The Red Heart: Martha Engber on Kathryn White’s novel Emily Green and Me

Emily Green and Me, Kathryn White, Struik Publishers, 2009

Books at their best take readers by the throat, or in the case of Kathryn White’s Emily Green and Me (Umuzi, 2007), by the heart, literally, figuratively, and most thankfully, without sentimentality. The last is remarkable, given this is the story of an 11-year-old white girl in Cape Town, South Africa, who after a youth of illness receives the heart of a motorbike accident victim, 17-year-old black boy from Joburg, slang for Johannesburg. Such a premise has enormous capacity for cliché, especially when the dead boy watches over his heart’s recipient from his elevated place in limbo. Yet the story is a smackdown of the hokey notion of angels doing good deeds. Instead, the plot focuses on a girl tiptoeing her way back from the living dead with the help of a dead guy who’s trying to maneuver her into winding up his unfinished business on earth.

The story’s grip stems from Ms. White’s youth and irreverence, most notably demonstrated through the thrilling language that’s a form of rolling explosion. Readers are not given a chance to ponder if certain images are logical or possible, but instead are forced to roll, too, within a rhythm of playfulness that makes sense if not in the short-term, in the long-term, an overall effect that proves startling in a wonderful way:

The girl’s heart does a flip-flop. It trammels up against her bony ribs. The heightened swing of the nervous trapeze artist, the fly back to its original standing point, the tightrope of fear taught beneath the big circus top of her ribs. She listens.

Far down in the other wing of the house she can hear her mom’s furtive grabbing of the telephone receiver. She can hear her mother’s heart beating as she trembles into the phone, her mother’s dry scaly hands peeling stress and trauma. The phone slipping as she sweats out stress.
— Oh dear god, she says under her breath.
Her voice trembles in the moonlit air. The dad wakes.
— Who is it? he asks.

Told mostly from the third-person omniscient viewpoint, the details are what convince the reader that the narrator, if often sarcastic, is smitten with the imperfect humans struggling so mightily to overcome their various blindnesses. Of Emily, who must find her way in a world where she’s never really lived. Of her grandmother, who clings to the old guard culture of them vs. us until forced into the open by the brutal rape of an elderly friend. Of Emily’s parents, adrift from a decade-long stagnation of passion and purpose. These details flow the reader’s attention to the microscopic and keep it there:

The car doors suck shut, closing them in silence. Her mother draws hard on her cigarette. Wafts of grey-blue smoke fill the interior. The engine purrs into mobility, the gravel churns as they pull out and the tar answers with a snarl.

From that whimsical, magnified view of the world rises a story that is blessedly not pretty, cute, too dark or too light. Nor is the story weighted down by an attempt to be an important literary work, but instead achieves the significant by staying true to a sense of invigoration and delight that enlighten on at least three levels. Besides Emily’s emergence from the cocoon of a youth spent on the doorstep of death is the un-apologetically obvious symbolic merging of two hearts, two races, two colors, two different worlds via advances in medical technology and the construct of human spirit as indomitable and eternal.

The story begins with Emily and her family self-imprisoned within an affluent, yet decaying, home in a protected white community. They’re isolated from one another and from the other half — the black half — of their country’s heart. Yet through brief and infrequent, yet wild dialogue, the back boy looking down from above tells us of his attempts to nudge Emily and her family toward a jailbreak. He’s motivated by a personal reason for freeing Emily, which is why the story doesn’t feel like a literary hammer to the head. He wants something specific. He works toward that goal. In doing so, he pulls Emily and her family into Jo-burg, the gritty, scary heart of South Africa where reality dominates and blacks and whites, even if they’re not yet integrated, are on their way toward meshing into one African landscape. Even if that outcome is far in the future, there’s a vibrancy to the involuntary nature of the change, much as Emily’s need for a heart and the boy’s loss of his arose from the involuntary nature of nature itself.

That hopefulness is what makes Ms. White’s book stand out from some of the master writers her country has produced. I do not mean to suggest the works of such stars as Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee present a picture of hopelessness, but rather that this story, written by then 27-year-old Ms. White, reflects a regeneration of soul and a belief in eventual unification, however inexact, inconvenient and overdue, from a writer who is of this younger generation. Hence the reason, I assume, she made the again un-apologetically obvious choice of the surname Green for her main character. Ms. White conveys that sense of renewal, which varies from ironic to pathetic to charming, without ever slipping into the categories of naive, judgmental, or preachy.

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