Friday Night Book Club: Read an exclusive excerpt from The Book of Gifts, the new novel from award-winning author Craig Higginson
The Friday Night Book Club: Exclusive excerpts from Pan Macmillan every weekend.
Staying in this evening? Of course you are! Get comfortable with some popcorn and an excerpt from The Book of Gifts, Craig Higginson’s most gripping and nuanced novel to date.
Higginson is the author of The Dream House and The White Room.
About the book
What is the cost of giving a gift? What is the cost of receiving one?
At eleven years old, Julian Flint prefers to remain invisible, safe inside the architecture of adults provided by his mother, his uncle and his aunt.But when his mother, Emma, a celebrated sculptor, takes them all on a family holiday to a hotel by the sea, he meets the captivating and irreverent Clare and everything he thought he knew begins to shift – setting off a chain of events that will determine each of their fates.
Moving from the lush beaches of uMhlanga Rocks to the stark midwinter wastes of Johannesburg and the rich and strange coral reefs of Mauritius, this masterfully plotted novel explores the fault lines between loyalty and betrayal, innocence and accountability, blindness and perception, entrapment and flight.
The Book of Gifts dives into the deepest and most hazardous reaches of human consciousness in order to catch the brightest fish.
- ‘We read to go to places that our everyday lives don’t make available to us’ – Craig Higginson on his new novel The Book of Gifts
Read the excerpt:
A new pair of swimming goggles
Julian, uMhlanga Rocks
That summer, his aunt gave him a new pair of swimming goggles. He sits on the edge of the hotel pool, the sound of the sea on the rocks below him, and lowers the goggles over his eyes, reducing the world to shades of blue. As he slides into the water, the light above and below the surface is given a new consistency. The lighthouse on the other side of the balustrade, painted like a stick of candy cane, becomes a blue and purple tower, like an image recalled from a fairy tale. As the other swimmers float around him, their pale limbs blind and floundering, he hangs suspended underwater, the only creature with the gift of sight. His mother appears at the pool to summon him for lunch and he climbs out of the water as if in a dream. He takes off the goggles as tentatively as you might remove a bandage. His new eyes feel untested and inadequate, they wince and brim. Everything around them is striped an electric red and white – the hotel towels, the sun loungers, the row of umbrellas, the tarpaulin shading the veranda, even the straws in the drinks of the guests, who smell of coconut oil as they drink champagne and surrender their bodies to the sun. All the objects in the hotel have taken their cue from the colours of the lighthouse, everything except for the blank blues of the swimming pool and the sky, and the shadowy strip of sea, where a speedboat cuts a clean, white line towards a distant cargo ship. Julian stumbles after his mother in a daze, the goggles dangling uselessly around his neck. His towel is wrapped around him as if he were the victim of a recent disaster. And he is the victim of a recent disaster, at least in the words of Aunty Jen.
A few months ago, Julian’s father left his mother for a much younger woman. Where before Julian was located between two poles, his mother and his father, he is now left with only a mother, who stands entirely alone in an alien land, like that lighthouse out there on the rocks, lost in a thickening fog. But the truth is that Julian rarely positioned himself between his mother and father. It is Aunty Jen who has been his mother’s opposite. According to Jennifer, Julian’s birth was long and difficult, but his mother refused all pain medication. Jennifer had given Emma a book that claimed that if you relaxed and breathed properly during labour, the birth of your child could be relatively pain free. Relative to cutting out your heart with a blunt spoon? Emma later asked. Jennifer, who has never been able to have children of her own, was there throughout the nine-hour labour. She wanted the child as much as Emma did. When the baby – a battered, dark-red Inuit with jet-black hair and floppy ears like a puppy – was finally severed from the mother, measured and bound by the nurses, it was Jennifer who took the baby and held him close and told him that she would protect him forever. The first photographs of Julian in hospital are not with his mother and father, but his mother and aunt. Julian arrived in the world ten days later than expected and Aunty Jen said his father was away for the night on a long-standing business trip. This is not the first time Julian’s aunt and uncle have accompanied them on a holiday, but before his father was there to balance out his uncle’s presence, the two men in the family being further off and less in focus than the two women. Julian enjoys being the only child inside this architecture of adults. It gives him all the attention he requires as well as solitude whenever he needs it. But he also likes these moments alone with his mother, their wet feet slapping along the cement path towards their room, surrounded by the swaying green light of the trees. Julian’s mother is his home, his aunt his holiday home. He can tire of his aunt, but never his mother. His mother is inexhaustible, like the sea. His aunt is more like the hotel swimming pool, where he can pretend to be someone else. Since their arrival two days ago, Emma has been encouraging Julian to swim in what he likes to call ‘the actual sea’. But he is a boy from Johannesburg, a city without a decent river, let alone a sea. The idea of the actual sea still frightens him. There are sharks, of course, but what he dreads more is the thought of the riptide dragging him away from the beach and the familiar lighthouse being drawn slowly down into the weave of water. What would he do if he was taken out there? How would he judge the direction back to the shore? Would he be strong enough and patient enough to remain calm until his mother remembered to rescue him? Aunty Jen and Andrew are already waiting, his mother says as they enter the cool interior of their room. After lunch, Andrew wanted to know if you’d be up for a game of tennis. Tennis? Only for an hour or two. The idea of playing tennis with his uncle is something that has been mentioned several times before. Julian doesn’t know why his mother is being so insistent. All he knows is that she will keep nagging him until he agrees to it. There has always been an unsettling kind of electricity between his mother and uncle. They have a different voice for one another that they never seem to use with anyone else. It’s as if they feel sorry for each other, or share the same source of disappointment. Although Aunty Jen has never once mentioned this private voice to Julian, he knows that she knows about it. She knows about it because they have a secret voice of their own. I only have trainers, Julian says. What if I make black marks on the court? I shouldn’t worry about that. When he can find nothing to say to this, she adds: So you’ll go after lunch?
