Turning a traditional apartheid narrative on its head: Almini van der Merwe on 'Ghost Limb'

In her debut novel, Almini van der Merwe creates a nuanced portrait of a disturbed person as she probes repression, past trauma, race relations and the interchangeable roles of victim and perpetrator

26 March 2023 - 00:00
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'Ghost Limb' author Almini van der Merwe.
'Ghost Limb' author Almini van der Merwe.
Image: Daniel Ospelt

Ghost Limb

Almini van der Merwe, Umuzi Trailblazer

**** *4 stars

It begins as a story that will, for some, appear familiar — until a darkness creeps in and turns it into a tale that shocks the traditional narrative you expect.

Set in the coastal town of Strand, Almini van der Merwe’s debut novel Ghost Limb offers a snapshot of apartheid South Africa in the late 1980s. 

“For a while before she came, the room at the edge of our property must have stood vacant. The pastorie, like a few of the older houses in our neighbourhood with foyers and high ceilings, came with this archaic appendage. We referred to it then, quite unselfconsciously, as the bediendekamer or servant’s room, as if we were the young masters of a number of servants,” says the narrator at the beginning of the novel.

As Johanna, a new maid for the dominee’s family, settles in, she establishes herself as a constant presence in the lives of the three children that at first enthrals and dominates, then slowly becomes sinister and eventually full-blown in its destruction.

Ghost Limb is the latest book published as an Umuzi Trailblazer from Penguin Random House, a shorter work of fiction meant to provide insight into what it's like to live on the African continent. When I ask Van der Merwe what it was about this story that fits into this narrative and that made her want to tell it, she comes back to the gravitational pull that is the character of Johanna.

“As I conceived of her, I felt she didn’t fit neatly into the narratives that we have of apartheid or into the trope of master and servant. I found this compelling and wanted to explore it,” she tells me in a Zoom call.

“The day Johanna arrived marked a change,” Van der Merwe writes at the start of the novel. “She walked in, and immediately we knew she would be different. She didn’t wear a kopdoek and spoke flawless Afrikaans in a white-person tone. She seemed more like a guest than a maid, a strange guest invited into our house to stay forever.”

Van der Merwe moved to Liechtenstein about 10 years ago but grew up in Strand. While elements of the novel are personal, she insists it’s a work of fiction inspired by real people and real events but shaped and moulded to suit her purposes.

'Ghost Limb' by Almini van der Merwe.
'Ghost Limb' by Almini van der Merwe.
Image: Supplied

“I tried to create a nuanced portrait of this disturbed person and I hope readers will feel sympathy with her, as I do in tandem with horror for the more disturbing facets of her personality,” Van der Merwe says.

And this she manages with aplomb. As much as I felt appalled by Johanna's behaviour, I also felt sympathy, a feeling that mingles with the thought that the characters in this book live with a trauma that is never fully dealt with — a metaphor, perhaps, of South African society at large.

“I had a sense then, probably still today, as a white South African coming of age that though these wounds to some extent have been explored to death, they are still with us in a myriad unspoken ways,” Van der Merwe says when I ask her about this sense of past trauma.

“That part of our history, personal and national, is still repressed and I wanted to find a new way or angle of talking about it or writing about it.”

Van der Merwe does not see herself as a writer who goes into a book with a list of themes to explore. As the short narrative plays out, she builds on themes of nostalgia, the search for a lost childhood, race relations, repression as tied to memory, and the boundaries between people. It becomes a deftly explored portrait of living with atrocities that are forced on and embraced by the victim-come-perpetrator.  

As for what she plans on focussing on next, Van der Merwe says she is working on two new novels and will probably continue writing about the South Africa milieu. As she says, her roots run deep.

Click here to buy the book.

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