Large cast of characters interrupts the flow of the ‘Still Breathing’ story

16 January 2024 - 10:38
By Margaret von Klemperer
'Still Breathing' by Martia van der Vyver.
Image: Supplied 'Still Breathing' by Martia van der Vyver.

Still Breathing
Marita van der Vyver translated by Annelize Visser

Still Breathing is almost a sequel to Marita van der Vyver’s 1999 novel Breathing Space, featuring many of the same characters, but is obviously intended to be read as a stand-alone as well. After all, the details of a book read in 1999 are likely to have faded over time.

And therein lies the main problem. There is a large cast of characters and although Van der Vyver helpfully gives a list of who is who at the beginning of the novel, while the reader gets them sorted out the inevitable and constant referring back to the list becomes an irritant, and an interruption to the flow of the story. This takes place on the eve of the Covid-19 pandemic, when news of a far away virus wreaking havoc in places such as China and Italy is beginning to cause a degree of alarm in South Africa.

The setting is Adrian and Yvette’s beach house on the West Coast, where three generations of old friends are getting together, some for the first time in 25 years, for Adrian’s 70th birthday. Their lives have changed, but their friendship has endured. Not all of them still live in South Africa, and those who do are not uncritical of the prevailing situation. There is an elegiac tone as the older ones think about the past, while the younger generation contemplate their future, and as the Covid-19 news grows worse, this looks increasingly bleak.

The themes of the book are friendship, ageing, the strains of being a parent, the past and the future and grief, both private and public. There is a sense that however different the paths people take in their lives, if the bonds that bound them in the first place are sufficiently strong, something of them will always endure. And that is a comforting thought.

Van der Vyver is one of those writers who can always enchant. She has a sure grasp of character and a sharp eye and witty pen for the foibles her cast display. But the structure of Still Breathing does cause problems. To give all her characters a chance to have their moment in the spotlight, their sheer numbers, even when the reader has worked out who is who, gives the plotting an uneasily bitty feel. There is a lot to like here, but it is not the author’s best work.