By Anne Whitehouse
Set in the vast, harsh landscape of the South African veld, Anne Landsman's remarkable first novel is a transforming allegory of passion and transgression, retribution and redemption.
The narrator, Connie, is a wretched alcoholic in her 60s who has never recovered from the loss of her child more than four decades before. In 1951, at 18, Connie became pregnant and was pushed into a shotgun wedding with her lover. Two months later, she gave birth to a baby she never saw, whose sex she still doesn't mow. She was told that the child was stillborn with a heart defect. Connie remains haunted by loss and wounded by her family's collusive silence. She and her husband manage a dog kennel in Oudtshoom, near the vast Cango Caves; the region's main tourist attraction, while. she tries to escape her sorrow through an increasingly brutal and self-destructive alcoholism. Her principle emotion is fear: of her drunken husband, who abuses her; of other people, of heights, swimming, boats, bridges and the Cango Caves.
Connie's only companion is her sister Gerda, now a grandmother, who shares her fascination with Beatrice and Henry Chapman, two early upper class English settlers to the region, whose tattered belongings are on display in the Oudtshoom Museum. In 1911, the Chapmans arrived to make their fortune as ostrich farmers when the feathers were as valuable as gold.
In drunken binges, Connie tells Gerda the tragic story of how the Chapmans came to ruin. Because Gerda is deaf, she must read her sister's lips or place her band over her throat to feel the vibrations of her words. Communication is breached by silence on another level as well: for more than 40 years, the two women have never discussed Connie's lost child.
The Miss Beatrice and Mr. Henry who emerge from Connie's story are fabrications, her means of bringing herself consolation and catharsis. Mr. Henry is a weak man who goes mad in the veld and whose insanity is transformed into murderous rage. Miss Beatrice is a bold, passionate woman whose desire for love and transcendence leads her to adultery - not once, but twice, so that when she becomes pregnant, she is not certain who is the father.
Through the character of Miss Beatrice, the pitiable Connie reinvents herself in flaming colors. She imagines another destiny, equally destructive but with the grandeur and significance of tragedy. Incorporating the majestic landscape of mountains and caves and vivid descriptions of the lost world of ostrich farming, Connie creates unforgettable scenes of elemental violence, sexual longing and fulfillment, murderous hatred and birth and death. In her retelling, Miss Beatrice's lost child becomes the terrible price exacted against her in retribution for her husband's crimes as well as her own. It. is the ultimate sacrifice missing in Connie's own history.
Landsman's greatest triumph in this J stunning novel IS Connie's profane, eloquent voice. Her speech, larded with Afrikaans and Xhosa words, is original and memorable. She is both full of resentment and philosophical. "People aren't nice, they look at you skew and their breath singes you. The world is full of shops and tight dresses and men jingling coins against their thighs," Connie declares.
Connie's imagination, fueled and heightened by alcohol, is for her a source of great-ness as well as delusion, a contradiction of which she is well aware. At last, she exacts confessions from her sister and her husband, who, influenced by her story, connect to her in her loss. The Devil's Chimney is a beautiful and frightening tale of people in extremity, written with power and fervor.
Anne Whitehouse is a writer in New York City.