Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 20, 2019

Johannesburg (2019), by Fiona Melrose

Hard on the heels of my reading of Jane Caro’s Accidental Feministscomes an exploration of a mother-and-daughter relationship that exemplifies Caro’s association of feminism with occasional inter-generational friction.   When mother-daughter expectations about gender roles diverge, there can sometimes be mutual disappointment.

In Fiona Melrose’s novel Johannesburg (2017) the central character Gin spends more time thinking about her role as a creative artist and a writer, than she does organising an important birthday party for her elderly mother. She is trying—and failing—to be a dutiful daughter, with a mother who doesn’t understand her ambition.  Since Gin doesn’t think the domestic arts are important, her mother expects the party to be a debacle and her response is unkind and discouraging.  But there are two sides to this coin: Gin’s choices impact on her mother — who had no choice in them at all.

Would her mother be kinder if Gin had simply complied, married some local man, set up a house, spent her days choosing soft furnishings, teaching art at the local primary school?  Gin had a sense that this would have allowed her mother to settle into some sense of comfort, achievement, objective standard by which she could announce her own parenting, and her daughter’s life, a success.  Instead Gin had asked her mother to navigate an alien set of credentials.  Difficult to quantify, impossible to justify when all around were simply toeing the line.  By refusing to conform, Gin had forced her mother to do the same.  She had forced her to defend something she didn’t believe in.  (p.104)

Johannesburg is a contemporary reworking of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, set on a single day in Johannesburg on the day that the death of Nelson Mandela was announced in December 2013.  Gin (Virginia) has returned from her work as an artist to spend the day preparing for her mother Neve Brandt’s 80th birthday party.  Narrated in chorus of voices, the novel brings characters together across a colour and class divide that still persists in the New South Africa.  It’s a satisfying book that richly rewards attention to narrative strands that don’t at first seem connected. (Pay attention to the dog Juno: Juno was the Roman goddess who protected the nation as a whole but also kept special watch over all aspects of women’s lives!)

Death stalks the novel: Gin’s wild adolescence in a lawless post-apartheid city, makes her preoccupied by death.

They were rainbow nights for the new Rainbow Nation, lawless and blood-full, so that all four chambers of her heart raged in unison.  After dominating her childhood, it seemed as if the police were all but gone.  While violent crime played out in suburbs and townships across the city in a way that made Gin fear her own breath in the dark. And there was no one there to save her, not her parents, not her friends.  Certainly not [her unwanted suitor] Peter. So she embraced it.  The whole city was an accident of death.  This one was in the wrong place, that one, his time was up.  A roll of the dice.  Wrong house, wrong petrol station, wrong time and your day was done.  Death was everywhere and came in every form.  Just to be alive was dangerous and to survive a defiance. (p.65-6)

The irony is that privileged white people like Gin are still not in the same sort of peril as the black underclass, and she doesn’t realise that until late in the novel.

Mandela’s death brings people in their thousands out onto the streets to pay homage to the comrade who became a king, but — surprising perhaps to many of us — there are intimations that the ‘secular saint’ hasn’t fulfilled all the hopes that accompanied his release from prison and subsequent election as the first back head of state.  Dudu’s brother September (a corruption of his Zulu name Secheba) reminds the reader of Septimus, the veteran suffering from shell-shock in Mrs Dalloway, and like Septimus is similarly detached from society by post-traumatic stress.  Unable to work since being shot by police breaking up a strike, September lives in squalid conditions in a cardboard shelter on vacant land under a freeway.  Despite majority rule, he is one of the black millions on whose labour South Africa’s wealth is based, but who does not share in the rewards of the new democracy and remains a victim of an economic system that made their land unfit for heroes.

Half-crazed by pain, his use of ganja and his quest for justice, Septimus is the spokesperson for uncomfortable truths, and he thinks that Mandela has been unwell for so long that he has been an ineffective ruler.  By inference, Mandela has also presided over a shocking massacre at the Verloren miners’ strike (a strike which is modelled on the lethal force used to break up the Marikana Miners Strike in 2012).  Verloren means ‘lost’ in Afrikaans, and so September’s protest placard bearing the words VERLOREN.  HERE I AM,  has a double meaning: he is a lost soul who refuses to be forgotten, but his quest for justice over what happened at Verloren is a lost cause.

