'Edgy and exceptional,' writes Margaret von Klemperer of Michiel Heyns' 'A Poor Season for Whales'

09 June 2020 - 10:55
By Margaret von Klemperer
'A Poor Season for Whales' by Michiel Heyns.
Image: Supplied 'A Poor Season for Whales' by Michiel Heyns.

Published in the Witness (08/06/2020)

Michiel Heyns starts his latest novel with a preamble which will have a familiar echo for lovers of Jane Austen:

“Margaret Crowley, handsome, clever and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly fifty-six years in the world with very little to distress or vex her. It was therefore hardly to be foreseen that in her fifty-sixth year she would kill a man with a kitchen knife.”

It’s an irresistible start. But this is no 19th century comedy of English manners. It is a profoundly SA novel that captures the tensions of this country when it comes to matters of sex, race, haves and have-nots and the fears that come in the wake of all of the above. And most importantly, it is brilliantly, blackly funny. If you ever want to read about the Christmas from hell, try this book.

Successful architect Margaret Crowley, newly divorced after her husband decides he prefers men, moves, along with her dog Benjy, to a house she has designed in Hermanus. While walking along the cliff path, Benjy chases a dassie over the edge and is rescued by a young man, Jimmy Prinsloo-Mazibuko. He insinuates himself into Margaret’s life, in a charming but slightly disturbing way, to the alarm of her friends and family.

Heyns creates a lively and comic tale, but always with a sense of menace which keeps the reader turning the pages with a delicious frisson of nervousness that things are going to turn out badly. The unease ramps up as we find out a bit more about Jimmy, and watch Margaret struggling to make decisions about what is the best thing to do as she comes to terms with a new stage in her life and battles to deal with family dynamics at the same time.

We know from the preamble that something nasty is going to happen, but perhaps it is not quite what we expect. Heyns tosses a few red herrings in our path as his edgy, exceptional novel works towards to its conclusion. I loved it, from start to finish.