My Mother’s Lovers
In a recent talk at the University of East Anglia, Christopher Hope described Africa as “a great comic opera” which “out-imagines writers”. My Mother’s Lovers is the latest in a series of memoirs and autobiographical fictions in which Hope has attempted to come to terms with what it means to be an African. Perhaps it is a measure of Africa that even a writer of Hope’s stature does not quite succeed.
When Alexander Healey’s mother dies, he returns to Johannesburg (a city which, according to Hope, has no history, just a police record) to carry out her final wishes by delivering an odd assortment of bequests to her beneficiaries. These include a cache of firearms for an apartheid enforcer, a wig that once belonged to a Liberian boy soldier and her knitting needles which she leaves to the Rain Queen. During the course of his journey into his mother’s past and that of the continent she always believed belonged to her, he must also confront his mother’s bequest to him – his capacity for love.
This is a masterly piece of writing, full of an exuberant and eccentric humour. Kathleen Healey should be destined to become one of literature’s great characters, with her hand-knitted cardigans, a chin like Desperate Dan’s and a colourful past which includes going three rounds with Ernest Hemingway and listening to Albert Schweitzer play Bach. She almost makes it but falls at the final hurdle, reduced to caricature by the very richness of Hope’s imagery. He piles it on too thick. He does not trust us to understand the preposterous, macabre extremes of his Africa, nor his own ability to describe them. This is, nevertheless, a sad, funny and very readable not-quite-masterpiece.