“What Molly Knew” by Tim Keegan

Keegan’s story—containing a multitude of unsettling truths, and revelations so wounding that it seems as though life will never be permitted to return to the routine of peeling and cutting up potatoes for a lamb-shank stew—is so neatly packaged that readers are lulled into accepting his skilful unraveling of details within Molly Retief’s life. Here, we begin with an execution-style murder on the third-floor flat of a secure apartment complex in the Cape Town suburb of Goodwood. But behind that explosive violence is a lifetime of tiptoeing around a husband’s perpetual drunkenness, routine battery, and the hint of childhood abuse, all of which are revealed within the space of a few days in Molly’s life. Here, we learn about the fears of destitution and loneliness that lead women to sign up for such lives—marathons that inevitably result in both endurance and grievous injury to self and others—and the routines that those who undertake such arduous journeys build for themselves, focusing on the stride they must take in the here and now, instead of the eternity of steps ahead of them.

I began writing this review on June 16th – Youth Day in South Africa, commemorating the 1976 student protests against an inferior education system and an enforced language, culminating in brutal state suppression. The discussions at the events I attended revealed wounds yet to receive a healing balm: however much we know about our past, however many details are ceremonially revealed by a Truth Commission or in an ordinary conversation with a neighbour, and whatever material proof of violence might intrude into the intimacy of one’s private domain, most people’s first reaction is to withdraw from the revelation, find fault with the revealer, and set about the business of spot-cleaning carpets and preparing dinner.

In “What Molly Knew,” we revisit the motifs of South Africa’s obsessions: Sara, Molly’s daughter, determines to reveal some truths to her mother about the man Molly chose to marry after the death of her first husband. Molly doesn’t claim to be ignorant of the facts about Rollo; this is the price, she believes, one pays for security. But as this mother is given more and more details about the misery within which her daughter lived, she reacts to the knowledge by deciding to remain bound to the cause of that wound. Molly finds, instead, fault with a new arrival—Sara’s Mozambican husband—for having dumped a vast cache of “lies” into the empty vessel of her daughter. This ANC man, who had “fought the Portuguese, although his father was Portuguese himself” and “joined up to the struggle against apartheid oppression in South Africa” who becomes the scab-scratcher: it is he, this intruder-Other, who is miscast in Molly’s family narrative.

When Molly is given the power of material evidence—evidence that will mean, once and for all, that she will recognise her daughter’s truth, and acknowledge the lies that helped her remain in the security of routine brutality—she destroys that record. What I realised, then, is that Sara’s physical and emotional deteriorations had been material evidence enough, obvious proof of the continuing injury caused by Molly’s decision to remain married to Rollo. Sara’s years of pleadings with her mother were calls for recognition, and perhaps, a call to action. But Molly had already made the decision to un-see and un-hear her way out of the materiality of this evidence. In the end, it didn’t matter if videotaped evidence had been handed to Molly, and she were chained to a chair and forced to watch.

There are two sets of people in this story: one who believes that when confronted with undeniable evidence, and given an opportunity to take responsibility, those that caused injury will have no choice but to be “made to own up to everything.” For this group, the powers of “forgiveness” lie within their own hands: it is a magical reversal of fortune, in which ‘victims’ fashion themselves as the location of both power and powerlessness. But those in power hardly ever concede control so easily. This is the second group in Keegan’s story: for them, the ‘action’ of a domestic (or national) narrative must remain within their hands at all cost. Even if the cost includes a complete erasure of such a brazen attempt to change the course of a familiar story.

Purchase the book here
Check here for the July Events Calendar in honour of the award.