Unfeeling By Ian Holding
The Times described the novel Unfeeling by Ian Holding as “riveting”. Which it is - and more. This is a story of a “post-independent African country” and the lives of the white farmers, many of whom have farmed the land for two or three generations. Now that there is independence and black rule they find themselves no longer welcome in their own home, as land is “re-distributed”. Mike and Marsha De Wit sleep with guns in their beds and Mike despondently wonders what he will do if he has to leave the country where he was born, the farm established by his grandfather, and go to Australia or New Zealand. Martha De Wit, who was not born in Africa, still feels attached to the land, “There is the African sun blazing in the blue sky. It is a blue clearer and purer than anything…It’s purity holds her in, keeps her here under an African sky..”.
The De Wit’s neighbours, Joe and Leigh Baker have recently been murdered in their home – a brutal attack witnessed by their teenage son, Davey. The fields of their farm, Edenfields, have been burned and a black politician has taken up residence. Mike and Marsha become responsible for Davey and decide the best thing for him is to return to the routine of boarding school. Davey however does not even come close to dealing with the trauma of his experience and disappears from school.
Amidst the horror of the brutality of their present lives is the beauty of Africa that these people so love. Mike reflects one evening, “when the thump of the drums sounds in the distance, setting the day to rest …he knows for certain he’s an African. No one can deny him the same steady pulse in his veins, the heartbeat of the land.”
As the tension in the community increases, so does the suspense in this novel. The De Wit’s farm is also ‘gazetted for redistribution”. The stress and fear is taking its toll. Mike is afraid to leave his house to work in the fields – he finds solace in alcohol “when one has nothing to do, drinking is perfectly acceptable”. I found myself thinking of the Holocaust – the disbelief that the worst would actually come to pass. The men in the community eventually decide to take the law into their own hands – to fight back. All had militia training, all were taught to kill. The youngest, Dirk, newly married, and his young wife Annie fear for their lives, but dream of raising a family “under the healthy African sun”.
The story is narrated by Davey, Mike, and Marsha – as their stories are brought together, in the end we come to the beginning, with Davey sitting in the dark waiting for Aunt Marsha to find him in the morning.
Unfeeling was shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize, a prestigious literary award for the best young writer in the English-speaking world. Unfortunately, or fortunately, this literary acclaim is not known in Zimbabwe, where Ian Holding lives under another name – not revealing the name on his passport, as his safety is definitely not guaranteed. He works as a teacher, and it was the experience of one of his pupils that was the seed for this novel.
And just as the characters in his novel feel that Africa is home so does Ian Holding who is quoted as saying “It's my home. Despite the problems, it's still a particularly beautiful continent and one I have a deep affection for.” Although he acknowledges "Having said that, I can't foretell what will happen in two months time. If it gets much worse – if there is no food whatsoever – surely you have to look after yourself and make other plans."