When Morning Comes by Arushi Raina (Tradewind $12.95)
Review by James Paley
In her debut novel, when morning Comes, Arushi Raina’s ensemble of first person narrators includes Jack, a white boy from a rich English family, whose life is changed forever when he meets Zanele, a young black woman filling in for her sister at a Shebeen (unlicensed bar).
Having snuck into the establishment with his friends in blackface, Jack is unable to get Zanele out of his head.
The Shebeen is run by a tsotsi gangster named Thabo who shakes down local businesses for protection money. The police maintain their dominance over Soweto as a whole but they don’t interfere in Thabo’s micro-Mafia coercions.
Pillay’s All Purpose store is run by an Indian man and his daughter, Meena, who is studying to get into med school. Her life is complicated when she comes across a collection of subversive literature, the kind that gets people five years in prison.
The abo gata (police) are represented by Coetzee, a plainclothes cop who hunts down Zanele and her co-conspirators.
All these characters are affected by the explosive, game-changing protests that famously occurred in Soweto in 1976. Already beaten down at every turn by apartheid and the Boers, the Black students of Soweto finally rose in defiance at being forced to learn their studies in Afrikaans.
Raina’s novel captures this moment in history with unflinching precision. When Mankwe, Zanele’s older sister, loses her fiancé, it comes across as inevitable. The characters are accustomed to death, to losing friends and loved ones for no good reason.
Raina weaves in real events and names to add authenticity to the story. The route taken by the student protestors is exactly the one taken in the actual uprising. The names of the dead are taken directly from history.
As well, Raina ably captures the sense of internal mistrust fostered between citizens. Each character is the centre of a web of connections. Thabo has a side business selling secrets to the abo gata. A professor is murdered by his students for his participation in the Bantu education system.
When Zanele is accused of murder, it’s Coetzee who’s sent to find her. When Thabo finds himself short on protection money, it’s Meena’s shop he goes to shake down. One of the regulars at this shop is paid to drive Coetzee around.
But it’s the complex relationship between Jack and Zanele, as it unfolds with the uprising, that remains the chief focus of the story. As their romance blossoms, they get more embroiled in the struggle against apartheid. Jack finds himself doing more and more to help Zanele, without really understanding why. Zanele is slowly depending more on Jack, equally baffled by her continued entanglement with him. With both their families and the law against their union, it’s more complex than simply the Montagues versus the Capulets. Love is a many splintered thing.
Intended for young adults, When Morning Comes convincingly conveys a moment in history as personal and tangible, capturing the way tragedy was transformed into hope and possibility.