By Christopher Hope
Atlantic Books, NZ$28 | Reviewed by Jennifer Van Beynen

JOHANNESBURG-born writer Christopher Hope continues in a similar vein to his previous novels with his latest book, My Mother’s Lovers. A sprawling narrative set against the background of South Africa, and a savage attack on his birth country that criticises its history and political leadership from apartheid to the ‘new South Africa’, it could be easy to feel lost in My Mother’s Lovers if one has little prior knowledge of the vast continent. Hope not only covers South African history, delving into the origins of Johannesburg (described as being built upon the business of gold and whores), but dips into many surrounding countries, all the while maintaining an overarching criticism of colonialism and the white concept of ‘Africa’.

I have scant knowledge of African history, but even though much of the book almost presumes such knowledge, I was swept up in the story regardless. This is probably due to the fact that the narration is at once relentless and delivered in a colloquial voice. At times, reading My Mother’s Lovers is rather like being holed up in a bar with an interesting but persistent fellow drinker – one can almost imagine the narrator jabbing his finger in the air, pausing to sip from his drink, drawing a breath and continuing in the same heated vein. One’s attention is still held though, as the story is so good, the characters so captivating, and the ranting so justified.

My Mother’s Lovers is narrated by Alex, the son of maverick pilot Kathleen Healy who is the title’s subject. The book begins with Alex’s birth and his immediate questioning of the identity of his father (which is never answered, Kathleen does not know, neither does she profess to care), and ends in his adulthood. In this way, the book spans South Africa’s history through to the ‘rainbow nation’ state which is pilloried by Alex just as much as apartheid itself is, primarily for its poor stance on HIV, Aids, migrants, and the vast disparity between desperate slums and the high-security compounds available to the rich, who essentially lock themselves in from the surrounding city.

Kathleen and Alex’s relationship forms the basis of the book, and it is its complexity and subtlety that carries the book so well. (Interestingly, the character of Alex’s mother shares the name of Christopher Hope’s mother). This is mostly due to the enigmatic character of Kathleen, a pilot, accomplished hunter, boxer, and knitter; a rare woman to whom the concept of race does not matter, who detests nationalistic, sexual, and racial boundaries. To say she is simply ‘unconventional’ would be trite; Alex himself is bewildered by his mother’s nature; his closest description comparing her to a hurricane or other force of nature – wilful, powerful, inexplicable. To Kathleen Africa is a vast and open place for her to explore at her will. During Alex’s childhood Kathleen spends most of her time flying, almost perpetually airborne and thus indefinable, speeding over the continent and unable to be pinned down.

“All through my childhood I’d look up to the sky for a glimpse of my flying mother, and I pretended I could see her plane, a speeding point of energy. But I never quite got hold of her: she flew too fast for me.”

As he grows up, Alex travels around the globe to, in part, escape from his mother, but feels as if she is always catching him up, comparing their relationship to that of the hunter and hunted.

Kathleen’s various and numerous lovers, known to Alex as ‘Uncles’, make the occasional appearance and are, when they do so, artfully depicted. As background characters they are still substantial and thought-out, and Alex’s seeking out of some of these characters towards the end of the book lends a satisfying symmetry to the novel as a whole, as they themselves are given a chance to complete their own narratives.

My Mother’s Lovers also questions the role of the ‘white man’ in Africa, and probes this role to the point of suggesting that it is almost empty or transient, with ghost-like qualities. What ‘Africa’ means to white people and past colonisers, as well as to today’s immigrants, is a subject that is brought up and examined, suspiciously, many times. In an interview with the Guardian, Christopher Hope has commented that: “The way white people, with their territoriality and testosterone, have connected with Africa is: if you can’t kick, shoot, ride or eat it, what good is it? ...When I hear the word ‘Africa’, I want to know who’s using it.” This comment reflects his latest book’s constant questioning of the ‘white’ concept of Africa, and his persistent rage against the colonial and post-colonial narrative of what Africa means to ‘whites’, and currently, those who rule the country. These themes, as well as the intriguing characters, make My Mother’s Lovers an enjoyable if not tiring read.