Till We Can Keep an Animal
by Megan Voysey-Braig
In her debut novel, Till We Can Keep an Animal (2009), Megan Voysey-Braig grapples with issues surrounding violence and its aftermath in a country desperately struggling to make sense of the brutality witnessed and experienced daily by each and every individual. After winning the EU Literary Award for best unpublished novel (2007/8), award judges Craig MacKenzie and Darryl Accone described this newcomer as “soft-spoken and introspective, but also articulate and brave.”1
Voysey-Braig says her novel was written from the shame and sadness that exists in South Africa:
I wanted to pose questions. We love our grandmothers and grandfathers, our families, but why did they perpetuate the system, to make apartheid work and flourish? That’s what I explore in the manuscript, the cruelty that has always existed in South Africa, the violence over 400 years. We see the symptoms of it throughout. To me, there’s a dignity that has never existed. Nobody was ever seen as a person in their own right. People were treated abhorrently because of their skin colour. It’s a continuing cycle of violence, disrespect and a loss of love.
Declaring that Till We Can Keep an Animal represents a psychological history of South Africa that engages the implications of generations of abuse, Voysey-Braig claims that, “genetic memory gets passed on. You keep the anger your grandfather felt about being treated with injustice. Even though you have different opportunities, you inherit that landscape.” Described by the author herself as a dreary and depressing read, this novel is written with the aim of breaking the sense of responsibility: “I played a part in this. I perpetuated it. What can I do to stop it, to make it better now?” According to Mackenzie, Voysey-Braig wrote from a sense of wanting to apologize and correct that which needs to be repaired in order for South Africans to successfully move forward. Or at least, [T]hat’s what the book hopes for.”
After the opening pages of the novel, it soon becomes apparent that Voysey-Braig is not afraid of dealing head-on with disturbing and gut-wrenching issues plaguing present-day South Africa. A middle-aged white woman is brutally attacked, psychologically tortured, raped and murdered in her Cape Town home by two black armed robbers. Of the victim, Sarah, Voysey-Briag says “I keep her alive so that her story continues. I invite her family members, those who are alive and dead, to tell their stories through her. She is the main protagonist and the narrator.” The narrator, the deceased Sarah, finds herself trapped between the world of the living and the dead, forced to watch her loved ones deal with the loss of their cherished wife and mother. Her husband and daughter each approach her demise in diverse, yet equally tender ways.
Despite packing a tremendous punch in the beginning, however, the novel loses its impact as the increasingly predictable and unconvincing plot develops. The narrative successfully begins by giving voice to the extreme pain and sense of powerlessness experienced by every crime-weary South African; however, it devolves into an onslaught about everything that has ever gone wrong with South Africa. This is where it all goes wrong: although Voysey-Braig succeeds in grabbing the attention of her readers (whether they are willing or not), a certain sense of disconnection manifests. The central message conveyed through the characters and their individual stories is that, as the story unfolds and the sometimes gripping images are digested, someone is being raped, or murdered, or worse still, someone is being raped and murdered and left to deal on their own with the remaining scars. This embodiment of both individual and collective scarring left behind by generations worth of violence is overshadowed by the novel’s tendency to transform itself into a violent declamation.
Apart from these content-related issues, punctuation problems threaten to completely eclipse the subject matter. Whereas the latter is based on a subjective point of view, nothing excuses the frequent occurrence of grammar and spelling mistakes. These errors are indicative of extremely careless editing throughout the book and prove to be quite distracting.
Thus, although the early chapters of Till We Can Keep an Animal evoke the same kind of emotion experienced in a novel often compared to Voysey-Braig’s, J.M. Coetzee’s masterfully executed Disgrace (Penguin, 1999), Voisey-Braig inevitably fails to achieve, in Craig Mackenzie’s words, “what the book hopes for.”
1. Jacana. “Getting to Know Megan Voysey-Braig,” June 16, 2008: http://jacana.book.co.za/blog/2008/06/16/getting-to-know-megan-voysey-b….