The JRB presents an excerpt from The Book of Gifts, the forthcoming novel from Craig Higginson.
Higginson is the award-winning author of The Dream House and The Landscape Painter. The Book of Gifts will be published in March 2020 by Picador Africa.
Read the excerpt:
The guide settles himself in the shade of a fir tree while the three of them ease their yellow masks and flippers on and step like astronauts down the alien shore. The water is even warmer than it was the previous night, and once Jennifer has learned how to breathe and how to expel the unwanted water from her snorkel, they follow the German deeper into the sea, passing through the underwater floatings of dead coral on their way to the living reef.
The guide has given Andrew a bright orange buoy to alert any passing boats to their presence and Andrew has wrapped the nylon cord around his wrist. Jennifer is swimming ahead of the buoy, her body chicken-like and hesitant and rather touching. He remembers her as she was in his dream and thinks how pregnancy would have suited her. It would have softened her—and perhaps helped her move towards the woman they have both always wanted her to be.
Only gradually do the fish appear—and, soon afterwards, the living coral flourishes and blooms. The German has bought a plastic bottle filled with breadcrumbs and he siphons these off into the current. He is soon surrounded by a shimmering cloud of fish, striped black and white, or royal blue with bright-yellow tails, or iridescent silver and mauve.
Andrew and Jennifer hover together as if in a dream. They have found themselves in a place without gravity and within moments they have established a tentative symmetry. They move together as a single thing, balancing each other out as they revolve around the mounds of coral. At one point, Jennifer even takes the buoy away from him and wraps it around her own wrist so that it can no longer come between them.
They encounter two angelfish the colour of buttercups and leave the German behind, following the fish deeper into the reef. Andrew feels the long, dark void of evolution stretching away behind him. He is connected to the whole of life, past, present and future, and he and Jennifer are floating together right inside it. He recognises a little knot of pettiness inside him, a meanness of spirit that he has quietly nurtured inside him during his marriage, and he wonders whether it will ever be able to dissolve into this water—or whether it will remain there like a tumour, waiting to burst.
When the angelfish drift into a large edifice of ancient coral that is all overgrown with liver-dark weed, Andrew and Jennifer take the opportunity to resurface, lift their masks and look about. The German is only twenty yards away, but it feels like twenty miles.
Jennifer is laughing with rapture.
It’s like moving inside a song, she says.
I’m glad you like it here, he says, realising that they might actually have come upon a place resembling happiness.
I wish we’d come here years ago—with Julian.
You always talked about it, he concedes.
Even the name of Julian can do little to cloud them. He seems so far away, now that they are here, surrounded by such abundance.
To think, she says, that all of this was always here, waiting for us.
She places her arms around his neck and kisses him.
Oh Andrew—thank you.
Her mouth is clean and salty, like the inside of an oyster.
We should leave Johannesburg and come and live here, she says.
Do you think there’d be enough unhappy people to keep me in work?
Probably not, she laughs.
Before the glow has a chance to fade, she adds:
Come—let’s carry on.
It is then that they notice the buoy has come loose from her wrist and drifted off. It’s a short swim away, further out to sea. Andrew looks back at the shore and sees that the guide is still asleep under the grove of firs. The German is floating head-down, as before, like a dead walrus.
Don’t go anywhere, he says.
Due to the combination of the wind and the current, Andrew soon realises that the buoy is moving away from him at the same speed he is swimming towards it: every time he looks up, the buoy is still where he last saw it, as if he isn’t moving forwards in the water at all.
After a few more attempts at swimming like this, he understands that he is stuck. The tide is still too low and he has swum himself into a labyrinth of coral. Every time he puts his head back into the water to look for a corridor out, he finds that each possibility only leads him deeper into the maze. Soon the buoy is little more than an orange dot signalling amongst the waves.
Jennifer has swum off in her own direction, perhaps assuming from his zigzagging movements that he has started snorkelling again. When he calls her name, hoping to explain what has happened and perhaps ask for help, she doesn’t seem to hear him. She is buried too deep in her dream, her Lawrentian sea anthem, and is oblivious to him and his predicament.
When he returns to the water to try yet another tack, a cloud of black fish gathers around his head, smacking their lips and gawking at his intrusion. He has to put his palms on fluffy pulsating sponges to move forwards, and soon the spires of coral have cut his hands and arms and knees and stomach. Feeling desperate, he sits up, the coral snapping under him and tearing his swimming trunks. He is bleeding in several places now.
It is ridiculous. The shore is only a hundred yards away and if he stood on the ocean floor his head would be above the water. Yet he is stuck, surrounded by a sea of spikes. The only way out is to wait for the tide to rise, but that is to assume that the tide is coming in and not going further out. Alternatively, he could try to free himself by breaking the coral—and cutting himself more as he does.
The thought of his blood staining the water begins to worry him. Couldn’t sharks smell blood as much as three miles away? He has heard statistics along those lines several times before, never once thinking they would one day apply to him. If the water level rises, surely the sharks will come for him?
The seclusion of this place, which only moments before was a source of wonder, now seems to conspire against him. What kind of guide falls asleep at a time like this? Surely he should have known that the water level was too low? Why didn’t he warn them against swimming too far out in his excellent English? As for the German, he is still oblivious, no doubt fixated on finding his way out of his own misery. But it is Jennifer who most enrages him. It was her fault he is in this situation in the first place. It was typical of her: to let go of the buoy and then leave him to deal with the consequences. This is exactly why he has never been able to love her fully.
It takes him ten minutes to break himself out of there. He knows it is forbidden to break the coral, but what else is he supposed to do? He has to resort to kicking the stuff with his flippered feet. It has come to disgust him. He knows that inside those calcified branches—which might look pretty enough when viewed through a glass-bottomed boat—reside real, living creatures that stick out their long feathery tendrils at night to filter the current for food. In reality, they are as hideous as the legs of centipedes.
About the book
What is the cost of giving a gift? What is the cost of receiving one?
Julian Flint is eleven years old. He likes to remain invisible, hiding inside the architecture of adults provided by his mother, his uncle and his aunt.
But when his mother Emma, a celebrated sculptor, takes them on a family holiday to a luxury hotel by the sea, he meets the radiantly beautiful and irreverent Clare. She sees something inside him he never knew existed. Everything he thought he knew begins to shift—setting off a chain of events that will determine each of their fates.
From the award-winning author of The Dream House and The White Room comes Craig Higginson’s most riveting and groundbreaking novel to date. The Book of Gifts takes us on a dangerous and unforgettable journey between the lush beaches of uMhlanga Rocks, the stark midwinter wastes of Johannesburg and the rich and strange coral reefs of Mauritius.
Written in Higginson’s compelling and indelible prose, this masterfully plotted novel explores the faultlines between loyalty and betrayal, blindness and perception, entrapment and flight. It dives into the deepest reaches of human consciousness in order to catch the brightest fish.
- Craig Higginson is an internationally acclaimed playwright and novelist who lives in Johannesburg. His plays have been performed and produced in many theatres and festivals around the world, including the National Theatre in London, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Traverse Theatre and the Trafalgar Studios in London’s West End. His novels include Last Summer (Picador Africa, 2010; published in translation by Mercure de France, 2017), The Landscape Painter (Picador Africa, 2011), The Dream House (Picador Africa, 2015; Mercure de France, 2016) and The White Room (Picador Africa, 2018).