Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

The White Room 
Craig Higginson
Picador Africa

Local author and playwright Craig Higginson moves seamlessly between writing theatre and fiction. He also, at times, borrows from playwrighting to fuel his novels. The White Room takes its genesis from his 2012 play, The Girl in the Yellow Dress.

And in a further bending of the genres, and experimentation of form, The White Room follows the trajectory of a play within a novel’s pages. Much of the cerebral verbal play of The Girl in the Yellow Dress has been retained, and the repartee makes for delightful reading.

The novel opens in present-day London, where SA playwright Hannah Meade is presenting the premiere of her play, The English Girl. She goes to the performance alone, but has invited Pierre, the man she knew long ago, and who is the main character in the play, to it via e-mail.

The play opens, and Pierre is in the audience with his wife. And then the novel segues into the action of the play — but all told in a novelistic, narrative, flowing format.

In “Act One, The Passive”, we are introduced to the life and thoughts of the English teacher of the play. Yes, her name is Hannah Meade, and she works at a language school in Paris. Into this life enters Pierre, a young black French student. Determined to improve his English, he asks her for private lessons. All her deflections are for nothing, and she agrees to teach him privately. She forgets the first lesson though and doesn’t show up, but despite this obvious reluctance on her part, Pierre is determined that she teach him.

They arrange another lesson.

Hannah teaches through stories, and the lessons follow the rules of English, with Hannah incorporating examples of the simple past tense and so on into the flow of teaching, hence the “Passive” title of the First Act. Here’s an example of their verbal play:

“So, have you revised the basic model for the passive?”

“We use the past participle?”

“The verb ‘to be’ in whatever tense is necessary plus the past participle.”

“Could you give me an example?”

“I was born?”

“Exactly. Because you can’t give birth to yourself, can you? You rely on someone else for that.”

And so it goes, through the rules of language and through getting to know each other through the framework of the boundaries of their lessons, through storytelling.  

As Hannah tells Pierre: “But it is what people expect … They expect us to make up stories about ourselves. To represent ourselves … But the past is a useful tense,” she continues. “It gives the illusion that our lives can be reduced to a series of events.”

Higginson is also, obviously, playing with the notion of storytelling in this meta fiction of both a story within a story.

The dance of intimacy is initiated by Pierre, and yet is not entirely deflected by Hannah, and it’s a slow circling towards an awkward togetherness. Through it, there is the past: we learn of Hannah growing up in Johannesburg with her mother and twin brother Oliver. Fleeing a father in Zimbabwe as a young child, the darkness of Hannah’s memories unfolds as the story continues. The recollections of her beloved brother are shot through with sadness, which has burrowed deep inside her. Pierre’s truth is blurred — and he makes it even more so, obscuring the facts. There is a failed love — the woman then fell for Pierre’s best friend. He carries his own darkness. Later in the novel we return with Pierre to his home in the country.

And so we follow Pierre and Hannah through Paris and the lessons, interspersed with Hannah’s memories. Past and present continue to play against each other and we witness the dynamics and tension between Pierre and his wife.  

When the play is over Hannah hurries away, not wanting to see Pierre now after all, horrified that she even invited him to such an obviously autobiographical work.

This is a tightly constructed interior novel, with its focus on two characters. It is a story about language — and the possibilities and limits of the language that is available to us. It is a story about stories — the ones we tell ourselves and others, and how these can warp and waver.

It is also a story about ageing, and choices, and the glimmers of second chances. It is about how the choices we make in youth can cast a shadow through our lives, and about the redemption offered by understanding, which can lead to healing. And it is a story about potluck of those choices. It is the story of two damaged people, drawn to each other, and who, in turn, draw us into their world. And it is a masterful read from one of our finest novelists.