Craig Higginson explores the dynamics of marriage, jealousy and parental love in his latest novel

29 April 2020 - 11:26 By Margaret von Klemperer
Higginson's latest novel is both powerful and gripping.
Higginson's latest novel is both powerful and gripping.
Image: Supplied

Published in the Witness (27/04/2020)

A new novel by Craig Higginson is an event in the literary world. He is an extraordinary talent, and a writer who can never be accused of churning out the same book over and over again: each of his works heads in a new direction.

The Book of Gifts opens at the Oyster Box hotel in Umhlanga Rocks. Eleven-year-old Julian is there with his divorced mother and his aunt and uncle, and we are immediately plunged into a complex world of family dynamics. And then Julian meets fellow guest Clare, three years his senior, poised, pretty and, in the world of rampant young hormones, eminently exciting. It makes for a lively and compelling start.

But in the second chapter, we are four years on, and Julian is lying in a deep coma, having jumped, or fallen, from the chapel tower at his expensive Johannesburg school. For the reader, it comes like a punch to the stomach as the beautifully evoked, sunny beach holiday morphs into urban tragedy.

From then on, Higginson takes us backwards and forwards in time, into the perspectives of Julian’s mother Emma — a wealthy and successful sculptor — and Jennifer and Andrew, Emma’s half-sister and her husband, who is a therapist. And slowly and cleverly the reasons that they are what they are and how and why they have been plunged into the horror situation of watching a critically injured child are revealed. It is a story that is both moving and gripping in the way the best thrillers are gripping.

The dynamics of marriage, of jealousy, of parental love and of what we both gain and lose in the acts of giving and receiving are explored in Higginson’s beautifully crafted prose. He makes it seem effortless — there is no sense that here is a writer striving for effect but those effects are brilliantly achieved nonetheless.

The characters are not cardboard cutouts, but deeply realised, flawed human beings. You may not always like them, but by the end of this excellent and powerful novel, you will care about them, and their situation and problems will stay with you.