It was thrilling to see the success of South African Damon Galgut in winning the Booker Prize in 2021 for The Promise after being shortlisted several times. He follows in the distinguished footsteps of J.M. Coetzee - twice a winner – and Nadine Gordimer. I read Galgut’s The Good Doctor when I was writing my first “practice” novel in the early 2000s, and his work, plus the wonderful books of his fellow Prize alumni, were a powerful influence.

Barbara Mutch credit-Dawson-Strange-Photography

Barbara Mutch credit-Dawson-Strange-Photography

Will the success of The Promise introduce a fresh audience to South African writers?I hope so because although more than twenty- five years has passed since apartheid ended and a new era was born, the stories keep coming. This quarter-century has been uplifting and challenging… for history still hovers over the country and alights, now, on its young population. This sense of “past-as-present” offers a rich hinterland for the novelist to explore, and a riot of possible plot twists.   

Due to family heritage my three novels, The Housemaid’s Daughter, The Girl from Simon’s Bay, and The Fire Portrait, have woven the tale of European migration into the rich South African canvas. Both my maternal and paternal grandparents were Irish and settled in the country over a century ago. Their experiences, recounted to me when I was young, plus my own from growing up during the apartheid years, came together in fictional characters who pick their way from the 1930s all the way to the late 1980s. Differences of culture, colour, aspiration and means threw up obstacles and opportunities for my heroes and heroines, and brought me face-face with my own - and others’ - beliefs. Right and wrong, I discovered from my research, often depend on where you come from, and where you now find yourself. And time does not necessarily heal. As Ada reflects in The Housemaid’s Daughter, ‘memories do not necessarily fade, they only hide, to emerge greater in number and intensity, and as fresh as when they were first made’. 

South Africa’s extravagant beauty, vibrant peoples and turbulent past leave an indelible mark on all who have spent time there, whether local or just passing through. And it’s a mark that finds a way into the compelling books that spring from its history - that sense of past-as-present... to shape the views of those who may not have had the chance to go there but can visit in their minds.  

And, as an aside, there is still much more to uncover, some of it positively archaic.The discovery of fossils of Homo naledi, an early hominin living some 300 thousand years ago, has raised intriguing questions and the possibility that this particular species occupies a niche within our Homo family tree that is still largely unknown.Material for an extremely ancient plot? 

©Barbara Mutch

The Author

Barbara was born and brought up in South Africa, the granddaughter of Irish immigrants. Before embarking on a writing career, she launched and managed a number of businesses both in South Africa and the UK. She is married and has two sons. For most of the year the family lives in Surrey but spends time whenever possible at their home in the Cape. When not writing, Barbara is a pianist, a keen enthusiast of the Cape’s birds and landscape.

The Fire Portrait was published by Allison & Busby in August 2021.

The Girl From Simon's Bay was published by Allison & Busby in 2017

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