Read of the Week

Under Glass

Claire Robertson

Umuzi (Penguin Random House)

Review: Karen Watkins

Under Glass is a sensory pleasure of words, history, botany and sexuality.

It is not a book to read at one sitting. Claire Robertson’s use of words and language should be read, re-read and savoured, slowly.

With sensational reports on the question of land expropriation without compensation, land grabs and the longer-term effects on the economy, it’s uncanny that the thread running through Under Glass is similar, especially considering that the story begins on 22 March 1857.

Ms Chetwyn arrives unceremoniously in D’Urban (later Durban) after an 11-month boat trip from India where she met and married her husband. Her firstborn child, one of many as the story unwinds, is a girl, Sophronia, born to 19-year-old Ms Chetwyn. Before their arrival in Port Natal, where they are to make a new life, they have to return to England to pack up belongings and provisions. Mr Chetwyn is already there making plans to become a sugar-cane farmer among other settlers and homesteaders.

As the story slowly unravels it transpires that Ms Chetwyn is a passionate, hard-working woman with an interest in botany, among other things.

The land on which the family settle eventually becomes a successful sugar farm but is under threat. Mr Chetwyn’s father, known as “the General”, controls the family’s destiny from Britain. When the General dies, the will becomes a way to govern his son’s life from the grave: a stipulation is that his son’s farm may only be inherited by a son. If there is no son, another male family member may claim the farm. And this is where Ms Chetwyn comes in as she takes drastic, dangerous steps to save the land, her family and secure their future.

Under Glass is this Simon’s Town author and senior copy editor’s third book. Her first, The Spiral House, published in 2013, won the Sunday Times Fiction Prize as well as a South African Literary Award. Her second book was The Magistrate of Gower.

I read a few pages each night as much concentration is required and I kept going back and re-reading sections but I enjoyed the prose. I also could not fathom where some characters fitted in the story such as the Indian maid, the foreman called Fuze (pronounced foo-zeh), and the dual story of Cosmo whose identity is only revealed much later in the story.

However, I thoroughly enjoyed how Ms Chetwyn and her daughter arrived in D’Urban and stripped off their stockings and shoes to walk in the sand to be taken to a tented camp and the practicalities of being reunited with Mr Chetwyn who returns from the interior after scouting for a piece of land for a sugar cane farm.

Ms Chetwyn transforms this land into a new home for her growing family of twin daughters, Chastity and Verity, and yet another disappointing daughter, Maude, followed by Cosmo. However, these characters do not become serious players in the story, which revolves around Ms Chetwyn. I also thoroughly enjoyed her part in early botanising, through trial and error with new plant forms and seeds brought from her homeland, eventually grown “under glass”, built to her design.

What is crystal clear is how the author investigates land ownership and how the colonial government expanded the territory and claimed the land for itself.