‘What are you searching for, Michael? What have you lost?’ Read an extract from David Viviers’s debut novel Mirage
 More about the book!

Penguin Random House SA has shared an excerpt from Mirage, the debut novel by David Viviers.

You may know the face. Viviers is one of our most well-known actors, but now he is a published author as well. And his writing is every bit as good has his acting.

At its heart, Mirage is a story about loss and healing; and how we use narrative to cope with pain.

Vivier’s fast-paced metaphysical mystery includes fascinating detail on Karoo landscape and flora, astronomy and cosmology.

About the book

Out here, the past and the future lie over each other, like the strata of koppies. And in certain places the boundary between the two rubs clean.

A century-old trunk has been dug up near the railway village of Sterfontein. Inside is the lost journal of Victorian author Elizabeth Tenant – and what appear to be the remains of a child.

Michael, a university student recovering from a broken heart, is intrigued by what the journal describes: a scarlet curtain billowing above the desert, covering the entrance to another world. But things become even stranger when a line in the journal seems to be connected to Michael and his cosmologist mother, written a hundred years before their time.

Without much to go on, Michael travels to the old Karoo hotel where Elizabeth wrote her novel Mirage. Amid talk of omens in the sky, ancient prophecies and the end of the world, he tries to decipher the journal’s secrets. As one mystery leads to the next, constellation-like patterns between his own life and Elizabeth’s appear, helped along by Renata, a self-proclaimed medium, and Oom Sarel, the local museum curator. But as time starts to dissolve in the mirages of the Karoo, it becomes more and more difficult to know what is real and what is not.

And why can’t he shake the feeling that he’s been to the village before?

Read the excerpt:

A century-old trunk has been dug up near the railway village of Sterfontein. Inside is the lost journal of Victorian author Elizabeth Tenant – and what appear to be the remains of a child.

The day the sign appears in the sky, Elizabeth watches William Booysen carry the carcass away. It is slung over his shoulder, the head and forelegs limp above the ground. As he crosses in front of the dining-room window, his eyes catch hers and something – some current of meaning – passes through the glass between them. Then he nods, once, and continues out of view.

How many deaths is it now? Elizabeth’s hands move along the old pathways: they scrape off butter onto the side of her plate, put a teaspoon of sugar into her tea, measure out twelve drops from a half-empty bottle of laudanum. But her eyes remain fixed out the window, at the place where he stood a moment before.

No one else knows what is killing the animals. There are no gashes, no blood. The bodies are untouched, the wool still white. A new disease, they say, sweeping the Karoo, cleansing the land of sin. Of course, Elizabeth has known the truth behind the deaths for a while now, but as she takes another sip of tea she can’t help wondering if the God left behind at St Raphael’s isn’t demanding atonement for what she has done.

You shall offer a male goat without blemish as a sin offering, and they shall cleanse the altar.

And now that the sign has appeared in the sky, hanging above the hotel in the middle of the desert, it seems that what the prophets predicted might actually be coming true. The end of the world is here.

Mr Douglas gave them the news yesterday: the British have broken off all negotiations with Kruger. War is imminent. Soon, dead sheep will be replaced by dead men. In earth’s final days, bloody-limbed soldiers will lie between the sheets upstairs.

Her eyes move along the railway line carving through the veld. She can be on the evening train to Cape Town if she wants. Twenty-four hours and she will be secured by the amphitheatre of Table Mountain and the Lion’s rump, walking along clean, right-angled streets.

But, for now, until the world ends or she is asked to leave, the routine must remain the same. Twelve drops of laudanum, to be taken at breakfast.

The morning started in the usual way, with Elizabeth on her hands and knees next to the bed, stretching out an arm into darkness. As they’d done every morning before, her fingers made contact with cold iron: yes, it was still there, it was quite safe. She then washed her face at the basin (had the crack running through its centre always been there?) and dressed in the early morning light. Like the bluegums taking form on the opposite side of the riverbank, a sentence had been shaping in her mind before her eyes opened. She lit a lamp to set it down:

Michael stands at the edge of the world and looks up into the eternal stars. He begins stitching the silver threads between them.

It is what she’s been searching for: how Michael will capture the moon, how the story will end. Whatever is meant to occur in the blank space after the last word must now do so. She blew out the flame and put down her pen, exhausted from two sentences.

For the past few months, sleep has not come easily. The dream has started again, a soft humming, the whirr of wings: she’s lying in her bed, aware that another presence waits nearby. A young boy, just out of reach. Here I am, he whispers. Take me with you. There are things she needs to say to him – important things – but her mouth is unable to make the right shapes: each time the moan begins forming in her throat, she jolts awake.

She then lies there, trying to steady her breathing, exhausting the possibilities of the publisher’s response to her letter. She explained that she was nearly finished. If they could only read what she had so far, the final chapter would follow. As the imagined replies write themselves across the ceiling, her fingers pick at the same spot of wallpaper, just above the bed. A grey patch is emerging between clusters of bluebells and ink fingermarks. Shaped almost like Britain.

Now, at breakfast, it’s easy to sit amongst bone china and oranges, and ponder day-to-day things, like train schedules and dying sheep. From inside the hotel, one can gaze out at the landscape through a veil of muslin, wondering why the post is late again this morning. But the lacquer on its pillars is starting to flake. On the teacup in her hands, the tips of the robin’s wing have already faded. The bleakness outside seeps through the cracks in the walls even as branches of bluegum sputter in the grate.

‘The madam mustn’t get too hot now or she’ll catch her death when she goes for her walk,’ Magrietjie says as she clears away the side plate, her eyes narrowing at the ink marks in the butter. ‘A storm is coming.’

