Outside the Lines by Ameera Patel [in Shelf Awareness]
“We know what you did,” an ominous warning, proves pivotal in Ameera Patel’s electrifying debut novel, Outside the Lines. In a predominantly white middle-class neighborhood of Johannesburg, South Africa, the threatening phrase inextricably links five disparate characters.
“You took the money from the vase,” the drug-addicted, university dropout Cathleen Joseph accuses an innocent man, deflecting her own culpability. Her father, Frank, who has devolved into a pathetic, aimless alcoholic since his wife’s recent death, chooses to believe Cathleen as she condemns Runyararo, a recently arrived Zimbabwean hired to paint the Joseph house; his muteness renders him incapable of self-defense. Flora, the Josephs’ longtime live-in housekeeper and nanny, silently bears witness to the accusation from a distance. “There are too many lies flying through the room,” but no one is ready to face the truth. The deceits don’t end there – across the city, accounting student Farhana prepares to break the Ramsaan [Ramadan] fast with her extended Indian Muslim family, even as she plans to sneak out to meet her drug-dealer boyfriend, with whom she has a relationship based mostly on dual-sided deceptions.
Lonely and detached, Cathleen and Frank both self-medicate into oblivion; Cathleen ignores her own safety while Frank sacrifices his self-respect. Flora has raised her son, Zilindile, alongside Cathleen and her younger brother, James, but Flora’s lost control of all three children, soothing her failures with obsessive video gaming while ignoring her job. After Runyararo disappears from the Joseph home, Flora reluctantly admits to a growing emotional attachment as she initiates opportunities for reunion. Amidst the chaos, no one even notices when Cathleen is kidnapped – not her family, not her paid caregiver, not her regular high-supplier. The only person to catch a glimpse of her prone, damaged body will be the person she casually denounced, who should have been rewarded for his risky heroism – but isn’t. As the situation spins further out of control, Farhana announces the addition of a new life.
Originally published in 2016 in her native South Africa by actor and playwright Ameera Patel, this dysfunctional family drama has unexpected moments of dark comedy to disrupt the unfolding, inevitable tragedy. While exposing the multilayered inequities of the haves vs. have-nots, Patel slyly ridicules white privilege, religious hypocrisy, clueless parenting, casual racism, ineffective rules, and breakable laws. In clipped, often unadorned sentences, Patel skillfully presents a raw narrative of careless disconnections and scathing verity.
Shelf Talker: A single lie sets in motion a collision that will forever alter the lives of a middle-class South African family and the servants and strangers overrun in their destructive wake.
Published: 2016 (South Africa), 2020 (United States)