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Monday, June 20, 2011

The Caine Prize 2011 Short List-Story Two

"What Molly Knew" by Tim Keegan (14 pages, 2008)


The Short Listed Stories
Second of Five Stories


The Caine Prize for African Writing will be awarded on July 11 at an award dinner in Oxford.    The Caine Prize is one of the world's top literary awards.    It is given to the author of a short story from a country in Africa.   (There is additional background information on the award in my prior post and on the Caine Prize Web Site.)    This year I am doing a series of post on the five short stories that are on this years short list for the prize.     Yesterday I posted on "Hitting Budapest" by NoViolet  Bolawayo which I liked a lot.    It centers on a group of very poor children in Zimbabwe.    

"What Molly Knew" by Tim Keegan is very much a traditional crime story with a surprise ending.      Structurally it has all the hall marks of a short story called for by Frank O'Connor in his The Lonely Voice-A Study of the Short Story.    As the story opens Molly gets a phone call  from her son-in-law telling her that her only daughter, Sarah, has been murdered.    Keegan then gives us a very well done account of the relationship of Sarah and her mother.  He does tell us how things are between them, he does not show us.   In this he is in violation of one of the dictums of the modern short story, "show don't tell".    They seem very  close but it was a bond of shared history and a life held together half by acrimony half by the ties between a mother and her only daughter.    At first I was a bit shocked that Molly does not choose to call her husband at work (the step father of Sarah).   She tries to keep her routine as normal as possible as she waits for a police detective to come over.   Keegan does a very good job of letting us see the routine of Molly's life.   

Molly, in her mid fifties,  was widowed from Sarah's father when he died twenty years ago in a car crash.   She married Rollo to have a provider for her and Sarah.  Rollo was a good reliable earner .   He was a far from perfect husband, given to being a bit abusive while drinking and a womanizer in his younger days but as Molly says "what is she to do".   (Of course one could say, "Well Molly you could get out of your flat and get look for a job!")

Sarah married a man that Molly always hated, a psychologist.   As the story progresses  we learn that Sarah's husband was of mixed parentage and he is a "political agitator".    It is never said explicitly, but it is clear this is part of the issue between Sarah's parents and her husband.

When the detective shows up at the flat, he tells Molly it is most likely the husband who is the killer.   This is based on the fact that it is most often the man who kills his wife.   Further in this case there is no sign of anyone breaking in and nothing has been stolen.    The husband was the only one who could get in the apartment besides Sarah.    Rollo comes home and says he knew all along the husband was no good and he is not at all surprised by this.    

At this point in the story, neither Rollo or Molly have a lot to admire about them.   He is an abuser and sometimes a drunk.   Molly accepts this abuse for security for herself and her daughter.   Molly does not get comfort or even dignity, only shelter and food and a place in the world.    Rollo rejects his step daughter and her husband because he is of mixed blood.   Maybe the story is a symbolic representation of the reaction of older South Africans to the willingness of their children to accept the end of apartheid and race laws that the older generation has always cherished.     

There is a very powerful dramatic development at the end of this story.   I think a lot of people will want to read the Caine Prize short listed stories without knowing the endings in advance so I will tell no more of the plot.    Not everyone who reads this story has felt as I do, but the ending left me with very little regard for Molly.

This is a very traditional old fashioned story told in the third person.    I will enjoyed this story.   For fun, once I have read all the stories I will hazard a guess as who I think win

You can read this story and the other Caine Short Listed Works HERE

This is my second year blogging on the Caine Prize short stories (my 2011 posts are HERE).   Last year I think I might have been the only blogger to post on the stories, this year there is a very politically aware group of bloggers posting on each story.


One  simple way to see the postings  is by doing a Twitter search on "Caine Prize".

I am really profiting from reading the posts of all those involved in reading the Caine short listed stories.    Some of the posters have the added insight that living in the countries where the stories are set gives them.

Tim Keegan is from Capetown, South Africa.    He is now a professional writer with several successful novels.   He has worked as an academic historian prior to writing full time

The New International  Books, the publisher for the Caine Prize, has kindly provided me a copy of their  wonderful book, To See the Mountain and Other Stories Caine workshop.     I was also provided an e-book.   

Several posters on the Caine Prize stories have said they seem to verge on "poverty porn".   This was a new expression to me, I admit, but I can see the point.   Are the Caine Prize stories just about tales of poverty to raise anguish and pity among those whose lives are far far away?   I think some feel it is unethical for a writer, I am being hypothetical, from a rich family who has been educated in London and has seen poverty only through the window of a limo  writing about the poor of Africa and claiming authenticity merely because of an accident of birth.   I do not agree with this concept myself but I respect it.   I might post more on this once I have read the other five stories.    

"What Molly Knew" is very well written and it will for sure make you think and perhaps expand your understanding of South Africa.

Mel u





4 comments:

As the Crowe Flies and Reads said...

Well, I, for one, am embarrassed that I am not familiar with the Caine prize. I find it extraordinary (and hopeful for the future of the short story) that it is awarded for a single story and not for a collection, or even for a novel. Thanks again for pointing out more wonderful stories to me that I would otherwise be unaware of!

mel u said...

As the Crowe Flies annd Reads?-I wonder if this book would sell in your store?

mrross said...

Glad I could join you this year in the blogging enterprise! Personally, though, I think that "poverty porn" isn't necessarily a critique saying that the writer is Western-educated and privileged, writing about a part of society about which they know little.

I see that critique as saying that writers, out-of-touch or not, write about a specific aspect of African society - poverty, war, rural life - because that is what entertains Westerners who read about Africa. It's not that the writer might not know what he or she is writing about directly, as some do. It's that the writing places limits on what African writing could be. Keegan's story is one that breaks the mold in this instance.

mel u said...

mrross-good point in expanding on the meaning of poverty porn-it is a new concept to me-in fact just a few days old-I am glad you are also reading this stories and posting on them-