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Small Moving Parts by Sally-Ann Murray PDF Print E-mail
Monday, 12 July 2010 18:00

There is good reason for Sally-Ann Murray’s debut novel, Small Moving Parts, meeting with the many accolades and short listings that it has (the Sunday Times Literary Award among others).  Written in a graphic, poetic style which weaves effectively and absorbingly throughout, the novel is South African to the core but without focusing on the serious political preoccupations that dog most South African writing. Instead, the broader social issues that dominate life in the 1960s feature incidentally as a context for the focus on the dramatic smallness of personal existence.

The flickering, “moving parts” of intellectual life and experiences of Halley, lead the reader through her development and growing awakening to the rather ugly realities of her world. Halley is simultaneously a vital, ordinary girl and a most extraordinary young mind.  Because she finds pleasure in the predictable and the complete, she relishes the orderliness of seeing things with sometimes monstrous clarity, like the enlarged images of fleas that she finds in her books and the clinical details that she examines in her borrowed biology text. Intent on becoming an intellectual, she obsesses over words and broods over the incomplete set of encyclopaedias her mother, Nora, has acquired to enhance her children’s education, but cannot afford to carry on buying. Halley strives for more, her mind “brimming” as she seeks to comprehend that which cannot be understood by one so young. She wonders, for instance, why her mother has decided not to order the rest of the set – did Nora see something in the first parts that offended her?  These glimpses into Halley’s mind are captured by Murray in detailed and humorous vignettes.

Halley’s internal world, complex as it is, is at least buffered by the partial freedom that childhood presents and the escapism offered by imagination. In contrast, Nora, freed from a disappointing marriage, is burdened by the responsibilities of impoverished motherhood. She tries to prevent Halley and pretty Jen from mingling with crass, crude neighbours who drink and fight and swear. Ambitious for her girls, she moulds them in anticipation of their ultimate escape from the humble Kenneth Gardens in which she herself is trapped.  Her sacrifices are, however, not enough to ward off their abuse and hurt – largely at the hands of predatory men invited into their lives. In contrast with the persistent humour derived from Halley’s childhood misconceptions, these invasions and exploitations are painfully and shockingly rendered. Using Halley’s obsessive detailing of all that happens to her, Murray seems to suggest that these tragedies of suffering are simply part of the greater continuum of life, a fact of life.  The grim message is that torment and pain are private and one must simply weather as one does all other challenges.

Although Halley’s voice tends to dominate the narrative, it is Nora’s energy and strength which pulsates beneath the surface of the novel and their lives.  Nora’s life of waiting must, ultimately, come to an end but in her escape, she must also become “lost” – to herself and her daughters. The hollowness this leaves in the lives of Halley and Jen is echoed in the reader at the conclusion of the 400 pages of the novel – so much for so little? Halley’s exploration of her childhood memories leads her to conclude she must “walk away into whatever she can find” and further reinforces the message that life is, largely, futile and without reward.

The novel is a reflection of life as a series of episodic events spliced together – rather like reality.  It is fascinating and vividly written.