Talented new writers don’t appear every week but The Sound of the Gora made us mark down Ann Harries as a name to watch. The bad news? She is thinking of writing for adults. ‘Now we may never know if this book’s promise would have been fulfilled. Steve Bowles read the book and talked to Ann Harries.
It’s 1976. Woodstock, Cape Town’s Coloured slum, is riven by demonstrations inspired by the Soweto riots. Against this backdrop, Andre (11) meets a white girl, Caroline (14), and together they search for the source of the mysterious music which they alone seem to hear. To half-way Andre’s chapters alternate with others set in 1800, tracing the fate of Nama, one of Andre’s ancestors, a girl spared for servitude when the adult Bushmen are massacred by Boers. Her playing of the gora – a tribal instrument – represents the cultural heritage, all but destroyed by whites, which Andre regains at the end.
Ann Harries, a South African teacher, has worked in British special schools since 1975. Her Cape Town experience provides the subject matter that has, in part, drawn attention to this novel. In it conversation is enlivened by dialect and unfamiliar speech rhythms; little-known details of apartheid and Cape Town society make you raise your eyebrows; the inhuman racial oppression – past and present – lends the story weight. But above all it’s the stylish prose which makes you regret the possible move to adult fiction; such vitality and energy could be great assets if allied to a clearer sense of audience and the surer hand in matters of construction which would probably come in time.
Publicity handouts say the book isn’t ‘overtly’ political’. This puzzles the author slightly but for the reader the violence and social injustice are constantly countered by those parts of the book which are remnants of earlier versions. It started out as a South African children’s adventure (Ann Harries was brought up on Just William and Enid Blyton) and was re-written after Soweto. The story could have benefited from a more radically political approach; it isn’t as angry as you might expect. The editor was probably right to cut some fairly detailed political passages which kids might have found boring but fortunately the author vetoed most pleas to tone down the bloodier scenes.
Heinemann’s approach won out on the jacket though, a dull (some say eerie) shot of Table Mountain. Ann Harries doesn’t mind it – it’s much better than their first try, she says – but a photo of a demo would undoubtedly have helped the book’s chances. One wonders how important in all this were the possibilities of sales in South Africa (almost wholly dependent on Britain for kids’ books).
Ann Harries says all the events of the novel are possible. Nobody would doubt it, but the careful patterning of themes and the ending, which contrives some over-neat resolutions, counteract credibility somewhat. The Sound of the Gora balances uneasily between cosy children’s fiction and the tough realism of modern teenage novels. It’s an interesting first step into the adolescent market. Let’s hope there may yet be more.
The Sound of the Gora
Ann Harries, Heinemann, 0 434 94236 7, £4.50.