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Diane Awerbuck

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Wormhole: A Review of Henrietta Rose-Innes’ Nineveh

NinevehHenrietta Rose-InnesNineveh is at once a passionate homage to place and space, and a sensuous exploration of metamorphosis. She sets out the basic premise of the novel: ‘I love the [idea of] wild creatures inheriting human dwellings: such a potent image of the order of things overthrown. Or an older order re-established.’

She proceeds with quiet, violent humour to narrate the experiences of the gratuitously named Katya Grubbs, the daughter of an exterminator who is determined not to exterminate. In their bilious ‘boomslang green’ overalls, Painless Pest Relocations (Katya and her nephew, Toby) arrive at scenes of domestic upheaval caused by the emergence of things better off hidden. The opening chapter alone – Katya’s revenge on the rich and rude Mrs Brand – is worth the price of the book.

Nineveh itself is Mr Brand’s ‘Mesopotamian fantasy’, a grotesque and sprawling housing estate built on reclaimed land. There is trouble, in every sense, with the foundations, and Katya is called in to eradicate the mysterious and terrifying beetle at fault. Rose-Innes explains her characters’ fascination with the blurred boundaries of co-habitation: ‘In Cape Town there are many such rooms, many worlds running side by side, sometimes without mutual acknowledgement. Nineveh is a charged space because it is at a nexus of worlds that often don’t engage with each other: wealth and poverty, natural and built, legitimate and criminal, planned and organic.’

The insects exist but are overlooked until they threaten the integrity of the man-made: they are the underdogs, the little guys, the trillion denizens of the underworld of water, electricity, sewage – essential services that are only brought to our attention when they are disrupted. Under her inquisitive gaze, the tiny insectile lives are exposed, embossed, rendered in exquisitely intimate detail, like Robert Hooke’s flea, which is ‘adorn’d with a curiously polish’d suite of sable Armour, neatly jointed…’

Rose-Innes extends this talent for scrutiny to her protagonist, who prides herself on being similarly under the radar, similarly interested in ‘exploring the rooms of strangers’. Katya is single, independent, bug-loving; she abandons her own neglected home in Observatory to live temporarily in Nineveh; she wishes the anonymous arrangement was permanent.

Rose-Innes specialises in these tender but tough-minded heroines, the ‘girl buccaneers’ who want to be people rather than women. Katya herself is used to strange situations, having grown up with a well-intentioned but inept father. The two motherless sisters – the pale, prim Alma and the tomboy ‘Katyapillar’ – must accommodate the shifty, shiftless Len, as hapless an adult as any child: ‘The frightening part was that they, the Grubbs, lived in a merciless world, full of hostile objects that could at any time rear up and hurt them.’

As grown-ups the girls avoid the embarrassment of Len, so when he piggybacks as consultant on Katya’s cushy Nineveh project, she finds herself thrown back into a surprisingly painful past. When I ask Rose-Innes whether Len is mildly bipolar, at the very least, she seems surprised: she sees him as ‘cheerfully ferocious’. The novel deals consistently with that tricky distinction between what is merely eccentric or unorthodox, and what is wantonly destructive.

Rose-Innes expertly layers her themes: our panic at the swarm; the fight against entropy; the undeclared war of the haves and haves-not. Nineveh can equally be read as an economic horror story: the potential loss of investor confidence in Nineveh; the status and sterility money confers on its owners; what poverty and dependence mean for Katya, Len, the security guards and trinket-sellers, people on the brink.

At the heart of the novel is the fear that possessing things makes us beholden to them. Insects, at least, are spared these choices. We are the poor creatures who must fight for our place in the food chain – but there is some comfort in that. Rose-Innes comments, ‘Katya attempts, and fails, to foil her destiny. She ends up where she’s always feared being. Some people have found the ending of the story sad, but I think that Katya finds freedom in acknowledging and embracing her itinerant nature, the rootlessness that she’s always resisted.’

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