Longing and the Promised Land

23 May 2021 - 00:00 By Diane Awerbuck

A Hibiscus Coast ★★★★★
Nick Mulgrew
Karavan Press, R290

In novels, as in real life, the Promised Land is never the way we imagine it. Places are paradisiacal in retrospect: we only know them once they are lost to us. Nick Mulgrew's new novel addresses that longing with care and kindness.

A Hibiscus Coast is ambitious - funny and beautiful and heartbreaking, sometimes simultaneously - as it examines the parallel lives of those in SA and New Zealand. Mulgrew was raised in these countries, and intimately knows their landscapes.

He is as comfortable with human psychology. There is nothing inherently wonderful about landing somewhere new; it is the idea of starting over that appeals to us. The novel's title begins with "A" because it turns out there' is more than one hibiscus coast, and those coasts can be interchangeable: what's underneath the water counts.

Mulgrew's characters struggle with the discovery of those submerged parts as new facts in their narratives reach the surface. For Mary, the disaffected white South African girl whose family tricks her into emigrating to New Zealand, the mystery is a real one: who killed the couple next door? For Nepukaneha ("like Nebuchadnezzar") Buck Cooper, maintaining an active community to preserve his Maori heritage is the driving force. And Mark and Bronwyn have escaped a bombing in SA only to be tragically disillusioned in the Land of the Long White Cloud.

Mulgrew delights in caricaturing the white expatriates who are the flotsam of every colonised country. Alette Terblanche, author of the fictional works, The Future of the White Tribe and Anew in New Zealand, writes cringe-inducing newsletters for The South African Club of the Hibiscus Coast, for those who "want the real news from South Africa - all the news the media won't tell you".

But A Hibiscus Coast is not all satire. Mulgrew is a sensitive man, and he invokes and then banishes the wishes, regrets, dreams and frustrations that plague us. How difficult it is to write powerfully and meaningfully about feelings; our personal revelations are mostly boring to others. But Mulgrew's technique is persuasive, at once chattily vernacular and then so lyrical he could name new palettes for Plascon.

This self-interrupting search is linked to his favourite theme, and one which he explores to its fullest in A Hibiscus Coast: the human responsibility to know ourselves in order to know others, and our obligation to tell the truth. We must face our old selves or be consigned to further continental drift.

That message resonates because each generation compares its lived experience with the received versions from histories and families; we are fragments of stories, but we may arrange them as we choose.

To live in dreams or to hide from our worst aspects exiles us from wholeness, from each place of "refuge and succour" that A Hibiscus Coast describes and then discards. Each Eden a character encounters - Durban North, Orewa, Puhoi, the bush - is a frustrating "mirror image" of somewhere they've been before. The trouble was never with the place.

We all want to be understood, but only some of us try to understand. Starting with ourselves, as Mary finds out, is the hardest part. It's lucky we have writers as talented as Mulgrew to guide us on our journeys.