Johannesburg is the second novel by Fiona Melrose. Although entirely different to her debut, Midwinter - which garnered critical acclaim, including being long-listed for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize For Fiction - Johannesburg is its equal. A remarkable achievement.
First of all, I must mention the bold and striking cover. It is designed by Neil Gower, who references the artist Vanessa Bell, who designed the covers for Virginia Woolf when published by the Hogarth Press.
The echo of this distinctive style is not exclusive to the binding. Fiona Melrose also references the writing of Virginia Woolf, in particular Mrs Dalloway - a novel which takes apparently unrelated characters and events occurring in one single day, then weaves all them into a whole.
With the city of Johannesburg as a simmering tense backdrop, the characters that Melrose draws are all affected by the news of the death of Nelson Mandela; the political repercussions of that, along with the achievements and the battles fought during his life.
It is the day when a homeless hunchback, known only as September, is tormented by his memories of a miner’s strike some years before, when he, and many other black South Africans endured appalling violence and inequality from their wealthier white employers. And yet, for all the ensuing years of poverty and suffering, September has remained a man who sees the beauty in the world. Who still loves every fellow man. Who still has hopes for justice.
The female artist, Gin, is the other main protagonist who is ‘home’ from her life in America to host a glamorous party for her mother’s eightieth birthday. Gin - all clean lines and perfection herself - is a woman who chooses flowers as if her life depends upon the grace and colours they create, who likes to feel her bones protruding through the sparseness of her flesh. In her work and in her body there must be no blurring of the lines, which is why it is significant that she never works in charcoal, a medium too imprecise. Another expression of her work is an installation using bones of the human body suspended randomly in air, which, when viewed from a certain standpoint will form a complete skeleton, whereas from other angles they are scattered, seeming disparate.
What a perfect image this creates for the themes within Johannesburg - where separate lives and fates combine to form one moving and cohesive whole, as they strive to find internal peace, lost loves, or family members, or simply to renew the sense of being in the ‘here’ and ‘now’. This is a novel about unity, the significance of life and death. But most of all it is about the beauty found in 'coming home.'