When author Gerda Taljaard is asked about her latest book at a book launch, she answers with a question: “What is better to write about than dysfunction?” Probably, on par with reading on the topic, agrees DIANE DE BEER:
With a book titled Vier Susters (Four Sisters), dipping into her favourite genre, domestic noir, Gerda Taljaard has created her favourite playground.
Set on a farm in Magoebaskloof, píctures form in your mind’s eye and the house itself becomes another character. You don’t have to listen too hard to hear the floorboards creaking and the rain lashing against the windows during a storm.
And Taljaard explains it best: the house is also a powerful Jungian symbol of the female psyche, which then links it to the Gothic romance tradition: a lingering evil, the prevalence of death, the appearance of the supernatural and the hysterical woman (in this instance, Beatrice), the result of suppressed sexuality.
“It becomes a psychological space,” she notes as she explains that she didn’t want to write what is a favourite genre in Afrikaans, a plaasroman (directly translated as farm novel).
With storms raging, water plays an important role in this novel. “It can be cleansing for those who feel troubled, a kind of baptism, or even represent undercurrents.” And the list goes on…
She wanted to make a more skewered stab at this almost comfortable setting (on the surface) with the homestead itself in a state of disrepair, as are the relationships between the four sisters. And that is how she stumbles into the story she wants to tell.
It’s 1945 and war is at the centre with an Italian prisoner of war, mangled by a leopard during his flight, finding his way into their lives. There’s also the complicated politics of the land, with language rather than race the issue.
All the siblings are on the farm in the house they grew up in, which now belongs to the eldest, the beautiful Beatrice, married to a rather weak man; Sophie, the worrier, married to an English man, and Ivy who finds refuge in her childhood home following an escapade with what would now be described as a terrorist group (based on the truth, with the main character also based on reality).
Very much the adjunct to the three sisters, Kittie lives in an outside room/servant’s quarters but was raised as one of the white family yet never fully embraced, almost allowed only to hover on the edges.
We’re dumped into the emotional and political timebomb right from the start as the sisters tread lightly while performing their ‘allocated roles’ in the family – roles many would recognise, as they’re part of family dynamics and dysfunction.
THE many many faces of author Gerda Taljaard:
While the author is also one of four sisters, her aim with the novel wasn’t just her own familiarity but also the fact that women don’t often take centre stage in these stories – even when they are so often at the heart of the home. “I did take courage from my own family, where strong women have always been a feature,” she says. But she also feels that women have to take their rightful place in the past. “Women should not be excluded.”
She points out that while they are a close family, the sisters are all so different in character, it’s difficult to spot that they are related. “I do, however, understand the dynamics of these kinds of relationships,” she says.
For Taljaard, the writing process is very specific. Once she knows that there’s something brewing, it’s the first sentence that opens the floodgates. “It’s what I need to get the writing to flow,” she says. She makes rough notes, not a framework, and the writing takes over. “It’s almost a spiritual process,” she explains.
And in this instance, her introductory sentence can be twofold: first there’s almost an introductory page, which makes much more sense once you’ve read the story but also introduces the sisters to you briefly and explains the name of the farm; and in Part 1, where the back story starts, one of the sisters arrives at the farm and stops to gaze at the mountains she hasn’t seen for some time. And then reflects on the brevity of life…
But there’s also a tribute in the front of the book from Tove Jansson’s the Summer Book:
At first, no one mentioned it. They had developed a habit, over the years, of not talking about painful things, in order to make them less painful. But they were very much aware of the house.
That presence also encapsulates her own story. On the sister she identifies with most, she points to Kittie. “There is something of me in all the sisters, but Kittie is the outsider and the one I feel a real kinship to,” she says. “She doesn’t fit in and I think there are many similarities.”
But more than anything it wasn’t her own siblings that came to mind when writing the book, it was her grandmother and her sisters who dominated her being, she confesses.
While we all love identifying the writer with the people she is writing about, with this one it doesn’t matter. We all have families, understand particular family dynamics and probably know dysfunction far better than we want to.
That’s what Taljaard does so well as she pulls you into her story. That and the writing. This was my first introduction to this author, who has obvious storytelling abilities but also a way with words, which is tough to capture if not in Afrikaans.
It is, however, the language, the way she juggles with words and concepts, her striking sketches of people, the way they think, trespass and trip through their lives that hold your attention – and finally your heart.
It’s also a story that’s so universal, it would be a pity if it’s not translated, giving it the accessibility it deserves.
Hopefully she will have another first sentence soon.