It hardly matters, Elizabeth wants to say. Have you not heard about the sign that is to appear in heaven tonight? Do you not count the dead sheep? The Karoo will swallow them all. It will reclaim the polished glass through which they all stare and everything it encloses: white sheets and pitchers of cream, toast and books and gilded frames promising the shades of softer countrysides.

She leans forwards to smell the rose in its crystal vase. Does anything make less sense in this landscape than these petals? The note is still folded in her drawer upstairs, its words etched behind her lids: I cannot see a single rose in our village without thinking of what will never bloom. Throughout the hotel, roses (especially the one buried in the centre of her name) are reminders of what has been lost, of what lies in the iron box under her bed. Of her inability to write about the things that have happened here.


‘Would you like to come in?’ Renata opens the door and steps to one side. She doesn’t look like a mystic, he thinks, although he’s not quite sure what a mystic should look like either. Her tracksuit top, faded to something that is no longer any recognisable colour, is covered in those little balls of fluff that cling to clothes that have seen at least three presidents come and go. As if reading his thoughts she tugs at a cuff and says, ‘I wasn’t really expecting people today.’

There are throws across brown armchairs, rugs over a mottled carpet.

Things in shades of pale orange and butterscotch. As in the hotel, Michael gets the feeling that time inside these walls has thickened and stopped, encrusting the house and its contents, in this case around the Seventies. Perhaps all the buildings along the street are isolated pockets of time, each sealed off around a different moment.

Freeing a chair with her foot from a piece of blue wool, she pulls it out for him and takes the one opposite. The low burr of an electrical appliance hums between them.

‘I’m a bit of a mess this morning,’ she says, running her hands through her hair. There’s a small, crusty something in the grooves of her tracksuit sleeve. ‘I normally wash my hair on the weekend but haven’t had a chance yet.’

‘It looks fine to me.’

She laughs. ‘Ag, you’re sweet. Well, it’s a good day for business.’

He can’t help ask. ‘Kobus looked a bit upset just now?’

‘You know Kobus?’

‘I met him earlier today.’

‘He’s always upset. Wife left him a few months ago for their foreman. Last I heard, the two of them had run off to Beaufort West and were starting up a used car business. He’s been coming to me every week, pestering me for answers. And I warned him. I said, “Kobus, rather don’t ask things you don’t want to know the answers to.” But today he’s back, all weepy, wanting to know if he’ll ever find love again.’ She pulls at a stray eyelash. ‘And so I told him the truth.’


‘That he will never, ever find love again.’ She closes her eyes and blows on the eyelash, making a wish.

‘Ever? You said that to him?’

‘It’s not my fault. Don’t ask if you don’t want to know.’

He thinks of Daniel’s Etios pulling into Cape Town traffic. ‘How could you be sure of that?’

She nods at something near his elbow. ‘I read his leaves.’

Uncertain, he leans forwards to look inside the teacup, wondering which part of the dark sludge signalled eternal loneliness to her.

Suddenly she is shrieking, clapping her hands together. The cat lifts its head. ‘You should see your face! I’m only joking.’

He’s not sure why he feels so relieved. ‘About him finding love again?’

‘About reading tea leaves. No, the love part is true.’ Looking out the window, her laugh tapers off. ‘It’s difficult out here. You have to have a strong backbone to live in these parts. The light’s too harsh. We all end up looking like sun-dried tomatoes.’ Her eyes brighten as they find Michael again. ‘How old would you say I am?’

His stomach sinks. ‘Oh, I’m really bad at this.’

‘Just guess.’

There is a looseness to her skin, though she doesn’t have many wrinkles. But there’s also that pinkish undertone which comes from a good amount of sun, or a good amount of drink, or perhaps a bit of both. Box-red hair, which she runs her hands through, a centimetre of grey clinging to her scalp. Early sixties, maybe? He knows it’s always better to knock off a decade to be safe.

‘Fifty-two, fifty-three?’

Her smile tightens. ‘Almost. Fifty-four.’

‘Oh.’ He hopes his surprise isn’t evident. ‘Close.’

‘Hmm.’ She picks at one of the fluff balls, as if it might make a difference, then stands up. ‘What can I get you? Tea? Coffee? I have something a little more cheery too, if you want.’

‘Tea is fine, thanks.’

Renata disappears off into the house. Tin stars are strung along the window, tinkling in the wintry light. In the middle of the table, between a half-finished packet of Flings and a mother-of-pearl ashtray, is a stack of YOU magazines. All open to the crossword section, in various stages of completion. An empty chardonnay bottle serves as a paperweight.

‘I’m afraid I only have buchu left. Is that okay? It’s from the garden. I know you Capetonians go looney for anything organic.’ She is back at his side, a steaming teacup in either hand. ‘What did you say your name was again?’ As she places one in front of him, a sun pendant around her neck dangles forwards and pings against the rim. Ripples spread out on the surface of the tea.


The cup’s note hangs in the room between them.

‘Michael.’ She seems to try the word out, as if needing to decide something. ‘Michael, I’m Renata. Welcome.’ He wants to tell her that he heard her interview on the radio, but maybe it’s not the best idea. He thanks her for the tea.

‘What are you searching for, Michael? What have you lost?’ Both mystic and cat are looking at him as if he’s a bird with a broken wing, just flown into the house. One out of sympathy, the other out of anticipation.

Extracted from Mirage by David Viviers, out now.

Categories Fiction South Africa

Tags Book excerpts Book extracts David Viviers Mirage Penguin Random House SA Umuzi

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