South Africa’s domestic workers and gardeners cut such stark figures: poorly paid (even at minimum wage), often abused, yet trusted with the rich’s most cherished belongings: their homes, their pets, their children. This relationship between employer and employee is a strange, uneasy one that oscillates between fondness and distrust. This connection is made more precarious when the worker is a foreigner.
It’s against this background that local author and filmmaker, Brett Michael Innes, sets his second novel, Rachel Weeping. Rachel Nyaga is a Mozambican nurse. But when floods devastate her home country, she’s no longer able to make a living. Pregnant and desperate, she makes her way to South Africa, to eke out a meagre income to support her child and her parents. Rachel is one of the ‘lucky ones’. A young Joburg couple, Chris and Michelle Jordaan, employs her despite her pregnancy. She has quarters on the property and the Jordaans accept the little girl, Maia, as a family member, helping to support her financially by paying for her schooling.
A devastating accident forges an inextricable and harrowing connection between the Jordaans and Rachel. On a day where a nervous Rachel queues for hours to renew her visa, five-year old Maia drowns in the Jordaans pool, when Michelle becomes distracted and turns her eye. Guilt, anger, and grief wrack both the Jordaans and Rachel, who has to make a painful decision about her future. Does she stay on with the woman who is responsible for her daughter’s death, or, does she return to Mozambique and give up the income that supports her parents? Rachel chooses to stay. “My purse is too light to be proud,” she tells a Malawian friend. But, her fury and angst turn to bitterness, when she discovers Michelle is pregnant.
Rachel Weeping comes at a time when xenophobia and the plight of foreign nationals are dominating headlines. Innes explains this is pure coincidence, but the timing is fitting. The book skilfully traces the chasm between South African and ‘foreigner’, between wealth and poverty, between black and white. Despite her good intentions, Michelle’s view of foreigners is tainted by her white privilege. When the tension between her and Rachel becomes unbearalbe, she starts searching for a new domestic worker, noting that many of the ads in the newspaper are from foreigners.
“The locals had an air of entitlement about them and were more likely to take their employers to the labour court if they were fired, whereas foreigners were grateful for the work and would do their best to please their employers because their visas and families back home depended on them. Michelle recognised that in many ways she was taking advantage of the unfortunate situation this workforce found themselves in but she also believed that a low-paying job was better than no job and so was happy to give the job to someone who was willing to take it over someone who would end up being lazy and entitled,” Michelle muses.
The plot oscillates between the past when Maia was alive, and the present in which she’s gone. It is told from three viewpoints: that of Rachel, Michelle, and Chris, exploring the turmoil of each character. All are victims. Some of their reactions, however, feel a bit obvious. Rachel’s decision to start stealing money from Michelle’s purse is a stereotype.
The issue of an artist or writer’s right to represent “The Other” must be raised. As a single, white, South African male how does Innes speak for a black, Mozambican mother? “‘The Outsider’ comes with a very interesting perspective. When you seen Khaled Husseini write The Kite Runner he’s bringing textures of what he grew up with and things that only he could know. But a visitor coming into a place, or into a story, or into a voice really comes with a very different perspective, because they don’t carry a lot of the baggage and there’s an objectivity that can be very helpful for the stories that you’re trying to tell. I think it comes down to the ‘heart’ that you come with: are you trying to come with a message or to reduce people to a single story, or are you actually just trying to find their voice? I think it comes down to research…”
Innes’ writing is as uncomplicated as his subject is complex. There are a few moments of over-description, which is likely due to the author’s other occupation, as a filmmaker. The book was picked up as a script for a feature film before publication, and has contributions from the producers, which perhaps explains the writing style. The story lends itself to a visual medium, and the film (which is due for release in 2016), will provide a better vehicle to present certain aspects of the story.
That said Rachel Weeping is a moving story that deals with themes of loss, death, and shame in a sensitive way. The life of the foreign national in South Africa is presented as one of turmoil, fear, and desperation, interspersed with gratitude while showing that grief is universal, an experience that alienates but also unites.
“Rachel lay in the bathtub, the water shielding her body from the cold night air that drifted in through the window she had left open. Sometimes she enjoyed the contrast of temperatures, her cold face peeking through the steam that rose from the hot water. She slid down onto her back and submerged her head, the night sounds from the garden disappearing as the silence of the water took over. She could hear her heart beating in her ears and as she held her breath she found herself wishing that she could just dissolve into the water that surrounded her…
As her lungs ran out of oxygen, she resisted the urge to come up for air, allowing the pain in her chest to distract her from that other pain, the one that throbbed continually like a club to her heart.
Is this what it felt like, she thought to herself as her lungs contracted and her heart beat faster. Maia? Is this what dying feels like?
Blood roaring in her ears, she held herself down until the first drops of water began to slip through her mouth and into her lungs. She came up quickly, coughing and spluttering and choking on water and air.
And then Rachel began to sob, her tears mixing with water as they ran down her face into the tub”.
Rating: 3½ out of 5
Rachel Weeping is published by Tracey McDonald Publishers.
Listen to my interview with Brett Michael Innes.