[The JRB exclusive] ‘How are we supposed to fight something we can’t see?’—Read an excerpt from Glass Tower by Sarah Isaacs, winner of the inaugural Island Prize

The JRB presents an exclusive excerpt from Glass Tower by Sarah Isaacs, winner of the 2022 Island Prize for a Debut Novel from Africa, which will be published on 24 August 2023.

Sarah Isaacs
Glass Tower
Holland House Books, 2023

Dwight had only flown twice in his life, once from Cape Town to Johannesburg for his mother’s funeral, and then from Cape Town to Durban to start his new job with Khalid Kassem. The funeral had been a day-long affair, a church ceremony followed by curries and fizzy drinks at his childhood home. His mother, who liked to be called Ma Pat by everyone, wanted an open casket. He hated her for this when he made the arduous walk from his pew to the front of the church, the congregation’s eyes glued to him, waiting for a tear or some other sign that he loved his mother dearly. He did not cry—Ma Pat would not have wanted him to—but his stomach did churn when he saw her dead face, coated in white powder, her upside-down smile painted a lurid shade of orange. It was the same makeup she always wore, foundation too pale, lips too bright; with her eyes closed, and her chin set in the stiff style of death, she looked uglier than usual. Dwight wondered why she would choose to be seen like that, her final appearance before returning to ashes.

He was just as surprised that she wanted to be cremated, something he only discovered upon her death. His interest in Ma Pat’s final wishes had never extended beyond whom she’d leave their home to. This had less to do with his disinterest in her generally, and more to do with his poor attention to anything administrative. His sister Millie had managed everything from the sorting of her things to the food dished at the after-service, excluding Dwight from the family affairs just as she had done since his marriage to Elke.

Elke was pregnant at the funeral, Motheo had just turned ten, and the three had flown together on an early-morning flight, their bags too many to fit into the overhead compartment, the white air hostess glaring at him each time she offered a drink. He’d drunk a lot on that flight, stashing the empty bottles in his blazer pocket for Motheo, who liked how small they were and was still too young to regard them with any scorn.

Now, en route to Cape Town to confront Otto and his family, Dwight asked one of the hostesses, again a white woman though she seemed less put off by him than the one from the funeral flight, for a Scotch on the rocks. He and Elke must have looked a miserable pair, taking advantage of the empty seat in their row to sit apart. Dwight had never been a talker, but hugging and kissing were acts that he loved, and this refusal by his wife to bring her skin anywhere close to his made Dwight feel empty.

‘Why are we doing this?’ Dwight asked, two doubles down and bold enough to ask. Elke knew how much he disliked confrontation, and until recently she’d accommodated this weakness in him. But since he’d told her about finding Otto in Leilah’s bed, she treated Dwight’s timidity as something to be smoked out, never missing an occasion to tell him how cowardly he was, and how dangerous that cowardice had turned out to be. He should have felt these jabs more acutely, but he never gave them a chance to land. There was always something else to think about while she railed at him—his work, Mr Kassem’s satisfaction with his work, the generosity of Fatima’s smile whenever he entered the office.

‘How many times are you going to ask me that question?’ Elke shot back, still gazing out of the window, fixated on the brown plains of the Karoo stretching boringly below them.

‘Until you give me an answer,’ Dwight said, tipping the contents of a third miniature into his plastic cup. They’d left Leilah in Greta’s care, who’d agreed to sleep in the main bedroom so that Leilah could still migrate to her mattress and not spend the night alone. Even so, he knew she was struggling with the separation, her feelings towards Greta less than friendly, and her need to be under Dwight and Elke’s wing—albeit bitterly—growing increasingly desperate. They’d left her screaming in the driveway as they left for the airport. He still struggled to swallow his upset at Elke for dragging him along on this trip, away from Leilah and towards the man who lay at the root of her anguish.

‘I told you the first time you asked, Dwight. But you never listen.’

‘You told me we had to, and that was it.’ Dwight strained to remember the first conversation they had when Elke returned from Sedgefield with Leilah. For the first time in the almost two hours they’d been flying, Elke looked at him. She seemed tired, and something in Dwight stirred. He took a chance and reached across the gap between them to stroke her shoulder. It was an awkward angle for his arm, but when Elke didn’t pull away from him, Dwight held contact, ignoring the crick in his elbow.

‘I have to know what he did to her. Exactly.’

‘Shouldn’t we ask Leilah that?’

Elke shrugged him off and her lips tightened, revealing the fine lines around her mouth. ‘I can’t ask her because she doesn’t have the words to tell me. And I can’t wait the years it will take for her to form the words. How are we supposed to fight something we can’t see?’

Of all their differences, Dwight believed this to be their biggest. Elke needed to see everything as it was; he preferred to see things the way they could be. ‘Why would you want to know the details?’ he asked, astonished that Elke would want full-formed images of Otto and Leilah implanted in her mind.

‘I’d rather know than guess,’ she hissed, looking at Dwight like he didn’t understand pain as well as she did. ‘Wouldn’t you?’

Dwight returned to his drink and said nothing, saved by the crackling voice of the captain announcing the start of their descent. ‘Strap in,’ Dwight said, passing Elke the silver buckle of her seatbelt.

‘That’s for the middle seat,’ she retorted, pushing his hand away and reaching under her bum to find her own. ‘If you want to do me a favour, don’t act like a statue at this meeting. I can’t be the only one asking difficult questions. Do you hear me?’

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I heard you. What are we going to tell Motheo?’ Must everyone know everything all the time was what he really wanted to say.

‘The truth,’ Elke said. ‘We’ll tell him the truth as soon as we know what that is.’


‘But fucking nothing, Dwight. We’re a family and families don’t lie to each other.’ Elke wound up her chair so that her back was at a right angle to her legs, and with her big hands folded in her lap like a rock, it was she who looked like the statue. Dwight cocked his head back and finished his drink with a slurp, slouching into his chair so that the gold contents would have a better chance of reaching all his corners. 



Publisher information

Winner of the 2022 Island Prize for a Debut Novel from Africa

Leilah meets Frankie, and the two misfits become the closest of friends at their new school—until secrets, betrayal, and sexuality drive them apart…

It’s 1997, three years after the official end of apartheid in South Africa. Two girls from very different backgrounds; Leilah, who is mixed race, and Frankie, who is white, are drawn together when they start at a new school, one that remains racially divided despite the country’s new laws. Their friendship deepens and intensifies before suddenly falling apart when each tells the other a secret. The girls must grapple with young womanhood alone, leaving Leila with only her troubled family to fall back on.

Glass Tower is a powerful, beautiful story of two young people on a journey of sexual hurt and personal discovery which asks questions of who we are and why we love, set against a new and confusing social order.

‘Sarah Isaacs writes with sensitivity and care about the pains of adolescence in a changing society coming to terms with the dark history of South Africa.’—Karen Jennings, An Island, longlisted for the Booker Prize 2021

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