It’s a lost cause because Gin’s disappointing suitor Peter, has betrayed his own personal history. During apartheid, he had the courage to represent Black South Africans who ran foul of racist laws, but in the new Rainbow nation he has jettisoned his principles and now works for a mining company in a huge corporate building called The Diamond.  He’s about to be complicit in laying off 2000 workers without batting an eyelid — he’s more concerned about not wanting to work with a flirtatious colleague who irritates him. Peter is not the man who will plead the Verloren victims’ case; his job is to manage the fallout, to prepare for every eventuality and reality, legally. It is Septimus who sees him clearly for what he has become:

I hold nothing against him on account of whiteness but I do judge him on his forgetfulness. He has holes for eyes. He has forgotten how to look at a man, he cannot meet my gaze. This will be his downfall.
He pretends he does not see my protest. I know this man, I have seen him at the mines. He is young. He should know better. He sat there and pretended to listen to us and hear our grievances but in the end he was there to bury the sins of the men who hide in the Diamond. (p.266)

There are echoes of Woolf’s essay A Room of My Own (1929) in which she says that women must have an independent income and a space of their own, if they are to be creative. But in Johannesburg Melrose transcends Woolf’s neglect of women not of her social class.  Neve has a whole house of her own, her space invaded only when Gin comes home, and Gin has an apartment of her own too in New York…,

… more than enough space for one particularly since she had a studio for work, subsidised and spacious.  The artist’s necessity.  A studio of her own was what she had yearned for, not a husband. (p.243)

But political change hasn’t made much difference to social inequality: things are very different for the Zulu servant Mercy.  The room she has is hers only for as long as she works for Mrs Brandt, and Mrs Brandt has the right to treat her like a child and demand to see what was in there or see how it was kept. Mercy has always dreamed of having her own apartment with a small kitchen, and…

… often when she felt trapped, saw her life the same every day until she retired, arthritic and spent, she imagined all the things she could cook in that little kitchen. A stove that she could buy second-hand, and a small table (she would paint it red) and in there she would sing out her hymns as loud as she cared while she fried vetkoek to sell to builders and gardeners all over the city, mielie fritters, beautiful cakes for white ladies’ book clubs, peanut better biscuits too.  Even stew and pap.
But she had no such room, no such kitchen to call her own and it was this lack that she felt most keenly. (p.264-5)

The city setting is powerful: seething with peaceful crowds in mass grief for Mandela contrasted with a sense of menace from the traffic jams, white drivers cocooned inside a car but unable to ignore the touts, beggars and thieves.  In a gated community where no one can see inside a neighbour’s property, Gin impulsively opens the house gates to let in a delivery without doing a routine identity check first. The irony is that the only intruder she lets in is Peter, when that’s the last thing she wanted to do.

Johannesburg is represented as a city with many problems in a nation that has many problems, but beauty still matters:

For all of it, the fracturing, the pain, the proximity to death, she knew what she had always known: beauty matters. […] Despite the cruelties, the awfulness, the knowledge that in this city, something terrible, catastrophic was always about to happen, made it matter more.  Every flash of beauty however glancing had to hold its own weight in gold. (p.320)

The descriptions of flowers for the party are exquisite…

For another review, see Books Alive.

Author: Fiona Melrose
Title: Johannesburg
Publisher: W.F. Howes, 2019, 323 pages
ISBN: 9781528849319 (large print edition)
Source: Kingston Library


  1. I have this one on my shelf to read. Astonishingly I see today that it has had less than 100 ratings on Goodreads – I thought it would have been more widely read than that. Sounds like it deserves a bigger audience


    • I was surprised too, and that some of them were negative. I can understand that some people don’t like multiple narrators, but still, it’s such a richly satisfying book with so many threads to explore, I thought it was wonderful.


      • i’d heard other people say how good it was which is why I bought it, meaning to read it before going to Johannesburg. But never got around to it


        • Often the best ways to get book recommendations! (I’ve lost count of the number of books I’ve bought from reviews on your blog.)


          • oops, I didn’t realise I was responsible for impacting your bank balance


            • LOL we all do it to each other. Stu at Winston’s Dad is the best/worst: so many great recommendations/ so much impact on the credit card!

              Liked by 1 person

  2. I like the idea that it’s a riff on Mrs Dalloway – worth reading if it’s done well. But re Peter, so many young left wingers become conservative in middle age (and I suppose I at least became less angry), what’s going on there? My initial thought was that it was unconvincing to have a character who is first one thing and then, inexplicably the opposite, but then realised just how often it happens in life.


    • Another thing that happens in real life is that activists, when they get what they want (or an approximation of it), don’t know what to do with themselves. There were activists black and white in SA, and while some of them moved into positions of power, what were the others to do? Nadine Gordimer and Andre Brink, brave authors who had made a career of writing critiques of apartheid that subtle enough to stay under the government’s radar, what now should or could they write about while the new majority government was delivering and also not delivering on its promise? What does a lawyer do, when he has built his career defending Black South Africans from racist laws in court?
      What do the White women of the Black Sash do when there was Black-on-Black police brutality? Almost by definition, whatever comes next will be seen as a sellout…

      I don’t know enough about SA politics to be confident of this, but perhaps Johannesburg signals a shift – from a time when no one could or would criticise the new Majority Government in the Rainbow Nation led by a secular saint, to writing about its (and – implicitly – his) failings?

      Liked by 1 person

  3. […] a common feature in storytelling throughout Africa.  (There is, for example, a chorus of voices in Johannesburg by Fiona Melrose; there is a chorus in Ama Ata Aidoo’s Changes. If I remember correctly, […]


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