Dawn Garisch is a South African writer, poet and memoirist who has six published novels, a poetry collection, a memoir and a nonfiction book. She’s also written a play, a short film, television scripts and numerous short stories. Her novel, Trespass, was shortlisted for the 2010 Commonwealth Prize in Africa and her poem “Miracle” was awarded the 2011 EU Sol Plaatje Poetry Award. And if that was not enough, she’s a practicing medical doctor in Cape Town. Accident is her sixth novel.
Accident (Modjaji Books, 2017) is the story of mother, Carol, and her grown son, Max. Carol is a single parent. She met Max’s father during a trip to France where they had a brief affair. She went home to South Africa pregnant, never finding Max’s father again. Carol is a general practitioner in Cape Town and juggling her career and motherhood is difficult. Like most women in that position, she does her best though it never seems to be enough and this creates a lot of guilt and self-recrimination.
When Max is a teenager, he and a friend have an accident, a passing man saves Max. Carol has the man, Jack, over for a meal to thank him for saving her son’s life. Soon Jack and Max become close and eventually Carol and Jack begin an intimate affair. But Jack is a loner, an adventurer. His priorities clash with Carol’s and their relationship falls apart and one day he disappears. Max loves Jack, almost as a stand-in father, and he blames Carol for Jack’s leaving. Their relationship becomes fraught from then on.
Max is grown at the beginning of the book. He’s a performance artist who is trying to explore the line between life and death. He set himself on fire and is in the hospital with burns. As a doctor, and as a mother, Carol cannot understand this recklessness. Max’s friends believe that he’s a genius and the art world seems to agree. But Carol thinks he’s reckless and adding undue pain, violence and trauma to the world, in particular her world. She knows when his burns heal, he will try yet another stunt (which he does including a crucifixion and a car accident) and she becomes obsessed by that, sure that her son will die during one of his artistic performances. She doesn’t understand what he’s attempting to do or why. For her, art is not a worthy thing to die for.
The book has many themes of interest. What can a parent do when an adult child takes a path that they cannot accept? What is a worthy thing to live for —as well as die for? Can art be an arrogant crutch for a person wanting their own way? Or must artists always push themselves to the very edge so as to feel the truth of what they are doing, at all costs?
At one point, Max’s girlfriend, Tamsyn, finds that she’s pregnant. Max warned her that his art doesn’t allow him to be a father, even to have a relationship since he keeps pushing Tamsyn away and insists they have nothing serious. Carol attempts to get Max to see how selfish he’s being.
She says: “You’re a narcissistic child, Max, people like you shouldn’t be allowed to have sex, bringing more misery into the world.” She knew she was going too far, but she couldn’t stop the bile from spilling out.
“You think Picasso wasn’t narcissistic? Or Lucian Freud? They put painting first, before the people closest to them, but they weren’t only living for their own selfish pleasures. That’s what you don’t get because you’ve never had one artistic bone in your body.”
Carol answers: “…I don’t care if you’re the most famous artist in the whole bloody world, if that makes you unkind and inconsiderate, it means nothing!”
Accident raises many interesting questions but makes no prescriptions on any fronts, it’s up to the reader to sort out the issues for themselves. The shocking ending will stay with you for a very long time, when mother and son find a heart-breaking and unexpected way to find peace with each other’s choices. I highly recommend this novel written by one of South Africa’s most underrated writers who I feel needs a far bigger audience.
(This first appeared in my column, It's All Write, in Mmegi newspaper on 23 Feb, 2018)