South African novel The Keeper is almost a keeper

A review by Brenda Daniels

The Keeper is written by South African author Marguerite Poland. It tells the story of Hannes Harker, a lighthouse keeper who worked in the 1950s before automation takes over. Extremely efficient, Hannes is totally dedicated to his job and jumps at the chance to take up a remote posting on an island off the southern Cape coast.

Accompanied by his morose wife Aletta, the two arrive on an island inhabited largely by workers who collect and make compost from the abundance of available bird faeces. The place is also full of memories for Hannes. Hannes’s father was a lighthouse keeper and his mother, who lived with him, died mysteriously when Hannes was just a boy.

Deeply affected by the trauma of his childhood, Hannes is startled one day to find a special memento made by his mother. In his shock he stumbles and falls, badly injuring himself. He has to be taken to the mainland and spends a long time recuperating in hospital.

Much of the book is written from the viewpoint of Hannes relating his story to a wise, patient nurse, Sister Rika. As he tries to understand his past, Rika, in a sense, becomes his keeper.

The Keeper is a lonely, depressing story, something I didn’t enjoy. It is saved from complete morbidity, however, by the underlying theme of relationship. It is also beautifully and simply written, contains deep meanings that require some reflection to be appreciated, and is a welcome South African novel.

Photo supplied by Penguin.

Photo supplied by Penguin.

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