I like a dark book, I have said this before. I think fiction is a really interesting, as well as safe, way for us to explore the darker sides of society and people. It is rare though that a book really bothers me to the point where I can’t shake it and start to react against it – in a good if initially quite angry or outraged way. Jacques Strauss’ second novel The Curator is one such book…
Jonathan Cape, hardback, 2015, fiction, 342 pages, kindly sent to me by the publisher
Sometimes we feel we are stuck in a rut in our lives. This is very much the case with Werner Deyer who, now in his mid to late thirties, is still living with his deeply unhappy parents (his father Hendrik slowly dying in a rage, his mother Petronella having a breakdown) in a job that bores him, while his younger brother is off having a seemingly amazing life. Werner is bitter, he is also really lazy and not doing anything to help the situation other than drunkenly daydreaming of one day curating a great gallery, a childhood dream. However when the job in Pretoria he thought he’d get goes to someone else that dream seems ever more distant and so Werner starts to plot how he can get what he wants through other means. The answer is simple, he hates his father who is dying anyway, so why not kill him and reap the inherited rewards?
Now this all sounds rather straightforward, gruesomely brilliant, and simple enough but what is also lying behind the covers of The Curator is another story from Werner’s past and his childhood in 1976. Back then, on the neighbouring farm to the Deyer’s, there was a family massacre only witnessed by the black maid they had hired. She is soon hired by Hendrik because he is thinking of killing all of his family (it’s just slipped into the story like that early on, calm as you like,) and believes she can spot this and therefore save him from himself in effect saving them all. Funnily enough, it was at this time that Werner and his father fell out irrevocably yet as we read on and learn all the families’ intricate secrets, jealousies and resentments, we learn there could be many a reason for this epic family breakdown.
‘Have you been drinking?’ Petronella asks as she gets into the car.
‘Just a glass of wine,’ he says.
‘You smell like a brewery. Why do you drink so much?’
‘I was worried about Pa.’
‘You mustn’t drink so much. Do you want to get diabetes?’
‘Let it go.’
‘Maybe I should drive.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous. How’s Pa?’
‘Not good,’ she says. ‘I’m worried.’
Werner puts his thoughts of murder on hold. Please, God, he thinks, don’t force my hand. I’ll be really pissed off.
I am aware that this might sound like a farce and it has some incredibly brilliant grimly comic moments at the start. Yet do not let yourself be fooled by Strauss as The Curator becomes incredibly bleak and takes some of the darkest turns you might imagine, and some you might not see coming. This is part of the power of the book and the more you read on the more you realise that things, and people, might be even worse than they first appear on the outside. This is not a book for people who like their characters likeable and redemption around every corner, but I am not one of those people and so overall it excelled for me.
Yes, there is an ‘overall’ in there. This might be personal taste or just me getting on my high horse, but one strand of the story kind of hit the cliché alert button for me. Without giving too many spoilers away there is a strand that looks at child abuse, or more what constitutes it. This also looks at sexuality in a really interesting way. BUT. I have to say, and you won’t know who the characters are till you read it, I am slightly bored of gay men being seen as predatory paedophiles. At the same time, in bringing this up as a subject it purposefully addressed the issue (along with other strands on race, adultery, drugs, murder) and makes the reader look at uncomfortable topics from all angles – some interesting discussion for your book group right there then? It is the first book though that has made me squirm so awkwardly in quite some time so that makes me think it must be good thought provoking and truly unsettling stuff. This is what I mean about reacting against it, though it was more the subject matter and the assumptions around it than Strauss’ words or the way he delivers it in the context of the story. Am I making sense? I hope so.
Jacques Strauss’ prose takes you through all this and that is because it is quite fantastic. As I have mentioned he has an uncanny way of making you laugh at some of the darker sides of humanity before suddenly showing you that you are laughing at some pretty horrendous stuff (without making you feel a fool or a weirdo) and then leading you somewhere darker and making you think on. He writes beautifully. He can break you in a couple of sentences. He looks at his mother, small and grey, hunched over her plate. She drains all the venom from him and he feels like a brute. Or the one that has stayed with me for weeks and weeks. His chest hurts. Is it love or a heart attack. Brilliant.
The other things that I thought were fantastic about The Curator were how it looks at family and also how it looks at South Africa. In the case of family Strauss takes the familiar tale of a disintegrating family and takes it down to it’s barest of bones and its most extreme, without it ever seeming unbelievable. He unflinchingly looks at how families work, how they don’t and how and why family can bind us both for good and for bad. With his take on South Africa Strauss again does something really interesting. He produces a warts and all (good and bad again, in fact good vs. bad is a huge theme in this book) both in the 1970s and in the modern day, contrasting and comparing the two and seeing if the country has changed as much as it claims to have.
There are twenty thousand murders in South Africa every year and, he thinks, there may well be more, for his own contribution will go unrecognised, unaccounted. Surely he must pass murderers on the street from time to time, or in the shopping mall or even in church. He glances around. Having snuffed a life, is there a change – psychological, psychic, physiological – that allow murderers to recognise one another in the streets? Will they hold your gaze a moment too long?
The Curator is a very interesting and compelling read. I think I read it in about three giant gulps in a mixture of hilarity and then abject horror as the books twists and turns keep coming. There are the occasional issues along the way but the power of the prose, its questions and its messages about society, South Africa, family and the darker sides of humanity completely won me over. I like dark books and this one made me very uncomfortable at times and challenged me, which is no bad thing and actually a credit to it in hindsight. It is certainly a book I won’t forget and will linger in my memory, glistening darkly.
Who else has read The Curator and what did you make of it? I have recently realised that I read Strauss’ debut The Dubious Salvation of Jack V. for a book group years ago and never wrote about it, as it was a short number I will have to go back and revisit it as I remember it had some similar strands and effects on me.