think The Merchant of Venice meets Misery, and you're some of the way there.

The same day I finished The Ward, this headline greeted me in the paper: "Sculpt your face perfect". It was an advertorial for what is, essentially, stage make-up - foundation - and it was targeted at black businesswomen. The gist was that, in order to avoid your complexion appearing formless, tons of this expensive nonsense should be shovelled onto your skin.

The subtext is heinous - and not particularly subtle. It is, in fact, the sort of thinking that plagues Lisa Cassavetes, the lily-livered femme in The Ward.

Cassavetes suffers from body dysmorphic disorder - what she sees in the mirror is not exactly who she is. She has checked into Johannesburg's appalling New Hope Hospital, known as "No Hope", sans medical aid or divulging next of kin because it is the last place her father will look for her. But like her reflection, No Hope isn't what she expects. She must, ahem, put on a brave face.

Her comrade in confusion is equally self-absorbed Josh Farrell, who is an agency photographer and an allround a***hole.

Farrell wakes up blind in his hospital bed. His "mowdel" girlfriend, Katya, has disappeared.

Following much adversity, Farrell and Cassavetes escape back to Jozi's "upside". But the banality of their lives is magnified when they are confronted by what they desired: freedom and being flawless.

The Ward evokes all the usual tropes, what Niall Alexander terms disruption, discordance, doubling and dismemberment. What sets it apart from its more inferior peers is that, while the book nods to the features of the genre, it is well-written.

Listen to the quiet conversations of the nurses, the old women moaning in pain, the building breathing, the stale air circulating and the tick of the drip machine.

Ultimately, The Ward details our anxiety as well as our reluctance to trust any authority that is, at best, incompetent and, at worst, unashamedly malevolent. It is social commentary at its most frighteningly palatable - and it will give you nightmares.

It should. The skewed universe of the hospital is so familiar because we recognise our own helplessness when we must entrust our physical wellbeing to an uncaring institution.

This is the mark of decent horror writing: the events in The Ward seem possible. Its contents bleed into the real because they deliver an extreme vision of everyday greed and neglect. If you aren't at death's door when you're admitted, "you will be when you leave". Abandon all hope. - Books LIVE

  • 'The Ward' is published by Penguin, available from Exclusive Books, R135

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