What happens when the last breath stops? Read an excerpt from The Blackridge House by Julia Martin
 More about the book!

Jonathan Ball Publishers has shared an extract from The Blackridge House by Julia Martin.

The Blackridge House is a meditation on belonging, of the stories we tell of home and family and of the precarious footprint of life.

‘What a finely crafted text! The narrative keeps sharpening its lenses until one experiences what is hardest to grasp: everything is irrevocably interwoven – but miraculously so.’ – Antjie Krog

‘The Blackridge House is a quiet masterpiece – a page-turning story told with deep empathy and insight, in limpid prose.’ – Mark Gevisser

About the book

A quest is never what you expect it to be.

Elizabeth Madeline Martin spends her days in a retirement home in Cape Town, watching the pigeons and squirrels on the branch of a tree outside her window. Bedridden, her memory fading, she can recall her early childhood spent in a small wood-and-iron house in Blackridge on the outskirts of Pietermaritzburg. Though she remembers the place in detail – dogs, a mango tree, a stream – she has no idea of where exactly it is. ‘My memory is full of blotches,’ she tells her daughter Julia, ‘like ink left about and knocked over.’

Julia resolves to find the Blackridge house: with her mother lonely and confused, would this, perhaps, bring some measure of closure?

A journey begins that traverses family history, forgotten documents, old photographs, and the maps that stake out a country’s troubled past – maps whose boundaries nature remains determined to resist. Kind strangers, willing to assist in the search, lead to unexpected discoveries of ancestors and wars and lullabies. Folded into this quest are the tender conversations between a daughter and a mother who does not have long to live.

Read the excerpt:

A cough rips through again, and her forehead creases. It’s like watching clouds moving across the sky, like the face of a baby as the feelings form and dissolve. Once more, the wind is howling. Once more, the breath moves in and out. Another cough tears through and subsides. How things drop away.

What happens when the last breath stops?

The long days roll on. Words and stories settle into silence. The television has become a shrine, with the picture of the Blackridge wildness stuck across the screen, the branch of lichen and Sophie’s little rabbit made of shells resting on the top, and an offering of red roses and golden chrysanthemums at the base. Lying in the bed with her, I put my head against her breast as I used to when I was small. Her chest is bony, heart beating loud and slowly within.

Her teaching now is quietness and the sounding breath. Not knowing is nearest. In the luminous gap between the worlds, the rose shrine is my beacon. The children have said their goodbyes.

On the last day, Sophie packs lunch for me to take to the nursing home. It is the first time she has ever done such a thing, and I can feel the generations turning over. The day is long and warm, midsummer. The syringa tree is dappled with sunlight. Pigeons and squirrels visit the verandah. Roses gleam at the foot of the bed. Resting in the quiet space of her dying, I visit the garden where the bright old koi are so big you could hug them, wrap arms around their generous bulk and dive down slowly into the dark. Their soft fish mouths meet my fingers at the surface, nibble at the edge of the deep.

In her bed, my mother is breathing. This breath, our breath, the single thread of effort and attention that keeps her with us.

The room is quiet. Translucent. Nothing to do but what is here.

At such a time, nothing else meets the clarity of a mother’s head against the pillow, cough tearing through her chest, the tough breath labouring. When she surfaces for a moment from the dream where she is travelling, her eyes open to look at me and a small smile moves the corners of her mouth.


Fish swim in water clear. Pigeons jostle for food on the verandah. What gift for the living shall I bring back from the dead? This heart is a rose. This mind is a diamond. This life is sunlight. This death is the rain.

Her breath comes fast and ragged. When she’s distressed, I sing the lullaby. When the twins call, I tell her they send lots of love, and her whole faces crinkles into a smile.

Things drop away. Just the sound of the breath, her breath, mucus in the lungs, difficult. Another cough rips through and subsides. Her face contracts and releases. Clouds passing across the sky.

All day the breath moves in and out, her breath and mine. What will happen when it stops?

All day there is nowhere else to be, nothing else to do. I sit beside her. Sometimes I sing the lullaby. Sometimes I reach for her hand where she lies on the white bed, breathing and sweating. The bright old koi in the garden are big enough to take me with them, arms clasped around a fish-scaled girth, diving into the deep.

All day her room is quiet, full of light. My heart hurts. It feels like birth.


Categories Non-fiction South Africa

Tags Biography Book excerpts Book extracts Jonathan Ball Publishers Julia Martin Memoir The Blackridge House

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