|Three Women Out of Love|
|Friday, 31 January 2014 12:19|
By Gertrud Strauss
Reviewed by Sarah Frost
Initially dense, with a narrative that progresses slowly, Gertrud Strauss’s foray into novel-writing (she has published short stories previously) has proved successful, after a shaky start. Perhaps it was just a matter of getting used to Strauss’s prolonged, intimate, stream of consciousness style? Three Women Out of Love evinces Strauss’s fine eye for the feminine consciousness. The book charts the young adulthood of Hanna, Marga, and Friedel, three childhood friends from the German community in KwaZulu-Natal. They face courtship, marriage, pregnancy, and child-rearing in different contexts, but discover a capacity to endure and define self, through the vicissitudes that they experience. I wondered whether the author herself identifies with the character of Hanna the most, as I found this protagonist the most finely set out and passionately described of the three women. Hanna leaves South Africa to work as an au pair in London, where she hopes to concretise a somewhat ephemeral relationship with fellow South African Dieter, who is studying poetry at Cambridge. She is exploited in the Jewish household where she works, and finds that she has little time to pursue acting classes where she hoped to develop her artistic self. Having resolved an impasse with Dieter, she agrees to marry him, but before that goes hitchhiking through Germany in an attempt to reconnect with her origins, and visits her old friend Marga, who, married to Karl, is raising her children there. ‘When Hanna and Marga’s eyes meet there is a sharp recognition of each other, like a dazzle of light’. Marga has achieved a reconciliation of her own: through bringing life and interest into a somewhat arid marriage. She has a liaison with a young artist, Reinhardt, who comes from her homeland, Namibia. She thanks him for flying in ‘like a messenger migrant bird from my old country. Harbinger of the wide open spaces. The dust and dunes of the Namib’. She realises it’s a once-off affair though, and recommits herself to working things out with Karl in Germany, instead of longing to return to Africa. She asks herself: ‘Can Karl still move in closer, find expression that will carry over to the hearts of son and daughter, or will he be seen as a man like her Papa?’ Realising that ‘she too will fall foul of them, if she cannot stop complaining about what to Rolfe and Friedericke is becoming their home ground and authentic domain.’ Friedel has remained in South Africa, and finds herself at odds with the narrow Lutheran farming community she has married into. She finds herself asking awkward questions about her family and neighbours’ attitudes, realising that ‘nobody she knows has set an example she can follow with any conviction or confidence.’ The community’s racist views sit awkwardly with her. This becomes apparent when Friedel tries to stop her sons from watching a black farm labourer’s dog being shot dead for trespassing in the white farmer’s backyard. ‘And the talk about the Holzkopfe not feeding their pets. How she hates them for this.’
It is impossible to précis a narrative that meanders in an organic fashion, shaped by the complex web of relationships each of the three main characters is emeshed in. Suffice it to say that in this book Strauss’s meditations on the nature of being white and female in South Africa, and as a South African abroad, end up as subtle non-directive musings on feminine identity. Her tone is simultaneously compassionate and far-seeing, as she captures the erudite and colloquial nature of Friedel, Marga and Hanna’s quotidian lives. I recommend this novel to any reader of a feminist bent on understanding the intricacies of the German community living in SA.