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The Love Book reflects hidden parts of reader personalities and what it means to be human and fallible

Michelle McGrane

Click on book cover to buy your copy now!

The Love Book
Author: Catriona Ross
ISBN: 1770070435
Publisher: Oshun Books
Format: Softcover
Pages: 312
Price: R99,95

He came to the house at the end of an overripe February afternoon. Years later, Clare would decide that the moment he chose - the stillness of sunset on a warm, candy-coloured evening - was by far the most favourable at which to arrive unexpectedly at a house of women. Perhaps he had imagined that soft fingers of light would paint his arrival in becoming gold streaks, and that the four female inhabitants would be sitting in gentle torpor, waiting for something to happen. And that's exactly how it was.

The Love Book opens on a dreamy, enchanted note, luring readers into the complex, bittersweet lives and relationships of Helena, a single mother, and her three very different daughters, Margot, Clare and Paulina.

The Carmichael women live at 13 Richmond Road in a suburb of Cape Town, within the faded grandeur of a Victorian villa with cracked, ivory-coloured walls, whimsical foliate ironwork, dusty moulded ceilings and a creaking tin roof.

Occasionally they are visited by men: "Men with wet-combed, greying hair and large, silent cars; men in moth-holed dinner jackets and mismatched socks; men who whistled the double-bass line of Mahler symphonies and sucked French cigarettes"; "men bearing gifts of red wine and sheaves of white roses". However, "it was understood among the four resident females that this was a house for women, where females reigned and freely walked around naked, and where a man could never be king."

Elegant, tightly constrained Helena is On Her Own, "a thing of tough beauty holding together a moving world, pushing it to tick, tick, tick". Her husband, Hamish, left four years ago and providing financially for her daughters has taken a toll on the aloof ex-ballet dancer's nerves. At thirty-eight, Helena is unfulfilled and, although she loves her daughters, feels burdened by the responsibilities of motherhood.

Unpredictable fifteen year old Margot is a seductive and tormented character. Her confusion, unresolved anger and pain manifest themselves in casually cruel behaviour and a poisonous tongue, usually directed towards her family.

Six year old Paulina artlessly endears herself to strangers in supermarkets. Her "childlike, bunnies-and-kittens love tumbled over every person she met along her path, scattering daisies and the smell of cut grass and sprays of sunshine to all, including prickly, difficult-to-love people like Margot".

The character at the centre of The Love Book is the eleven year old Clare.

Beauty was something Clare knew much about. Its power to make sensible people smile in a nostalgic way, or not notice that their handbrakes were released and their cars silently running down the hill, leapt at her wherever her family went. She had realised a few years previously, as somebody's well meaning grandmother fawned over Paulina and Margot at a birthday party, that she was the odd one out.

This endearing, self-conscious protagonist views her life through a sharp, clear lens, yearning to be out from under the shadow of her mother and sisters. "Helena, Margot and Paulina belonged to the same sisterhood of black hair that moved like dark night, translucent white skin, sculpted limbs and finely carved features." What does loving yourself mean, Clare asks herself. Where will the path of her life take her? She doesn't know, but she wants to be able to love herself. Author Catriona Ross is an inner landscape painter, showing Clare working out her place in the world.

The arrival of Daniel – a young war photojournalist – at the old, thick-walled house during 1984 will continue to have repercussions for the family years later. Daniel, mesmerised by the unconventional household, befriends, bewitches and affects each woman, then disappears.

A sense of longing pervades this family drama and chapters are named after different male characters who appear and disappear out of the women's lives: "… the men came and went, and the women cried only afterwards, when it was too late and nothing could be done to change anything. The four women kept it curled up within them, the toothed beast of desperate loss that could tear your insides to raw shreds and make you crazy if you allowed it to flex its limbs."

With felt-tip pens, crayons and pieces of old computer paper, little Paulina creates The Love Book, "a stapled, illustrated document listing the romantic and sexual liaisons of all the adults in her world":

In her book, Paulina had rated each male suitor according to a star system that ranged from zero (dire) to five (divine), and had included notable characteristics and traits of each. For every unfortunate mentioned in her book, she had drawn an explanatory picture.

Ross has produced a mosaic of colourful characters with her descriptive and deceptively light touch: the gregarious and generous romantic Hamish, Helena's American ex-husband; her friend, recently divorced frizzy blonde Annette Douglas; quiet nonidentical twin Jason Douglas who has hair "like rat's fur" and "a thing" for Clare Carmichael; Carlos, the flamboyant, irrepressibly happy Chilean musician who moves into the house next door; and Alternative Fritz, the boarder, who spends "hours in his room listening to prayer chants through an intoxicating haze of incense", among others.

The author skilfully scatters minute observations throughout the book: "His shoes were of dusty leather: lace-up veldskoene whose soles curled up as if hoping to hear snatches of interesting conversation from above." The larger than life, multilayered characters offer conflict, reflecting hidden parts of reader personalities and what it means to be human and fallible.

The Love Book is funny and sad, lively and intelligent; a coming of age story about the intricate relationships among mothers, daughters and sisters, including anger, bewilderment, guilt, humour and the healing magic of love. Catriona Ross is a talented writer and her assured first novel is a delicious feast.


Catriona Ross is a freelance writer in Cape Town. She is passionate about painting in oils; hiking in the Cape; Nia; flamenco rhythms; her boyfriend's sensual wines; eating Lindt in bed; Oscar Peterson, African jazz and Elgar; crimson-scented roses; living in a city with a mountain for a heart; people's stories and memories, and the funny, tragic, heart-stopping moments that make up life. She has a BSc in Zoology and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Marketing Management, both from the University of Cape Town.

LitNet: 20 December 2005

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