Saturday, 19 July 2008

Powerful exposé of a prostitute’s life

A review of Whiplash, Tracey Farren, Modjaji Books

Whiplash is a first-person narrative cast in the form of a letter from Tess, a Muizenberg prostitute and Syndol addict, to her mother. In the beginning of the book, Tess assures her mother: “I’m gonna tell you all about it, Mom. I’m gonna tell it like I’m on the end of the bed, talking to you. I’m not gonna cover up ... I’m warning you, Ma, this is the truth.”

This introduction encapsulates the tone of the book: intimate and frank, simple and colloquial, as well as cold and brutal, hallucinatory and complex. The world of prostitution is, after all, often one of violence, abuse, addiction, neglect, desperation and rejection.

As Tess recounts her daily experiences of picking up clients, we learn what it is like when you have to give freebies to the police to avoid a R500 fine for loitering or how a quick R50 blow job means the rent will be paid in full that month. Every time Tess gets into a client’s car there is also the risk of being beaten up, raped, contracting HIV or worse, as in the case of her friend Amanda, who was murdered. But this is a risk prostitutes take, as is the risk of pregnancy when a condom breaks, which is precisely what happens while Tess is giving a freebie to the policeman Hanif. For Tess the only option is to have an abortion at the government clinic.

A key theme in the novel is vulnerability, especially that of the outcast in a cold, corrupt and uncaring society. In the opening paragraphs Tess recounts how her mother told her “keep your fanny closed, else the birds can fly in”. But birds here are not just an obvious phallic symbol, but also one of aggressive and destructive intrusion.

Throughout the novel, Tess recounts memories of her childhood in KwaZulu-Natal, of her ailing mother and her stepfather Graham, the domestic worker Gladys and her best friend Dumi. It is, in many ways, a familiar story of innocence betrayed, but in Whiplash it is made more horrific by having some unpleasant and ugly truths thrown in our faces.

Some of the brutality depicted in the novel comes close to feeling like a physical blow, as in the description of Amanda’s murder and the discovery of her body: “Shit, some guy split her from her throat to her belly button. Popped out her eyes. Left her buried in the sand at Clovelly. Some mom was collecting sand for her kid’s sand pit. Dug up her loose eye...”

The description of a four-month-old foetus being aborted is worse: “It’s like a jigsaw puzzle kid. Tiny thighs, perfect feet. Torn off arms. Some messy bits that are maybe its tummy, mashed up ...”

However, the violence is not restricted to Tess’s environment. There are references to the war in Iraq and we are reminded of the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo through the painful memories of the refugee Madelaine. There are some strong, colourful and haunting characters in the book, such as Tess’s friend and fellow prostitute Bonita. There is also the prostitute Annie, the policeman Hanif and the impotent client Limp Lennie, as well as Tess’s mother, Graham, Gladys and Dumi.

Whiplash is a powerful, often disturbing book. It was rejected by a number of commercial publishers which felt its brutality and frankness would be too strong for the local market. Instead, it has been taken up by independent publisher Modjaji Books and already sales are being negotiated for Australia and the UK. Tracey Farren’s debut novel could well become a bestseller.

(First published in The Weekender, July 19, 2008)

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