Catch up on shows with The Coast On Demand
Friday, June 22, 2012 7:00 AM
Anneliese Zander de Saint Phalle, a fashion designer so fabulous and sought-after that Michelle Obama flies from Washington to her London showroom to seek out her creations, is the central figure in Lesley Lokko’s escapist An Absolute Deception.
Hannelore von Riedesal, a girl growing up in a white family in 1940s south-west Africa with German parents, is sent to Cape Town for her secondary education. By the time she boards a ship to Germany in her late teens, she is scarred and scared enough to determine to jettison the memories of her early life forever.
It’s no spoiler to reveal that the two women are the same person, and that Anneliese’s sound rejection of her past, while effective for many years, won’t completely take. The truth will out (if not, there’d be no story), and the family she has created in spite of herself will rise up around her in solidarity.
A truly self-made woman, Anneliese compiles her new name from a range of influences, feeling as she does so “the last jagged crystals of the person she’d been for the first nineteen years of her life melt in the enormous heat.” Prose like this creates An Absolute Deception’s latent mood of melancholic swooning; no pearls are clutched or bodices ripped, but they might as well be.
It’s a strangely disjointed novel that ends up being more than the sum of its not especially remarkable parts. The characters are straight out of Penny Vincenzi: the polished, gifted and utterly impenetrable titan (Anneliese); her 20-something daughter, Callan, who possesses many of her mother’s best and worst qualities and responds by erecting a kind of emotional paywall; Lindi Johanssen, a political-minded African raised in Norway whose relationship to the other characters remains a mystery until late in the piece.
The masculine dynamo of the feature is Ree Herz, an Africa-born architect married to former top model Hayley, with whom he has two small children. Ree and Hayley are hired by Anneliese for design services and advertising campaigns respectively, but only Ree pulls it off; Hayley, sadly, is undone by pre-existing neuroses and the burgeoning, undisguised attraction of her husband to Callan.
Lokko leaps energetically between decades and continents, in South Africa and Namibia and plush private homes and salons in London and New York. The settings are balanced by equally sweeping themes – love, jealousy, power and human fallibility – in what amounts to a classic soap opera, with everyone harbouring their own secrets and speculating exhaustively on one another’s. There are endless internal monologues and the wrenching of oneself away from one’s thoughts and bringing oneself back into the room . . .
What is genre-bending about An Absolute Deception’s is that it touches quite well on the complex politics of southern Africa and of Afro-European coexistence. Characters speak cogently of the experience of growing up between two cultures, and Lokko, presumably influenced by the year she spent in Namibia, refers with evident feeling to apartheid, corruption and attempted democracy. Though her more serious ambitions are ultimately swamped by the popcorn drama of the main storyline, there is a certain gravity in this deception.
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