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Diane Awerbuck

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Oh, the Places You’ll Go! A Review of The Ward by SL Grey

The WardThere are a lot of places that Sarah Lotz and Louis Greenberg can’t go anymore. Their first outing as S.L. Grey produced The Mall, which flipped the rusty, septicaemic lid on social hierarchy, consumer culture and public space.

In The Ward, their second and more terrifying offering, they peer into the bedpans and fridges of a South African hospital that harvests Donors for modification-loving Clients. Think The Merchant of Venice meets Misery, and you’re some of the way there.

The same day I finished visiting The Ward, this headline greeted me in the paper: SCULPT YOUR PERFECT FACE. It was an advertorial for what is, essentially, stage makeup – foundation – and it was targeted at black businesswomen. The gist was that, in order to avoid your complexion appearing blobbily amorphous, tons of this expensive crap should be shoveled onto your skin, making a mask. Voilà!

The subtext is heinous – and not particularly sub-. It is, in fact, the sort of thinking that plagues Lisa Cassavetes, the lily-livered femme in The Ward. Lisa suffers from Body Dysmorphic Disorder – where what you see in the mirror is not exactly what you get. She has checked herself into Johannesburg’s appalling New Hope Hospital – “No Hope” – sans medical aid or next of kin because it’s the last place her father will look. But like Lisa’s own reflection, No Hope isn’t what she expects. Dun-dun-dun! She must, ahem, put on a brave face.

Her comrade in confusion is the equally self-absorbed Josh Farrell, agency photographer and all-round arsehole. Farrell has woken up blind (geddit?) in his hospital bed: his last hours
of consciousness come back only in flashes. His perfect, pathetic “mowdel” girlfriend, Katya, has mysteriously and significantly disappeared.

After much anguish and adversity, Farrell and Lisa escape back to Jozi’s “upside” (see what they did there?) But the emptiness and banality of their lives is only magnified when each is presented with the very things they initially desired: freedom! Faultlessness! They’ve got away with it! They have survived! Except – dun-dun-DUN! – things have changed, they didn’t read the fine print, and now they must pay.

The Ward evokes all the usual tropes – what Niall Alexander terms disruption, discordance, doubling and dismemberment. What sets it apart from its more inferior peers is that, while the book nods to the features of the genre, it is also startlingly well written. Filled with foreboding and saturated with satire, it sets before the reader images so penetrating they’re hypodermic:

Listen to the quiet conversations of the nurses, the old women moaning in pain like mourners at a funeral, the building breathing, the stale air circulating, the tick of the drip machine. And underneath it all, a distant thrum, like the hospital is built over a massive beehive, or a full stadium buried hundreds of metres deep.

Ultimately The Ward details our anxiety as well as our reluctance to trust any authority that is, at best, incompetent, and at worst, unashamedly malevolent. It is social commentary at its most frighteningly palatable – and it will give you nightmares.

It should. Bad dreams are the way that we understand that we are on the wrong path. The skewed universe of the hospital is so familiar because we readers recognise our own helplessness when we must trust our physical well-being to an uncaring institution.

This is the mark of decent horror writing: the events of The Ward seem paralysingly possible. Its contents bleed into the real because they deliver an extreme vision of everyday greed and neglect. If you aren’t at death’s door when you’re admitted, “… you will be when you leave.” Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.

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Recent comments:

  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    November 15th, 2012 @00:49 #
     
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    This is such a rollicking review. And I can't believe I'm saying this (am the original Lily-Livered), but I'm really looking forward to reading The Ward.

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  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    November 15th, 2012 @10:26 #
     
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    Plus-one, Helen!

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