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‘This book kept me alive’: An excerpt from Love and Fury: A Memoir by Margie Orford

‘This book kept me alive’: An excerpt from Love and Fury: A Memoir by Margie Orford
'Love and Fury' by Margie Orford. (Image: The Reading List / Supplied)

In her new memoir, bestselling South African crime writer Margie Orford divulges some of the harrowing experiences that have shaped her life and influenced her writing.

Having survived marriage, divorce, depression, personal loss and sexual assault, Orford recounts memories of what she has experienced as a woman, a wife, a mother — and particularly as a writer.

“Writing enabled me to escape my body, and to inhabit a cerebral, disembodied state where I could think and feel without being overwhelmed,” she writes.

Love and Fury shows why trauma in our past can have such an enduring and debilitating effect on women’s lives. It also unpacks the healing power of love, creativity, courage and self-reflection, ultimately offering a profound message of hope and joy for any woman who has ever questioned themselves, their trauma and who they are in the world.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Margie Orford focuses our gaze on secrets, obsession and intergenerational trauma — and produces an exquisite work of art

Orford is an internationally acclaimed writer and an award-winning journalist. Her Clare Hart novels have been widely translated and led to her being described as South Africa’s ‘Queen of Crime’. She has a PhD in creative writing, has written many children’s books as well as nonfiction on climate change and human rights. She was the patron of Rape Crisis, is president emerita of PEN South Africa and was an executive board member of PEN International. She has lived in Namibia and South Africa, but now lives in London. Read the excerpt below.

***

The flat at the top of a Dickensian house I moved into in the autumn of 2018 had two poky bedrooms – one for me, a rotation of daughters would share the other – but the living room had a panoramic view of Hampstead Heath, the only wild place left in London. Other writers had stayed there before me, my elderly landlords told me when I went to lunch with them. Famous writers wrote famous books at the very table they had decked with a bowl of olives, a salad and a basket of stale bread.

‘You’ll be happy here,’ they said, gesturing towards the serene Heath where the leaves were turning russet and gold.

I agreed. I looked forward to settling. To making their home mine. To finishing a book at their table. It was arranged. Money was exchanged for keys to the eighth place I had lived in during the three vagrant years since I packed the clothes I could fit into a large red suitcase and fled Cape Town in 2015.

The next day I dragged that case up four flights of narrow stairs and put it next to my books and bin bags stuffed with bedding. I set about scouring a decade of other people’s grime from carpets, windows and walls. I washed the mismatched crockery, cutlery, pots and pans crammed into the kitchen cupboards. I scrubbed floors, stripped walls of the landlords’ looming pictures, packed away their ornaments and winnowed the furniture down to the bare minimum.

I rearranged plants, books, cushions, furniture. I hung the three small oils I had brought from South Africa – a landscape with aloes in vivid red bloom, a portrait of my Granny Margaret as a cherubic baby and one of me as a fat-cheeked toddler in blue dungarees. Those paintings had hung in all twelve houses I had lived in as a child, and they made yet another place that wasn’t mine, home.

I threw out the old bills and takeaway menus jamming the drawer in the dining table to make space for the papers one needs to prove to the authorities that one is who one says one is – my passports, my daughters’ too, our birth certificates, my divorce papers, tax records.

A photograph fell out. London, 1988, scrawled on the back. I picked it up and turned it over and there we were, me and my ex-husband, my children’s father, in a photo booth. I am wearing a neon pink scarf and black-and-silver starburst earrings that always got tangled in my hair, I’m looking straight at the camera, and at myself thirty years later transfixed by the remembered sensation of Aidan nuzzling my ear. His eyes, laughter in them, are also turned towards the camera. Seeing us looking at me gave me vertigo.

It had been taken the year before we married. I was twenty-four then, too young to know a wedding is as much a beginning as it is an ending. That marriage is the institution in which, generation after generation, women are forged. That it is both sanctuary and prison. That success can look like failure and failure like success. That marriage can be a place where loneliness hides in plain sight. I shoved that picture containing our optimism and naiveté to the back of the drawer.

That first night in my new bed with its freshly laundered sheets, I could not sleep. When the blackbirds called the dawn, I got up, made coffee, and looked out at the Heath. The clouds were pink and the sky orange above a slender spire surrounded by tall trees. My first wedding in the hot June of 1989 took place under one of those trees, on one of those lawns. Had that been my first step in the direction leading to where I was now, looking for a way to disappear?

For months, I’d been trying to write a suicide note, but my ‘writing’, which I regard as separate from me – something life- and death-giving, beneficent and tyrannical as the Furies, those ancient goddesses of life, death and vengeance – vetoed me.

Now I see their tactics, the Furies’ and the writing’s. But then I could not, so it bewildered me when I sat down to draft my farewell note – calm because I was doing something – that questions of form would swirl. What would it say? What reasons does one give? What reasons does one need to put a stop to things, this thing that is oneself, one’s self, my self? I wished to set her/me free – to turn to air. To escape. But I could not find the right words. Writing was the one thing I knew how to do but when I needed it most it abandoned me. It made me desperate. And mad.

Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again … ’ Virginia Woolf wrote in the suicide note addressed to her husband. I did not hear voices like she did; I heard muffled silence; felt my lack of ballast.

I tried copying hers, but I had no ‘dearest’ to address. Must one stay alive simply because there is no one to write to? There was a void, and I was falling, but try as I might, try as I did, over and over, I could not write my own note and it seemed unethical to plagiarise someone else’s death.

So, I cast about for a way to leave life in a manner that would not disturb anyone, as a mother tiptoes away from a sleeping baby. But babies wake and cry for the mother’s return. I knew because I have had three, all grown and nest-flown now, but still my babies.

I considered giving my life away. Donating it as if it were a spare organ – a kidney, say. But what (here the doubt crept in) would I be donating? This worried me. Would the recipient be able to make something of the extra time (my time) or would they become as mad as I have been?

To know, I would have to understand better this tenacious life of mine. I would have to go out into the world again and look for what I had not been able to see before. It was a raw November day and in the grip of this lucid insanity, I put on my coat and gloves and spiralled down the stairs and stepped into the street.

A hundred paces ahead was a path onto the Heath. I took it, and plunged into the trees, searching for the place where we had eaten our optimistic wedding feast. Looking for the grassy slope where we’d sipped champagne under a gnarled oak. But the trees had grown or died back, and I could not find the place. I could not find myself either.

The rain started, scudding over the muddy ground, driving me away. Once inside, I retrieved my pen and notebooks, tearing out pages of ‘To whom it may concern’ death notes.

I have had to be quiet and patient long enough for the shy night-creatures of the mind to slip out of their shadows so I could befriend them.

This book kept me alive; I will give it that. DM

Love and Fury by Margie Orford is published by Jonathan Ball Publishers (R300). Visit The Reading List for South African book news, daily – including excerpts! Find Love and Fury in the DM Shop.

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