Unmaking Grace, the novel by Barbara Boswell, is prefaced with a prologue that essentially grabs you by the ankles. It offers a brief glimpse into a possible violent past, a longing for what has been lost, and the anxiety that comes with revisiting a haunting memory.
The novel is split into two parts and chronicles Grace’s experiences in a broken family at a time South Africans are actively pushing back against apartheid. Violence at the national level is mirrored on the family; Grace’s father, Patrick, murders his ex-wife in a fit of rage and in their daughter’s presence. This turn of events curves Grace’s narrative arc: it plagues her into adulthood; it ruins her marriage; she becomes detached from herself, and this lingers even after the birth of her child. She suffers from postpartum depression.
In the second part of the book, South Africa has elected Nelson Mandela as president, which should be a good thing. But then, how do you heal when you can’t have an honest conversation about the horrors of the past? Yes, the people in post-apartheid South Africa are finally free to inhabit spaces they previously could not, but old trauma lingers, as we see in Grace’s case. To cope, she takes to smoking. She “observed herself” like a stranger looking in from the outside, detached. She never really falls in love with her husband, who is an antithesis of her father. South Africa is the “rainbow nation”; people can move into the parts of town they had been historically barred. They can rent or buy property. They can vote. They can read the books the apartheid government banned. However, through Grace, we see how deep old pain can eat into the fabric, how a nation grieves. For Grace, it takes a ghost from the past before she can shake off the gloominess and forge a new path for herself.
I spoke with the author about this meticulously and beautifully crafted book that is equally a personal and national biography. We talked about some of the prevalent themes of trauma, grief, family, postpartum depression, and even forgiveness – or the absence of it, that the text hints at. Grace visits her father after he is released from prison, expecting him to ask for her forgiveness. But he never does. “I snapped,” he simply tells her, explaining his state of mind when he killed her mother.
Boswell notes that she used that scene to reflect on the moment in South Africa’s history, when people were almost forced into forgiving their oppressors. South Africa is no longer the rainbow nation that it was famously called, and racial tensions have since emerged and remained. “There hasn’t been economic justice,” Boswell tells me.
This, and many others, are some of the topics we explored in this conversation.
About the Authors:
Barbara Boswell is a feminist literary scholar and associate professor of English at the University of Cape Town, where she teaches African feminist literature, South African literature and queer theory. She earned a PhD in gender and women’s studies from the University of Maryland, College Park, where she was a Fulbright scholar. Barbara is the author of Grace: A novel, which won the 2018 University of Johannesburg (UJ) Debut Prize for Creative Writing, and And Wrote My Story Anyway: Black South African Women’s Novels as Feminism.
Ukamaka Olisakwe is the author of Ogadinma.