BookDragon Books for the Diverse Reader

Playing in the Light by Zoë Wicomb

Playing in the Light“Playing – as others would call it – in the light left no space, no time for interiority, for reflecting on what they had done. Under the glaring spotlight of whiteness, they played diligently, assiduously; the past, and with it conscience, shrunk to a black dot in the distance.”

As the only daughter of the now-deceased Helen and quickly aging John, Marion Campbell has never had to question her whiteness. Blonde and light, the adult Marion runs a successful travel business, is enjoying the promise of a new relationship, and living in a stylish apartment by the sea with all the trappings of outward success. But when she finds a left-behind newspaper in her office lunchroom with a disturbing picture of a tortured woman, she cannot turn away, shocked by haunting recognition.

Small step by small step, Marion begins to confront her troubled past. With the initially begrudging help of a young new employee – the first black woman Marion has ever hired to work in the front office – Marion begins to search for the truth about the dark family servant whom she remembers with the greatest love. In the big city of 1990s Cape Town, post-apartheid race politics lie just below the grimly smiling surface. But life for her parents was anything but tolerant  … and their lightness was all that offered potential acceptance, not only for themselves , but more importantly for their never-knowing daughter.

Wicomb, a South African native who chose voluntary exile for two decades, creates an initially quiet novel that quickly exposes the seething, instantly flammable racial divide of her homeland; that she is somehow able to write with such deliberate control throughout is astonishing.

Wicomb seamlessly weaves Marion’s discoveries with Helen and John’s choices, allowing the reader to always know more than her characters … and as a parent, I found myself aching for Marion, who can hardly forgive the deception, who will never fully understand the details of why and how her parents broke all their family bonds in order to have a chance at living less restricted, more human lives.

As a racially-reverse companion piece, might I suggest the must-see film, Skin, based on the book, When She Was White: The True Story of a Family Divided By Race by Judith Stone about the real-life Sandra Laing, born the colored daughter of white parents, whose life was shattered by her own family’s unrelenting race politics. Both Wicomb’s novel and Laing’s story (in either paper or celluloid) are unforgettable, highly recommended lessons as to the powerful, inexplicable control race still holds in our everyday lives.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2006


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