Book Review | ‘By the Fading Light’ by Ashraf Kagee

Set in Salt River just after the Sharpeville massacre, the novel provides an intimate portrait of boys becoming men, of family and the inescapable presence of the past.

Ashraf Kagee’s second novel is a poignant evocation of boyhood. By the Fading Light depicts life in the working-class suburb of Salt River, Cape Town, during the summer of 1960, as told from the perspective of three young narrators on the cusp of adolescence.

Ainey, Cassius and Haroun form the trio of 11-year-olds through which a story of collective loss unfolds. As best friends, their worlds and words bring into focus the disappearance of their friend, Amin, who goes missing on his way home from school as the sun sets.

The resultant community terror forms an angst-filled backdrop to a coming-of-age tale laden not only with the pain of growing up, but also with the haunting figure of 11-year-old Amin, whose absence is a constant presence in the unfolding story. 

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The twilight alluded to in the novel’s title becomes the fading light of innocence in the remaining boys’ lives. It evokes not only their loss, but the dangerous, liminal stage between boyhood and manhood, where tragedy can change the trajectories of young lives in an instant.

Set in the summer just after the Sharpeville massacre, the novel draws the reader into its world through the way it focuses on the minutiae of the boys’ lives as they navigate the difficulties of childhood. Seemingly carefree, all three boys are embedded within nuclear families beset by discord, loss and strife; each exist within a unique set of circumstances that generates inside them the feeling of not being loved or valued by their families.

Burdened sons 

Kagee shines in producing these intimate portraits of boyhood. We have Ainey, whose mother died giving birth to him. He lives daily with a sullen father and an atmosphere heavy with blame for his role in his mother’s passing. Before falling asleep at night, he fantasises about a life in which his mother survived his birth and is present to soothe and love him. 

Haroun bears the burden of a taciturn mother, depressed because her husband has taken a younger, second wife with whom a new family has flourished. As children do, Haroun feels responsible for his father’s abandonment and his mother’s unhappiness, wondering what he could have done to prevent his father leaving.

Cassius, who rounds out the trio of best friends, bears his own cross of being the darkest-skinned member of his nuclear family. His father has also deserted their home, to live with a man. While his mother and sister are able to pass for white, his curly hair scuppers their chances to obtain legal whiteness when he fails the “pencil test” required for the family to be reclassified as white.

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The three boys find solace in each other as they struggle to bear the respective burdens life has doled out at them. Though the circumstances that shape their fates are grim, the narrative is not weighed down by this fact. 

One of the strengths of the novel is the way in which the author uses humour to leaven the weight of the tragedies at the centre of the boys’ lives. Left often to their own devices, the boys embark on a series of misadventures throughout the novel, often with hilarious effects. 

Kagee succeeds, in this way, in skillfully reconstructing the texture of childhood. He has a gift for rendering the innocence of thought that children display as they try to make sense of the nonsensical rules and conventions by which they are bound. 

Different masculinities

The boys’ experiences and interactions with older men, including their fathers and members of their faith community at the mosque, opens up a window to different forms of masculinity in the novel. 

One compelling character, for example, is Ainey’s father, nicknamed Mister, who is cruel in his rigid enforcement of discipline. Through Ainey’s eyes the reader encounters Mister as a malevolent, punitive authority figure: “There was something about the fading sunlight that unsettled him, that cast a pall of gloom over his world and pervaded the household. He knew it was because of Mister’s pending return.” 

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His father’s resentment because of the loss of Ainey’s mother during his birth is palpable to the boy, who fantasises about what it would be like to live in a home where affection is openly shown. 

In his character portrait of Mister, Kagee shows how the effects of unprocessed grief can harden a loving man, turning him into a tyrant. 

What fills the novel with a sense of foreboding is the subtly articulated encroachment of that same hardening force upon the psyches of the three boys. We know that to become the type of men they interact with daily in the novel, life will inevitably toughen them through hardship and trauma. They will be inexorably and violently changed by “time, that merciless assassin of dreams”. They will be made into men, but at the cost of an innocence and openness to life that Kagee poignantly captures in his rendering of boyhood. 

A future determined in the past

The novel’s climax throws the boys into a crucible of trauma, which they must survive in order to become adults. It leaves an indelible mark on all of them, captured in the novel’s prologue by an unnamed narrator – one of the three boys now fully grown up – who reflects that “[w]hat happened that summer would influence the course of my life”, leaving him with a lifelong “longing to go back and fix things”. 

How the past continues to live into the present and collective futures is a larger trope in the novel, skillfully animated by Kagee during a scene in which the boys visit the home of an outcast elderly woman, Ghava. She is known in the community to practise dukum – the “magic, passed down from one generation to the next since the days Dutch colonists, since the first slaves from the East Indies arrived in chains”. 

Ghava gives the boys a potion to drink to calm their nerves. This is followed by the boys falling into a trance-like hallucinatory state, wherein each boy sees, in a vision, part of the history of their ancestors, from kidnapping in places such as Java, Sumatra and Madagascar to enslavement and arrival at the Cape, where they became chattel property.

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Haroun, in his altered state of consciousness, sees “women crying, babies whimpering, men looking up at the sky, their faces engraved with expressions of helplessness and defeat” in transit to the Cape on slave ships. Cassius sees the first slaves landing at the Cape. Ainey sees his enslaved ancestors grudgingly acclimating to their new home, encumbered by labour that was “hard, grinding, backbreaking, but at least they had been permitted to retain their faith”.

In these passages of what could be called magical realism, where the boys are allowed to see centuries back in time, Kagee draws a line between 1960s Salt River with its predominantly Muslim, working-class population and their ancestors, enslaved people trafficked from East Asia and forced to settle in the Cape. He creates the tacit understanding that the violence haunting the three boys, and the entire country in 1960, stems from centuries-old roots: the founding violence of slavery upon which the foundations of Cape Town is built. 

Kagee succeeds in rendering complex, fine-textured portraits of masculinity, grounded in one community’s collective, centuries-old trauma. The past bleeds through into the present of the novel, with violence the “dark cloud” forever stalking the boys as they stand on the precipice of manhood. From the layered world he conjures spring men who are hard and violent but also loving, sensitive and nurturing. That he does so with humour is testament to his skillful and dexterous storytelling ability.

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