Maverick Life


Margie Orford focuses our gaze on secrets, obsession and intergenerational trauma — and produces an exquisite work of art

Margie Orford focuses our gaze on secrets, obsession and intergenerational trauma — and produces an exquisite work of art
‘The Eye of the Beholder’ by Margie Orford book cover. Image: Supplied / Canongate Books

‘The Eye of the Beholder’ explores in rich nuances how art can be used as a conduit for talking about what cannot be named, how it can be used as a way of looking at that which is horrific.

Margie Orford’s latest book, The Eye of the Beholder, was inspired by John Berger’s Ways of Seeing. Berger’s argument is that words are inept at depicting what we know. We use words to try to explain and make sense of our experiences, but the relationship between what we see and what we know is never settled. Knowledge and explanation can never do justice to what we see.

Initially, Orford started out writing another Clare Hart book, about an investigation into pornography. “I’d written this book that deals with pornography. But I felt that Clare Hart, even though she had the right sensibilities as a police profiler, was reproducing the male gaze that I was trying to interrogate. So I scrapped the book. It took me a long time to find the form that I needed to tell the story that I wanted to tell. If I look back on it now, I was so burnt out. I thought that I couldn’t continue with the illusion that the police would help restore social balance. 

“After the Marikana massacre, I thought that I can’t go on pretending. The police were functioning as they were under apartheid, as a paramilitary force to keep corrupt people in power.” 

The book opens with Cora, an artist, running away from something unnamed in a remote snow-laden place in Canada. She is forced to abandon a dog, which is later placed in the care of Angel, a researcher recording the movement of wolves. Both Cora and Angel harbour secrets that they are unable to talk about, partially because they don’t have the words to articulate what happened to them. 

Orford explains, “The Eye of the Beholder is about the effects of secrets. What happens when women stop keeping the secrets of men? What happens when women stop being nice?”

The book is also about the relationship between mothers and daughters and the effects of withholding truths on intergenerational relationships. Cora uses psychic numbing and disassociation as a way of rewriting the story of her past. She does this so well, that she splits off a part of herself and wants to be seen in ways that obliterate some of the things that have happened to her. Yet, Freya, her daughter, can sense that her mother is damaged in some way, that there is more to her story than meets the eye. 

In engaging with intergenerational trauma, Orford asks the question: “How do we write our stories on to our daughters? I was thinking about how we protect the illusion of the family balance so that they can keep on believing,” she says. “I think we keep the secrets from ourselves. Because we have experienced a moment when you look into a person’s eyes and you see that how they are looking at you is dehumanising. In that moment, all your humanity is lost. And it’s unbearable. We keep that secret from our daughters, because we don’t want them to be seen in that way.” 

The objectification of women and the notion of a voyeuristic gaze is a binding thread throughout the book. Who gets to look? Who is seen? Who controls the gaze? What is left unseen? These questions are pivotal to the plot. 

Orford explains, “I wanted to think about what it feels like to be looked at. Our culture works with ways of looking. If you think of the colonial gaze — the scopic power is masculine. You see it. You take it. It’s yours.”  We learn to reflect this gaze back on to ourselves as women when we look at ourselves in that objectifying way.

As an artist, Cora weaves her secrets into her art. The book is rich in its exploration of how art can be used as a conduit for talking about what cannot be named, how it can be used as a way of looking at that which is horrific. 

There are two ways in which art is used to drive home this point. The first is how Cora uses her art to express what she cannot name. The second is more subliminal. It is the way in which Orford uses her writing as a tool for looking at violence and eroticism. 

“It’s not possible to represent violence as it happens in real life,” she explains. “All we can do is to portray an approximation. Extremely violent acts obliterate language when they happen. You can’t reproduce them. With language and art, we can restore something that has been erased. It’s a way of saying the unsayable, of restoring humanity.” This is what makes the Eye of the Beholder special — the story asks us to think about the ways in which we see women, how we look at them, what has happened to them — and how our gaze feeds into a social order that enables violence. 

Another key theme that the book deals with is toxic relationships. The approach to this is mesmerising — the unfolding story about a middle-aged woman who makes herself vulnerable in being seduced by a man who makes her feel alive. We are spectators in the thrill of the heady pace of intoxication, of late-night texting, of the sense of hope that comes with a blossoming relationship. We are on tenterhooks as we wonder if there is something amiss. We watch as this man “transfuses the deep vein of Cora’s loneliness” and we are invested in wanting the best for her. For Cora, stepping into his arms feels like coming home and the book engages with the tension of what happens when that which is familiar shifts its shape. Cora submerges herself in the relationship:

“Cora could not fathom her own compulsion to submit, but she did know that a stubborn secret part of herself wanted him with a desire that split her apart.”       

Cora is drawn to this man because he gives her attention, something that we all want and need. “It’s the lure of the attention that seduces her,” says Orford. “The heart is blind. You can’t love unless you have the heart of a child. It’s beautiful, but it’s the thing that makes you vulnerable. And when this connects with the secrets you hold, it can create a distortion in the psyche.”  

It’s clear that Orford has used the years that have lapsed between The Eye of the Beholder and its predecessor to hone her craft. The Eye of the Beholder is an exquisite work of art. It will leave you with much to think about and will stay with you long after you’ve turned the last page. DM/ ML

The Eye of the Beholder is available in bookstores. Retail price: R325.

In case you missed it, also read Determined to change the world — ‘Madwoman’, the story of Nellie Bly

Determined to change the world — ‘Madwoman’, the story of Nellie Bly


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