Memoir meets quest in Julia Martin's deeply moving The Blackridge House

Memoir and quest combine to form a deeply moving history and the story of a life, writes Michele Magwood

10 April 2019 - 10:30 By Michele Magwood
A Memoir.
The Blackridge House: A Memoir.
Image: Jonathan Ball Publishers

Published in the Sunday Times (07/04/2019)

The Blackridge House *****
Julia Martin, Jonathan Ball Publishers, R260

When Julia Martin's mother was nearing the end of her life in a Cape nursing home, her fragmenting mind snagged repeatedly on her early childhood in Blackridge, a verdant, somewhat wild area high up in what is known as the mist belt, and an outlying suburb of Pietermaritzburg.

Elizabeth Martin lived there in the 1920s with her large family in a modest wood-and-iron house with a stream running through the dense garden. She has remembered the baby bats sleeping in the curled-up banana leaves, of hiding away in the broad branches of a mango tree, picking wild flowers next to the railway line and mealies from the back yard.

"In the gathering dark of the nursing home bed," writes Martin, "that first place gleamed like a lighted window."

As her mother became increasingly confused, Martin, who also lives in Cape Town, decided that she would set out to find the Blackridge house. "I was casting around for something to do," she says. "I thought I'd write an essay, but it went way further than I thought it would go." 

"If she did not find the house, her mother said, "I'd like you to bring me back two things: a photograph, and something growing from the garden."

The Blackridge House is on one level a quest story, on another a family memoir, but Martin, who is a professor in English at the University of the Western Cape, drills through these layers and produces a subtle, deeply affecting story of many fathoms. 

She interrogates the contested history of the region with its settlements and wars. In the deeds office she reflects on "the mass of pain and power encoded in the documents which were housed in the building". This is the place, she writes, "where the records of conquest and dispossession are all kept safe, where every tract of land is mapped, numbered, filed and scrupulously catalogued. This is the very place where the brutal occupation of the living world is secured."

Reading through his correspondence, she wrestles with her grandfather's uncomfortable place in that history as an imperialist and officer in the Natal Carbineers, who survived the Siege of Ladysmith. Despite an illustrious military history he would go on to lead a restless, peripatetic life, changing jobs and always on the brink of poverty.

She imagines the life of her grandmother, daughter of an eminent Dundee family who made what she thought was a good marriage to the handsome officer but ended up mired in drudgery with six children and little money.

Nevertheless, appearances were to be kept up. "I mean, my mother always had to wear gloves on the train because it signified you were somehow ... better."

She writes of her own parents' lives: Elizabeth became a much-loved art teacher in Pietermaritzburg and her father, Mick, talked his way into the army at the age of 17 and wrote poetry on the eve of the hellish Battle of Alamein. He was marked by bouts of crushing depression for the rest of his life, probably the result of what he witnessed in the war.

Throughout the book the author teases out the meaning of home and homesickness: "Perhaps home is always a story of displacement and return and displacement again. An old track played on repeat." In another passage she notes: "The path to home tends to meander. It is obscure. Or perhaps it is a road that is broken and lost, an old track irretrievably washed away."

Returning again and again to Blackridge, she was determined to find her mother's home and restore it to her.

"It was tricky to write because it could easily have become syrupy and nostalgic and I didn't want to do that."

Martin writes with acute perception and sympathy about the condition of dementia, and her patience with her mother is a lesson to anyone caring for a frail parent. She insists, though, that: "She was my teacher till the end. People who are so-called demented have not gone stupid, it's just that thing are not working so well. She was extraordinary really, she was so wise."

Writing the book was, she says, "an act of love mourning. This was my mourning for her."

It is also, for the reader, a work of rare grace. @michelemagwood