By Djami Diallo, The Afro News Burnaby : Rianne, Gabby, Nathalie and Charmaine form an unlikely foursome in Lesley Lokko’s novel Sundowners. Rianne, the daughter of the infamous Marius de Zoete, heiress to the huge de Zoete fortune, is a spoiled brat at best. Her South African heritage and privileged upbringing guarantee her a life of luxury, but when she is whisked away to boarding school in England things change for the teenager in ways she could never expect: horror of horrors, she is has to share space with natives and for the first time in her life, nobody defers to her. For readers her behavior is annoying and by the time we realize who Rianne’s natives are, we may want to put the book down in anger and question why the author has chosen to make the story revolve around her. Enter Gabby, Nathalie and Charmaine who also take an instant dislike to their new roommate. But as the book progresses and the realization that Rianne’s boarding school stay is more than a weekend arrangement kicks in, the girls get to know each other and we tune in to the schoolgirl drama that promises to keep us glued to the pages of this book.
What I liked about this novel was the amount of exposure that I got both in terms of personal and global perspectives. We could think of Rianne as the main character around whom the story and the development of other characters revolve. Certainly her wealth and renowned family name could justify that; however, I preferred to think of the four characters as sharing the protagonist’s seat. Gabby is studious and clever. Her slightly awkward disposition can make readers either dislike her or take to her almost instantly. I definitely identified with her where her sense of ambition is concerned and have a suspicion that female readers might find her very relatable because of her early struggles with weight and her silent teenage crush on Nael, whose own questionable heritage keeps him in a cloud of mystery and ensures his status at the Boys’ College. For Gabby the library is a refuge that pays off as she earns a very rewarding career, but what defines her most is her loyalty to the friendship; even as Rianne’s presence threatens the threesome, she takes on the role of peace-maker and is often the glue that keeps the group together as they move away from their boarding school days. Readers will pick up on Gabby’s intellectual approach to her personal relationships. In fact, her command of world history dictates Gabby’s interaction with Rianne: she understands the full implication of Rianne’s South African background and the political repercussions of her family’s global monopoly. Her tendency to overanalyze the situations she is in results in lifesaving problem-solving skills for Gabby, but I often found myself sighing, cheering and holding my breath for her as she navigates her relationships; ever the crowd pleaser, silently holding her heart for the one person who she always measures her relationships against. Gabby and Neal are mirror images of one another at different levels of their bond. Both of them open, or reopen our eyes to some of the most horrific and politically defining conflicts on the global scene of the ‘80’s and ‘90’s. If in some ways Gabby starts off a little rough around the edges or slightly ill at ease, by the end she will emerge as a confident go-getter, the star of her own fairytale. But for Rianne, the story will be much different.
Born into the de Zoete dynasty, Rianne has the world at her feet. Servants wait on her hand and foot; she has a closet full of clothes; the choice of a fully-furnished family home in each major city in and around South Africa; a trust fund with her name on it, not to mention stunning good looks which in addition to her family name, give her a free pass everywhere she goes. But all of these accolades to her name cannot begin to make up for the incredible loss Rianne suffers at an early age. She never manages to recreate the mother-daughter bond with her aunt, except if readers consider the financial dependence Rianne has on Lisette. Breaking that relationship will be an essential turning point in Rianne’s otherwise sheltered mentality. For much of the novel, Rianne’s sense of entitlement is strong if not irritating to readers. It is clear from the culture shock that she experiences initially that she has had no exposure to the world outside of her cocoon. However, readers need to factor in the upside of being sent across borders for Rianne: her boarding school experience and her extended stay in Europe and America thereafter, are eye openers. Her longstanding battle with Riitho Modise, the charismatic leader of the pack at the Boys’ College and a Black South African stands as another challenge to Rianne’s snobbish ways. Both share an upbringing in prominent political families, but where Riitho’s is reputed for its forward thinking militancy and has had a high price to pay for this, Rianne’s family wines and dines with members of South Africa’s apartheid government, sits high at the top of the pack, carrying on in their business only to keep their position. Riitho is in more ways than one Rianne’s diametrical opposite. He shows her that she lives on a false sense of security, that her world is not as black and white as she thought. A twist of fate will reunite the two. Not only will Rianne cross otherwise immoveable borders with Riitho, but their relationship will be an important refresher in South Africa’s history for readers. In this way, just as Gabby is our eye and ear on the international scene through her love of history and her high profile career, Rianne and Riitho help us zoom in on the South African conflict. With these characters, Lokko boldly takes on a political discussion with her readers while exploring the personal lives of her four main characters. With the inclusion of Nathalie and Charmaine in novel, Lokko is able to really get down to the personal, this time engaging us in a discussion of how we negotiate our innermost private selves in the world.
At boarding school both Nathalie and Charmaine are pretty girls, although none of them can compete with Rianne. While Nathalie is pretty and shy, Charmaine knows that her looks can carry her and for every eye that strays her way, Charmaine gives up her charms. Both girls end up being taken advantage of, but for Charmaine, who falls into the vicious cycle of sex, drugs and alcohol of the ‘80’s the consequences are markedly more dire than for Nathalie. With Charmaine Lokko cleverly takes us through the upheavals of triumphs and tragedy. Where Charmaine is concerned everything is about extremes; thus the conversation we take part in is about what social extremes are acceptable for the individual. Is it acceptable for a young woman to use her feminine wiles to get ahead and where do we draw the line? On the other hand, Nathalie does not possess some of the street smarts that we see in Charmaine. She leaves a good relationship for a man she cannot have, but her business savvy and strong rapport with her brother help her settle into a comfortable life. I found it interesting that with Nathalie’s Lokko flips the coin, posing very similar questions here of the men in Nathalie’s life as she does with Charmaine. At second glance both girls face similar questions regarding how they understand themselves and how they define self love, but it is how they deal with these issues, which will ultimately separate them.
Despite their differences and despite the fact that life comes at them in unexpected ways, the foursome we find at the beginning of the novel only grows stronger throughout. Rianne surprises both herself and readers by finding a little space to inhabit among the already tight-knit trio. We enjoy cheering Gabby on and alternating between disapproval and admiration of Charmaine, or almost knowing what to expect from Nathalie’s romantically stunted-business-as-usual personality. The sense of intrigue and adventure, the high political stakes, romantic connections and backstabbing, the desire we have to know where life will take the four girls, and the tour we take around the world all the while, provide all the elements we would want to see displayed in a novel. At least, it sealed the deal for me. I really appreciated Lokko’s multi-lingual, multicultural, global approach throughout the novel. All of the characters she writes in have some connection to the world outside their borders and I could really sense Lokko’s own mixed background; her exposure to different places and cultures. At the center of it all, Lokko poses a question about whether important human relationships can survive against the backdrop of everyday life, where unthinkable events make the news and where, sometimes ordinary people must take extraordinary measures to keep the fabric of their lives intact.