A book that deals with apartheid will always tread on treacherous ground – who has the right to write about such a dark and difficult time? And how do we do it without cheapening or misconstruing it? Eleanor Morse is a white, American woman who spent some time in Botswana in the 70s, and according to her bio has spent some time volunteering in southern African prisons. Whether that covers prisons during apartheid is not clear, though I doubt that anyone who wasn’t a prisoner, guard or government member was allowed into those heinous places. I raise this issue because while White Dog Fell From the Sky demonstrates superb technical ability, it still somehow manages to miss the point a bit. Well, by a mile, really.
Briefly, Isaac flees from South Africa after his friend is arbitrarily murdered by members of the South African Defence Force, and he fears they may decide to kill him too. (This is the reason given, but it is incredibly weak. The soldiers don’t know or recognise him, so why run?) He gets into Botswana by hiding in the base of a coffin and awakes on the other side of the border in a country with no apartheid. There’s also the eponymous white dog, a sledgehammer of a metaphor that starts off being cute and gets pretty tired by the end.
Now, Isaac is a fourth-year medical student and capable of rational, intelligent thought, but the narrator feels that he should have a dumbed-down, ‘look at the native storyteller’ cadence despite his advanced education. The level of what is rightly called pathetic fallacy is rather insulting. The two protagonists are not far apart in education, but the white female protagonist Alice enjoys the full expressive powers of the author whereas Isaac is only able to relate his pain to basic human anatomy. “The sadness told his belly not to eat”, or “He was a monkey, cornered by a lion”. (I thought it was universally acknowledged that it is pretty racist to call people monkeys.) This may sound like a minor hiccup, but this makes up nearly half of the book. Add to this the subtle undertones of white people saving the !Kung people and poor people like Isaac, and it just rings hollow for South African readers. All of the gushing reviews seem to be from the US or the UK, and only Kirkus touches on the treatment of the black characters as noble victims while all of the white characters enjoy both agency and full characterisation. To illustrate my point, the white pharmacist gets more characterisation in five pages than Itumeleng, Alice’s housekeeper, who is present throughout the novel.
After the kind of truly brilliant anti-apartheid novels our own authors have produced, this seems flat and forced. No doubt Morse is a gifted writer – the book does have moments of stunning description. Still, it feels like the tourist’s view that it is, and while undoubtedly authors can write about places they’ve never visited, the subject of apartheid must always be afforded full gravitas, especially when told from the views of those oppressed by it. Compared to authors such as Zakes Mda, Athol Fugard, Ingrid Jonker, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, this is just a bookclubby attempt at handling delicate material, weighed down by its sentimental treatment and white messiah complex. Ultimately, Morse fails to give her African characters the depth they require for her story to really have authenticity.