All right. He knows the idea of tennis will only go away if he agrees to it. Hopefully during the meal the adults will get distracted by the champagne and conversation and forget about it. Julian is very good at slipping away at the height of a discussion, at that moment when the adults feel they have involved him sufficiently and can move on to subjects closer to their hearts. Julian has never had any reason to dislike his uncle. Uncle Andrew has always been a benevolent but distant giant with the tact to leave him alone. Now that his father is out of the picture, however, his uncle is being used in ways that Julian, and he suspects his uncle, never agreed to. His uncle’s profession has always unnerved Julian. He is some kind of analyst, which means that he is forever listening to what you aren’t saying instead of what you are. Which also means that he never seems to be paying any attention to what you’re saying at all. Andrew and Jennifer are sitting at a table at the far end of the hotel veranda, at a table that overlooks the swimming pool and the lighthouse and that might have been set aside for lovers or couples intent on an argument. Already there is a bottle in a frosted silver bucket on the table. It took only moments after checking in for Aunty Jen to learn that the hotel provided free champagne to guests while occupying the swimming pool area. She has spent most of her time occupying the pool area since. She claims she likes to watch the monkeys, which sit in the rafters on their powdery blue balls, swinging down to a vacated table to steal a bunch of grapes or a slice of pizza whenever the waiters are distracted. But Julian knows his aunt better than that. She is never far from a good bottle of wine and a complicated-looking book. Uncle Andrew, who is wearing one of his navy-blue golfing shirts, is flicking through a newspaper while Aunty Jen sucks on another cigarette. Julian doesn’t mind the smell of the smoke, but he knows that his mother dislikes it when Jennifer smokes in his presence. Jennifer often reminds her that their father smoked constantly during their childhood and that Emma never minded it then – and this always shuts Emma up. Darling! Jennifer says, looking towards her younger sister with her usual irritable tenderness. I see you caught a fish. It’s those new goggles, Emma says. He never wants to take them off. Jennifer sends a smile towards Julian at the same time as she moves aside in her striped chair, inviting him to sit next to her – which he does, as he always does. Julian thinks of Emma and Jennifer as sisters, but they are only half-sisters. Emma’s mother was a beautiful Spanish marine biologist who stole their father from Jennifer’s mother, who was a less beautiful teacher of Latin and French. This is why Julian’s mother has crazy black hair that goes even crazier at the sea and his aunt has sensible reddish hair that always seems to be in danger of falling out. The two women couldn’t look less like sisters or be more different. Emma is a sculptor of magical, monumental bronze figures that sell for over a million rand each, while Aunty Jen is a modestly paid English teacher at Julian’s new school, St Francis College for Boys. By now Uncle Andrew has folded the newspaper and raised his glass to toast their arrival. Uncle Andrew keeps himself fit by swimming every morning at the local gym. He has dark-blond hair and pale-grey eyes and he looks much younger than Aunty Jen. Julian’s mother says this is because Andrew hasn’t yet started to really live and that people like that often die early because their bodies lose hope and give up on them. Julian says he’s up for a game after lunch, Emma says as she settles next to Andrew. He is? Uncle Andrew looks at Julian as if giving him the opportunity to contradict this. Sure. Your son has a very strong backhand, Emma, he says, still watching Julian. All he needs is more confidence to approach the net. The two of them smile as if this means more than it does, and Andrew fills Emma’s glass and tops up the glass of his wife. Even though Aunty Jen drinks much more than everyone else, she is the only one who never gets drunk.