Angela Makholwa’s 'Critical But, Stable' tells the story of three couples living the high life with a vengeance
Published in the Witness (08/03/2021)
Angela Makholwa’s Critical But, Stable opens with a woman’s corpse, naked in the bed of an unnamed man. At this stage, we have no idea of the identity of either. But we can guess that this event is going to be the trigger of things to come. Makholwa is skilled at building tension, as her previous novels prove.
We move on to meet three couples, the main protagonists of the story. The Manamelas, Jiyas and Msibis are living the high life, all part of a very upmarket stokvel, masquerading as a social club, where the members compete in providing glitzy events. The themes are glamorous, the clothes from designers, the catering high-end, the cars mega-smart. They are living the high life with a vengeance.
In short, sharp chapters, Makholwa begins to expose the underbelly of this existence. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but not all is quite what it seems for any of the three couples. There are problems with money and in the bedroom, and while the facade may paper over the cracks, they are widening — in fact, they begin to take on the appearance of chasms. And in an effort to stave off disaster, several catastrophically wrong choices are made.
One sharp eye on the goings-on is that of Tshidi, the Manamelas' live-in domestic worker. This glimpse of the upstairs/downstairs divide — and I would have liked even more of it — gives another dimension to the novel which, once the characters have been established, moves at a cracking pace, giving the reader the sense of a runaway train, heading for a crash, which duly comes. We discover the identity of the corpse and the owner of the bed where it lies, and, inevitably, we get the explosion.
Makholwa ends her story a year later, when the dust has settled somewhat. Have lessons been learnt? I don’t want to give anything away, but in what can be seen as a modern morality tale, the author has tackled some of the big subjects of our contemporary society with both humour and panache.