The Shape of Him

Written by Gill Schierhout
Review by Sarah Cuthbertson

Sara Highbury is haunted by her long-ago relationship with Herbert Wakeford, a diamond digger in 1920s South Africa. When Herbert was diagnosed with Huntington’s Chorea, an hereditary degenerative brain disease, Sara abandoned him to a mental hospital. For a while Herbert was able to visit her occasionally at the sweat-shop she started in another town, but their relationship soon petered out. Its only legacy was a daughter Herbert acknowledged as his by one of Sara’s workers, and whom Sara reluctantly agreed to take in when the mother abandoned her. But in 1945, the reappearance of a later lover of Sara’s rakes up the past in a shocking way.

This is a bleak story in a bleak setting and frankly it left me feeling rather, well, bleak. One might admire what the blurb describes as the writer’s ‘spare, exquisitely-crafted prose’, but too often I found style overwhelming substance in a way that almost sabotaged my sympathy for characters haplessly caught up in the effects of a dreadful disease. Not entirely, though: Sara’s honesty and Herbert’s simple dignity and honour still managed to come through.