Picture: 123RF/GARY HIDER
Picture: 123RF/GARY HIDER

The story of life in the British concentration camps where Boers were held isn’t often told in contemporary local fiction. Clare Houston’s debut novel, An Unquiet Place, casts a fictional light on this episode of our history.

Engagingly told, the narrative drew me in swiftly. In the present day, 30-something Hannah Harrison is leaving her life in Cape Town, and her lover of a decade, an aspiring politician, to manage a bookshop in a small town in the Eastern Free State called Leliehoek.

Penguin Random House
An Unquiet Place, by Clare Houston Penguin Random House

The two men who own the bookshop are rushing off to try life in Australia and leave as soon as Hannah arrives, barely meeting her. This seemed a tiny bit implausible — and there are other too convenient plot devices in this novel — but sometimes you have to suspend a slight, raised eyebrow.

On her first weekend in her new home, which adjoins the bookshop, Hannah discovers the journal of a Boer girl, Rachel Badenhorst. The journal begins at the start of the war in 1899. Hannah is swiftly drawn into a compulsive fascination with the story of 12-year-old Rachel, missing her brother Wolf, who is on commando, while she is at home on the farm with her mother and younger siblings. Rachel’s voice is compelling, talking of her longing for news of her brother, of the effects of the war, of the anxious waiting.

She is soon interred in Goshen concentration camp, away from the rest of her family, who are taken to another camp. Her voice is strong and clear and I found myself as caught up in her story as Hannah: “There are so many ways to die here. Children are going the fastest. Once you are weak from hunger, you have almost no chance. Lists of names with measles, measles, measles. People start with a cough and a runny nose … that’s the way most go.”

It is the search for the concentration camp mentioned in Rachel’s narrative that sends Hannah colliding with Alistair Barlow. He and his parents are the current owners of Goshen Farm, the site of the camp Rachel was interred in. His face is disfigured by a long, ugly scar, and he tells Hannah to get off the farm. She ignores him, gets stuck on a trail and his father, Neil, comes along to help her out. We’re soon introduced to Alistair’s story: losing a young wife to an accident eight years earlier, subsequently withdrawing from the world because of his guilt and shame.

Rachel’s diary entries run through the narrative, and Hannah is as determined as ever to uncover the truth of whether a concentration site existed on the farm. There are no official records, she finds, and Alistair is determined to prevent her or any outsiders from investigating.

Interspersed among this search — and her clash with Alistair, which is further complicated by the frisson of sexual energy that runs between them from the first meeting — is the backdrop of life in small town. It is described in detail: from hosting the weekly book club, to meeting new friends who soon envelop her in warmth and hospitality, although this is underscored by the fact that very little is secret in a dorp.

It is Kobie, one of the farm workers, who has lived on the farm all his life, who first offers Hannah a faint clue to what may have existed there in the past. He tells her, “A few times I have heard far-off keening. You know what keening is? It’s not weeping. It is a sound that comes out of someone’s stomach … it is a deep, old sound that makes your hair stand up … a few times across my life, I have seen women on the plateau … one was small … she wore a kappie … like in the olden days.”

Determined that Rachel’s voice belonged to history, and can’t be dismissed simply as fiction, as some suggest, Hannah pursues the past with a compulsion that seems to have been lacking in her earlier life. The electricity that sizzles between her and Alistair continues to inform their exchanges. The path of their intimacy, clear from the beginning, is the only twee note in an excellent novel, with their back-and-forth dance of almost intimacy more suited to a romance novel.  

The story is compelling, however, the depiction of small-town life razor sharp, the sense of place keen, with the golden landscape of the Free State a visible presence in the story.

I too really wanted to know what happened to Rachel, or who she was. The description of life in a Boer concentration camp is horrifyingly, yet brilliantly detailed.

There are layers of secrets within our history and Houston’s novel peels back the onion skin of our complicated past. The revelation at the end stuns and intrigues, and will, I hope, lead to further unpeeling.