Review: Vivien Horler
The Man who Loved Crocodile Tamers, by Finuala Dowling (Kwela Books)
At least crocodiles tend to be drowsy in cold weather.
These are the words of comfort Paddy Dowling’s best man whispers to him at the altar as news arrives that Paddy’s former lover, the crocodile tamer Koringa, has arrived – with reptile – to disrupt his wedding.
The story of this moment becomes part of much-repeated family lore, a narrative Finuala Dowling unpicks in this fictionalised biography of her father, a flawed, damaged yet brilliant man who never quite achieves his dreams.
Paddy’s father held him just once, during World War 1, before being sent off to Europe where he was killed. The family are relatively wealthy, but Paddy’s mother is not a nurturer, and he becomes an anxious yet hopeful little boy, close only to his sister.
In his early teens Paddy, a boarder at a Catholic school in England, is sent to France in his summer holidays to improve his French. There he happens to fall in with a circus troupe which includes Koringa, billed as the only female fakir in the world.
The first time he sees her she is sitting on the back of circus trailer, her crocodile – actually an alligator because they’re smaller and easier to train – in her lap. Knowing he is watching her, she pulls open the reptile’s jaws and puts her head in its mouth.
Paddy is smitten, and so begins a largely one-sided love affair that dominates the first half of his life.
After various adventures Paddy comes to South Africa shortly after the outbreak of World War 2 and serves as a sapper in the Eighth Army in Egypt and Italy. The tension-filled horrors of disarming mines fuel his life-long nightmares.
But in Cape Town after the war he meets Vandy, an actress, beautiful, strong-willed and glamorous, a woman who chats to her mother in Latin and who like Paddy, longs to write. They discover, to their mutual delight, they both want babies and will write their opuses while the babies are asleep.
Of course it doesn’t quite turn out that way.
Interwoven with Paddy’s story are extracts from Vandy’s journal, and fragments from the writer’s diary which amount to something of a master class on novel writing. The impression is created that the titular novelist, Gina, who has a hated job in a call centre, is writing her first book. But we know The Man who Loved Crocodile Tamers is Finuala Dowling’s sixth novel, so she has form and insights to offer.
Doubt, “that elegant, worldly bitch with her you-can’t-do-this sneer”, plagues her. Is she over-writing? She knows she has a story, but is there a novel here at all? And then she tells herself to return to first principles: “Arrive late, leave early. If it doesn’t move the story along, give insight into the character or provide beauty or humour, delete. Know the difference between baffling your reader and telling her too much.”
And then there is Dowling’s ability to conjure a sense of place. This novel ranges from the UK, France, wartime Egypt and Italy, to Cape Town where characters walk along the Sea Point promenade, buy fruit from the sellers in their tent at East Beach in Muizenberg, go swimming at Surfer’s Corner and listen to winter’s north-wester rattling the windows of the house in Kalk Bay.
This is a rich, textured novel and possibly Dowling’s best to date.