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June 2014

What Lies Beneath…

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“The crack appeared at the bottom of the swimming pool on 1 January 1976… Oh God, Janet’s hand flew to her mouth. Hektor-Jan would go mad. They had never budgeted for something like this. He did not like little surprises like this. Memories of car bumpers she had scratched, jagged rainbows which Shelley had drawn in Khoki pen on the bedroom walls and other domestic setbacks came flooding to her. Guttering that needed replacing, the old fence, splitting as they watched it. Life was a falling apart. It was happening all the time.”

January 1st 1976 East Rand in the city of Benoni, South Africa. Janet and Hektor-Jan Sydnam are welcoming the coming of the new year with their good friends and neighbours Noreen and Doug van Deventer. After tipping back a few bottles of 5th Avenue Cold Duck they all toast to a calm year after a tumultuous past year.

The Crack provides four distinct narratives. The first narrative is that of the maternal figure of the Snyman household Janet. Her voice is fraught with various anxieties about home, family and a new child that is due in seven months, but strangely, the object of her current obsession is a crack at the bottom of her swimming pool. Thankfully for her fragile psychological state she is provided a distraction by the preparation of her theatrical debut as Bonnie Jean in a play called Brigadoon. Her audition couldn’t have gone any better in which she amazed the directors and fellow actors from beginning to end. When all seems quiet and her mind settled she can’t help but think about that damn crack in the pool and how long it will be before the world around her crumbles and swallows her family whole. As the the crack becomes bigger and non-negotiable so does her grasp on reality and the bond between family. As she delves deeper into her character study for Brigadoon she can only hope that in the end life does in fact imitate art.

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“The children! It took a moment for Bonnie Jean to remember that she had children. That she was indeed married with children: there was the cautious girl, the eldest, Shelley, followed by little Pieter, the brave boy, and then chaos on two legs, the youngest, the little Sylvia. Was that the right order. Of course it was. Bonnie Jean Was banished from her mind and it was just Janet. Married to Hektor-Jan and not to Frank her twin brother from Illyria.”

The second narrative, but the one that holds the most internal and external conflict is that of the paternal figure in the Sydnam household, Hektor-Jan. He has recently been on temporary leave due to work-related stress from his job as an emergency diver for the South African Police Service. Externally he gives the perception of being a doting, playful, and protective father as well as being a strong, controlled, and loving husband to Janet. Internally he is a complete mess. Being a native Afrikaner he is troubled by the current racial conflicts in 1976 South Africa and wonders how long before the conflicts from the streets reach the front door of his father in law’s lavish suburban home. He has witnessed the violence first hand as a police officer and knows it is simply a matter of time. As he returns to work he tells his family that he will be doing more administrative work and out of harms way, much to their relief. What he fails to tell his loving wife is that he will be the lead specialist interrogator towards suspected black terrorists and current prisoners. There is an unbelievably difficult inner struggle for Hektor-Jan. On one hand he wants the answers to his questions, on the other he can’t help but feel compassion during times of intense torture and pain. His main issue is to ensure that he not take the problems with the job home with him. But when problems follow him home their seems to be no escape. In a sense he is going through his very own private Apartheid where keeping the world of work separate from his life at home is a lot easier said than done.

“The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. He leadeth me in green pastures and into the en suite bathroom where the quiet waters lie. Ja, man, though I walk in valley of the shadow of death, yet I fear no ill. For Thou art with me and my Barretta and bullets comfort me still. And the knife rests securely between the Old and the New Testaments.”

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The third narrative is an honest, innocent, and focused account of the day-to-day events of the Sydnam clan. It is told from the voice of the eldest daughter Shelley. It is written as a journal but also as a conversation with her grandmother Amelia Amis, Janet’s mother. Earlier in her working life Amelia was a part time dance teacher, but predominantly spent most of her time earning an income as a lecturer in English Literature. Amelia brings her high-tension, pressurized, and sarcastic teaching methods home with her when aiding in young Janet’s English development. Currently Amelia is a patient in a mental institution where she is suffering from “Old Timers Disease”, or more commonly known as Alzheimer’s. Shelley has seen her grandmother at her worst, but still maintains a dialogue where she learns a new word a day and utilizes it in their one-way correspondence where she keeps her updated on the goings on of the family.

“Today’s word from Granny’s list is INDECIPHERABLE.
Mommy is indecipherable. I am sure you agree Granny. I think you told me that not so long ago. She calls Alice Lettie. She jumps when you talk to her. I asked when we can visit you but she did not say when. She can’t find things and she won’t let us play in the back garden. Alice won’t let me ask why. What do you think Granny? Maybe it’s the stupid play? Or maybe she knows what actually happened to Jock? And I am getting really tired of Pieter and his nightmares about the blacks. I think he thinks he is in a play like Mommy’s big drama. Love, Shelley.”

The fourth narrative utilizes the voices of various civil servants and regular civilians that had a realistic view of the trials and tribulations that faced the South African people during Apartheid. Since the book is set during the year of 1976 the focus is more isolated towards the Soweto uprising where several thousand black secondary students were present during a peaceful protest and a government reported twenty three students killed by police officers. The number of dead is said to truly be one hundred and seventy six with estimates up to seven hundred while the number of wounded is said to be over one thousand people.

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“On 16 June 1976 fifteen thousand schoolchildren gathered in Soweto to protest at the government’s ruling that half of all classes in secondary schools must be taught in Afrikaans. Students did not want to learn and teachers did not want to teach in the language of the oppressor. Pleadings and petitions by parents and teachers had fallen on deaf ears. A detachment of police confronted this army of earnest schoolchildren and without warning opened fire, killing thirteen-year-old Hector Pieterson and many others. The children fought with sticks and Stones, and mass chaos ensued.”

Nelson Mandela – Long Walk to Freedom

This book took more time than I would have liked to develop a pace, but eventually my emotions certainly started to stir. And once it started, blood started boiling and page breaks needed to be taken for my very own psyche’s sake. With the Apartheid seeming like a main talking point for this novel, it is merely a backdrop to how the outside noise can infect the inner sanctum of home and family. This book will not be for everyone, and I can envision many people giving up on it, but if you stick with it there definitely is a payoff in a unique and we’ll-executed psychological thriller from many different points of view.

“The morning would dawn cold and dreary. It was going to be an overcast day, the morning of Wednesday, 16 June 1976.There would be no sun –
Janet opened the garage door and peered out into the new world. It was still dark. There was iron in the air – “

 

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