Shadow Self is a good book. Somehow, I feel like saying that is an understatement. But what else can one say about a book one really loves? Each page you flip is an invitation to encounter creativity that delights. Sentences jump at you, sometimes they tickle you. And you find yourself helpless in their grip, laughing, at times shedding tears and wishing that something would make you remain in their world. Imagine this:
''And what else could I do? My matric was so poor there was no way I was going to university, not that I was interested. In class at school I had dreamt about travelling - Galapagos, Antarctica and Route 66. And when I wasn't doing that, I was thinking about Rajit and his naked body against mine in the back of his father's Honda Ballade. (It's amazing what you can get up to right under your parents' noses). I'd had no inclination at all to read my set works, and no patience with studying. History was dull, maths was incomprehensible, Afrikaans was tedious and I enjoyed the biology I was learning with Rajit a lot more than fungal spores and the life cycles of amphibians. Geography was my only saving grace.
But I was map reading my way out of there when I hit a dead end.'' (34-35)
Paula Marais is a gifted writer. The poetry and drama in her prose blows the reader away almost all the time. One can tell from the experience of reading Shadow Self that she will do well as a dramatist. Her characters' conversations are so racy one cannot just have enough of them. I love this:
''Are you out of your mind? Having Joe almost killed me. How can you be so selfish? If you really loved me you'd go for the snip and the subject will be closed.''
And I don't know why I couldn't just accept that and let it drop.
''It won't necessarily happen again, what you went through, I mean,'' I persisted. ''This time we'd be prepared.''
Thea's eyes blazed. ''I'm done with babies, Clay. Done. I'm done with night terrors, done with nappies, done with engorged boobs, and having to give up my life and my career for somebody else. I am making something of my life now. I'm happy. Why can't you be?''
''It's just - ''
''Just nothing. I love you, Clay. Passionately. I'd do just about anything for you, but I'm sorry - I can't go down that road again. It's taken all this time for me to find myself. If you have more love to give, get a dog, go work in an orphanage. I don't care, but I'm not having another baby suck the life out of me like a leech.''
''Wow,'' I said. ''A leech...A dog?''
''Well, you know what I mean.''
''A dog. Seriously?''
''Okay, so you're not a dog lover. Get a rabbit. A cat. Or volunteer at the Red Cross...'' (230)
Shadow Self has a dark plot. Its characters are constantly in a maze of messy situations. They are real. So real the reader finds himself in their every move. As they try to negotiate their escape route out of one trouble, they find themselves getting neck deep in another messy creek. No rest. You will almost cry for them, that's if you are strong-hearted. I am not; my eyes spat some water.
Shadow Self tells the story of Thea Middleton. Thea, at the beginning of the story, is cast in the light of an adopted kid. One finds out she isn't eventually. Thea, unlike her cancerous brother, Robbie, does not get the kind of attention she needs from her parents and thus tries to seek validation off the four walls of her family. She falls in love with Rajit, an Indian guy her parents disapprove of on the ground of racial disparities. Her pregnancy (of course, Rajit's the culprit) marks the start of her predicament. Refusing to leave Rajit and also to abort the baby earns her her mum's disownment. Her marriage to Rajit is far, too far from her expectation. So much parental intervention to struggle with and cultural chasms to bridge.
There is abuse too. Paula Marais so crafts Thea's abuse in such a way that it isn't overtly stated but she tasks her reader to dig stuff out of her words though I wish she would have been more direct; abuse ought not to be masked. NO. Thea's second marriage shows the prospects of success until she has Clay's first child, Joe. And the struggle heightens. Postpartum disorder and a gruesome murder feature. And selves become their own shadows. Nobody goes through postpartum disorder and remains the same. The experience is just excruciating, even for a reader, especially one like me whose first encounter with postpartum disorder is in Shadow Self:
''But her face was redder and redder and she was opening her mouth like a suffocating fish. Then without any warning, she fell forward.. She landed on the linoleum floor. The chair crashed on top of her ankle. Thea yelped, then began to caterpillar along the floor to a corner, as I watched, horrified. When she reached the wall, she slithered upwards, banging her head against the plaster...
...she kept on banging her head on the rough wall, like a tantruming toddler. Over and over again. She was already bleeding from her forehead, her nose. Even her ear lobe was scraped from the uneven wall. And all the time these otherworldly noises coming from her throat. like a wolf baying...'' (214)
Shadow Self explores motherhood and in fact, a couple of other things about femininity. Motherhood and its many shades catch my attention. Thea's perspective about motherhood differs from her mother's and they are both altogether disparate from Asmita Ayaa's (Raj's mother). Thea's, though funny, will give one a jolt anytime. She's the woman that hates to have babies (she loves having her husband's full love instead) and she passes same to her daughter. Her postpartum disorder only catalysed Sanusha's inherited view.
Sanusha. Shadow Self is about a woman, Thea, one in whose story other women find their voices. Of these women, Sanusha is my favourite character. Gawd! I love Sanusha! Shadow Self is a bulky book but Sanusha gets me chortling all the time. I love child narration and I like that Paula's eclectic narrative technique doesn't exempt Sanusha's side to every slice of the tale. Sanusha reminds me of Lola Ogunwole in Sade Adeniran's Imagine This. Though a couple of things serve as parallels in the lives of Sanusha and her mum, she is different. She doesn't give a heck what others say about her; she is independent and not in dire search for approval. Very perceptive, Sanusha sees through other characters' lives and makes judgements, her own way. She grows through the plot but the vivacity in her narrations matures with her. Meet her:
''There's something kind of gross about knowing your mum's been doing it.
It's not like I don't know about the birds and the bees - isn't that a stupid way of putting it? I've looked up sex in the Encyclopaedia Britannica and there are pictures and everything. Not that I couldn't have worked it out on my own. Appa brings all sorts of women home and the noises they make at night aren't exactly soothing. But Clay's always seemed like a nice guy and I can't imagine him and, well, all that stuff. But there's mom, her tummy getting bigger and looking completely green as she eats whole pineapples to stop herself from puking.
And boy, is she grumpy. I'm doing my best, but she's a pain in the royal ass, getting me to do this, and do that, like being pregnant makes her handicapped. I mean, in some countries in the world, women give birth in the fields and then carry on working. So why is she always griping?'' (164).
A happy story doesn't make a good literature. But it takes expertise to write such an emotionally charged story Paula Marais. way. Paula Marais' is dark, sad but you don't just want to drop the book till you turn the last page. Though the plot seems disjointed at the beginning, different parts of the jigsaw start coming together with each character's account. Maximising the first person narrative technique this way helps the flow of the story and it allows causality and suspense play out well. However, it doesn't cover the many perspectives there are to the story. On account of this, I feel Rajit, Thea's mum and Auntie Annie are some of the characters that Paula Marais cheated.
Editorial slips such as the following could have been avoided too:
''''Glad you enjoyed it.'' I wanted to hold her back resisted the urged to pull her hand. Her face. To kiss her.'' [Emphasis mine] (91)
''As the moon became clearer, I paced up and down the tiny patio liked a bee in a jar.'' [Emphasis mine] (149)
I will read Shadow Self again.