The demons that can tear at the heart of what seems a successful life

Review: Vivien Horler

Love and Fury – A memoir, by Margie Orford (Jonathan Ball)

Henry Thoreau said: “The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation.” I’m sure he would have included women in that, had that been the thinking in 1854 Massachusetts.

We all like to think we’re not one of them, though occasionally it occurs to us we might be. But I never suspected the acclaimed, award-winning and enormously successful crime thriller writer Margie Orford would be of their number.

Yet this memoir reveals her life to have been lived on various levels (as I suppose most of our lives are: the personal, political, professional). And all was clearly not what it seemed.

Margie Orford was the eldest of three children born in Windhoek to a doctor father and a mother who had been a nurse but who abandoned her career to be a wife and mother.

They had a farm in the country – as well as a home in the city – and many glorious holidays and memories were created there. But things went awry when, aged 14, Margie was shipped off to boarding school in Cape Town.

At 15 an enraged Margie wanted to know why her mum had abandoned her studies to be a housewife and helpmeet to Dr Orford. He was often away in the bush, assessing wildlife, and his wife told a scathing Margie she wanted to be with him.

The patriarchy had claimed another victim.

At UCT Margie met Aidan, an architectural student. He had already served his compulsory two years in the military, but when he was called up for camps, he left for London. In late November 1988, when it was impossible to imagine an end to the troubles in this country, Margie joined him.

The plan was they would travel, and she would write. But they fell “into the inertia of coupledom… It was if the M25, the city’s ring road, was a cordon we could not escape”.

Cordons were a torture – Margie was eternally restless, a feeling she later realised was despair. The predictability of a home in London “made me want to die”.

Then she became pregnant, and as she puts it, the drift was gone. She would write, she told herself, but not just yet. She would have the baby.

They married, and had the first of three daughters. A life of domesticity and maternity claimed Margie. Cooking calf’s liver, tidying the flat, spending a day in bed crying beside her colicky baby. This was not the life she had imagined.

Nelson Mandela was released – here was the future. Margie and Aidan returned home and settled in newly independent Namibia, moving into a home in Windhoek near Margie’s parents.

But domesticity once again proved a terrible trap. Restlessness returned. A second daughter arrived, and then a third. Margie found life-saving work with a small publishing house which aimed to ensure Namibians could see themselves reflected in literature.

She won a Fulbright scholarship, and took her family to New York. A PhD from a UK university would follow, and she would start writing the crime thrillers for which she is famous.

And yet, it was not enough. Her marriage was stuttering, and while the family had settled in a pleasant house in Cape Town, Aidan was battling to find decent work.

Also, the violence against women was gobsmacking. She came up it against it again and again in the research for her writing. As an investigative journalist she interviewed many policemen and gangsters. “Vrou is gif” was tattooed on the bare chest of one gang leader she met.

Men who hurt women believed the woman herself was to blame. “I knew this from my own intimate experience,” she writes.

Her successful Clare Hart novels produced a conundrum – she felt she was achieving acclaim and making money out of the exploitation of the fictional yet representative victims she wrote about.

Yet someone in the family needed to be earning.

It all became too much. The girls left home, and she left Aidan. Three years of travel followed, before she settled in a small flat in London. But her demons – actually sharp-beaked birds pecking away at her mind – followed.

She wanted to kill herself, but somehow her writing self wouldn’t allow her to. She says writing this book, Love and Fury, kept her alive.

She sought therapy, and realised her depression, the heaviness in her chest, had not been just despair but frozen rage.

At the risk of sounding stratospherically superficial, it is terrifying to read of the depths of misery that essentially fortunate people – happy children, enough money, a “good-enough childhood” and a successful career ­– can experience.

I have been lucky to have had a similar background (without enormous success or fame), but been blessed with a cheerful disposition – is that enough? Or is it merely that mine is not an examined life?

There are lovely light moments in Love and Fury; her adoration of her sister Melle and that of her daughters and their gorgeous physicality is palpable. When Grace, the second daughter, is born, the older Rose asks her mother: “Shall we kill it now, Mummy?”

No, replies Margie, “We can’t. That’s not our job.”

When Rose wants to know what their job is, her mother tells her it is to look after the baby and to love her.

“Okay, Mum,” says Rose. “Let’s do it.”

Later, when Melle visits and pronounces the baby to be minute, Rose counters: “She’s not your newt, Melle. She’s my newt.”

Beautifully written, savagely unhappy, and yet with an unexpectedly happy ending, this is a painfully honest and revealing book by one of SA’s best-known writers.

One thought on “The demons that can tear at the heart of what seems a successful life

  1. David Bristow

    I dunno. Some people would describe the same set of circumstances as one great big (happy) adventure. Talk about plot and point of view. I suspect that depression thing must be at the heart of her “troubles”.


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