Dark memories elicited from the era of apartheid

The first novel of Lisa Fugard, daughter of playwright Athol Fugard, examines a woman's ties to her father and the country of her birth.

Eva van Rensburg's childhood estate home derived its name from a South African tale of wonder and terror.

Supposedly, 100 years ago, a French naturalist named Le Mesurier was part of a hunting party that killed a lion, skinned it, then chucked its body into a river.

The carcass attracted hungry alligators. The hunters killed the alligators, whose decaying bodies attracted more prey, also swiftly slaughtered. The men drank all night, killing, skinning, piling up heaps of carcasses. Le Mesurier was disgusted.

However, in the aftermath of the bloodletting, the stink attracted a precious, rarely seen butterfly. Enchanted, Le Mesurier acknowledged the day by naming the tract of land Skinner's Drift.

Skinner's Drift, the first novel of Lisa Fugard (daughter of famed South African playwright Athol Fugard) is a tale of buried memories, family secrets left to fester until the stink becomes unbearable. The book has so many fine passages - butterflies of scenic lyricism that marry wonder and horror - that it's a shame when the novel finally crumbles under the weight of one too many skeletons in the closet.

The protagonist is Eva van Rensburg, a woman of the 1990's, living in New York, an expatriate, who doesn't expect to see her homeland again until the news of her father's impending death brings her back.

This seems a clichéd set up for a novel, but it's nicely handled. The problems with the narrative begin much later.

The first two-thirds of the story effectively present Eva van Rensburg's return to South Africa, an archeological journey through memory sites, many of which are painful to excavate.

The narrative flashes back to Eva's adolescence. Fugard lets several stories unravel by deftly switching points of view. The book has a cast of characters well suited to a Freudian family melodrama. These are: Eva's mother, a Englishwoman, awed by the beauty of South Africa, but aghast at the primitive life her husband leads; Eva's father, Martin Rensburg, an uncommunicative Afrikaner with a stutter, shy by nature, but steely when he has to prove himself as a farmer, a hunter, and a man; and his mistress, a soldier's widow.

Then there is young Eva, both rebellious and father-fixated, and of course there are the black servants, living in the shadows of the farm on Skinner's Drift.

This would be the place you would expect trouble - the place where a white South African writer might fall short, becoming jittery or self-conscious. But Fugard creates well-delineated black characters, surviving however they can, neither stereotypes nor saints. It's a believable portrait of South Africa in the 1980's, riddled by violence, protest, war, and guilt, and denounced by the world for its apartheid regime.

Apartheid will end a decade later, and, like the characters in a Chekhov play, the Rensburgs play out their family drama without foreseeing the depth of the coming changes.

Fugard's clean, unostentatious prose has moments of true grace. Midway through the novel, Lefu, a servant on the Rensburg farm, dreams the animals revolt against Martin Rensburg and aid the revolutionaries Lefu secretly admires. "The animals leaped into the air, and they offered their throats and their skulls, and Martin's gun blazed. Lefu knew then that they were offering their lives so his brothers could slip by in darkness. He saw them dancing, machine gun fire spinning them into the air."

So far, so good.... So, what's wrong with "Skinner's Drift"? Why am I left feeling ambivalent?

The problem lies in the last 100 pages, where the denouement hinges on a plot twist, an unexpected revelation - which of course I can't in good faith reveal. But it's as if a psychological family melodrama, like "Long Day's Journey into Night," suddenly became an Alfred Hitchcock thriller.

It's a trick ending - one that hasn't, to my mind, been very well foreshadowed. I now had to wonder: Who were these characters. Who was Martin Rensburg? I knew he was a conflicted soul, but how had he lived with himself all these years? And who was Eva Rensburg, who had conspired to keep her father's dark secret? Should I take "Skinner's Drift" to be a study of shellshocked lives and repressed memories?

Before any of these answers can be fleshed out, the curtain closes and the book ends.

Lisa Fugard's talent is self- evident. I don't know if it is connected to her parentage. But I do note one bit of irony. The major weakness of "Skinner's Drift" is in the element most crucial to playwrights: its plot.

Darryl Lorenzo Wellington is a poet and critic in Charleston, S.C.

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