Fists in the kitchen


Fists in the kitchen

DEBORAH STEINMAIR read four books about intimate partner violence, which is rife in South Africa.


OFTEN a theme emerges from the books I randomly pick up and read. This week, it was domestic or gender-based violence. The statistics are damning, especially in our country.

And, of course, this terror finds its way into novels. It's interesting to see how different writers approach it from different angles. All four writers were, coincidentally, women.

Betrayal by Lesley Pearse is about a woman who seeks revenge for all the bruises, broken ribs, and wounds stitched up in the emergency room. She flees her husband, and eventually the family home becomes hers, as it was bought with her inheritance and she has two children. Her ex-husband is an uncouth brute with little dimension. His man cave (a wooden cabin he had built in the garden) is still on her property, and she has to leave the side gate open so he can fetch it.

This doesn't happen, but one night she sees him entering the property and, as usual, sitting in his man cave and drinking. When it happens again (after he's relieved himself on the lawn), she waits until he falls asleep in the cabin, in his armchair with a camping lamp. She approaches and smashes the lamp through the window, intending to teach him a lesson. When the cabin ignites, she assumes he woke up and escaped. She calls the fire department.

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Naturally, he perishes in the fire and all her problems are over. She lives her best life and achieves remarkable success in her work. She doesn't pretend to mourn. However, the police have a few probing questions. Will she get away with this? Read for yourself.

Pearse's books are consistently international bestsellers for a reason: there isn't too much delving into the human psyche, and everything is fairly black and white and clearly delineated.

Completely different is Tell Me What I Am by Una Mannion. Ruby's mother, Deena Garvey, disappeared without a trace when Ruby was small. This happened after she fled Ruby's father, a violently controlling man who increasingly alienated her from her family.

Ruby's aunt, Nessa, and her grandmother wanted to raise her, but her father gained custody. He isolated her, and for years they didn't hear from her. He destroyed their letters. He made her live on a farm with his mother, Clover, who was more broken down than evil. He provided her with homeschooling and instilled his conspiracy theories and biases in her. He taught her to hunt. His word was law.

As she becomes a teenager, they clash. She starts searching for her mother and her place in the world.

It's a fascinating book, beautifully written, exploring the indoctrinated child's psyche and her resistant DNA. Among other things, it's an exciting detective story. It has much more depth than Pearse's bittersweet fairy tale full of glitz.

The third book also deals with the killing of a woman and shows women can be equally murderous. We already knew this; think Lady Macbeth, Daisy de Melker, Winnie Mandela, Rosemary Ndlovu.

Marina Forster is an extremely successful publisher, married to the director and founder of the company. There's money, glamour,  even love. But in the past, she spent years in prison for a murder she continues to deny. Suddenly, mysteriously, new evidence emerges that points to Shana, her colleague at work and rival for her husband's affection, as the guilty one. Shana goes to prison and Marina is free to raise her child with her husband, who stood by her and steadfastly believed in her innocence. Of course, she's devoured by trauma and flashbacks.

Then, prematurely, Shana is also released, and someone sends Marina a manuscript, in installments. One chapter at a time. It's clear that the author is Shana. She rewrites the history and the murder, portraying herself as innocent and Marina as wicked. Now, the reader gets to know the events in a dual manner: through Marina's memories and (less reliable, or perhaps not?) Shana's manuscript. At times, it's confusing to remember what happened in Marina's reality and what's in Shana's manuscript. Names are changed, so each set of characters has two names. Who should the reader believe?

Susan Lewis has also written a pile of bestsellers and knows how to create tension. It's smooth and highly readable, but not as artistically satisfying as Mannion's novel.

So, because it was that kind of week, I pick up Nechama Brodie's non-fiction book, Domestic Terror: Intimate partner violence in South Africa. Glynnis Breytenbach says on the cover that it needs to be said and read. Be warned: it's deep and dark.

To demonstrate that domestic violence and gender-based violence are as old as humanity itself, newspaper articles through the centuries are cited: from 1911, when a man brutally abused and beat his wife to death; from 1913, when a so-called “Cape boy" assaulted and violently killed his wife: “The accused pleaded that he suspected his wife of infidelity and felt quite justified in punishing her." From 1923, and so on.

Magistrates and judges historically showed tolerance toward abusive husbands, especially when infidelity was involved. Men crafted laws that enabled this kind of thing, according to Brodie.

The underlying reason for all this violence becomes clear: for centuries, society (read: the patriarchy) has considered women as men's property, subordinate, deserving punishment if they are unfaithful or want to leave their husbands. The myth spread that love hurts, that love is akin to obsession and madness. Marthinus van der Linde told his ex-wife after stabbing and killing her with a knife: “I'm so sorry, my flower, my love, forgive me, I love you."

Society has long accepted, shrugging its shoulders, that:

… sometimes, when a man really loves a woman, he …

Ambushes her on the way to school. Locks her in her bedroom. Takes away her cellphone. Points his gun at her and threatens to shoot her. Stabs her with a garden fork when she is pregnant. Rents a car so he can follow her without her noticing until it’s too late. Shoots her eight times before shooting himself. Stabs her 24 times and hides her body under a bush.

Women are often killed after repeated incidents of violence and numerous threats, with a restraining order in their handbags. There are statistics that will make you shudder, like the fact that 56% of women who are murdered are killed by a lover or a family member. This figure is only 11% for men.

Under British law, which was applied in South Africa after it became a British colony, men had the right to administer “moderate corporal punishment" to their wives and children, but unlike Roman law that preceded it, not to the point of death or permanent injury. Women had limited personal rights and were treated like children.

And now? Now we have one of the best constitutions in the world, but the dragons have borne offspring that continue to breathe fire.

It's not an easy read, but as Breytenbach said, it has to be heard. Brodie states that politicians and prosecutors like to point out that justice has been served when a person is found guilty of murder, but in truth there is no justice for the deceased. Her appeal is to the living: the living are the ones who need justice.

Who, what, where and how much?

Betrayal by Leslie Pearse was published by Penguin and costs R280 at Graffiti

Tell Me What I Am by Una Mannion was published by Faber & Faber and costs R385 at Exclusive Books.

I Know It's You by Susan Lewis was published by HarperCollins and costs R304 at Graffiti.

Domestic Terror: Intimate partner violence in South Africa by Nechama Brodie was published by Kwela and costs R330 at Graffiti.

What are we listening to?

Mercedes Sosa sings Fragilidad.

♦ VWB ♦

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