Justin Cartwright

Posted by Sue Leonard on Wednesday 13th January 2016

In the middle of my interview with the eminent novelist, Justin Cartwright, he becomes emotional. We’re discussing Sweden; a country he loves, which made an appearance in his latest novel, and he told me about a short story he once wrote for the BBC about a Swedish child, torn from his country at an early age, who returns later in life, to find his childhood girlfriend waiting for him.

“I am weeping at my own story,” he says, clearly surprised by his tears. “But why not?”

Why not indeed? Anyone who enjoys Cartwright’s work will have sensed that there’s a soft side to the writer. Whatever the subject, his novels are always full of empathy, and unusual insight.

Although he was born and raised in South Africa, Cartwright has rarely written about his own country. An early novel, White Lightening was set partly there, but he has avoided becoming part of the South African literati. So why, at almost seventy, has he written a novel examining part of the history of South Africa, as well as showing the beauty, mixed with menacing overtones of the present?

“Why write any book?” he says, taking a panadol, and muttering about Irish hospitality.  “While you are fishing about for a new novel, something strikes you and you go with it.”

I’m a huge admirer of Cartwright’s work; I adored The Song Before It is Sung, and considered Other People’s Money the best book written about the banking fiasco anywhere; but this latest, Up Against The Night is almost certainly his best to date.

It’s a subtle tale, and doesn’t bang on about politics, yet through its empathetic  characters, its sometimes gentle, sometimes thriller- like plot, it gives an inkling of why South Africa has become the country it is today.  And he has shown us through the essence of being  human  – something history fails to convey.  And that’s exactly what he set out to do.

The novel centres on Frank McAllister, a  wealthy London based banker who is descended

from Piet Retief, an Afrikaners icon who was murdered by the Zulu King back in 1838. This

is based on fact – and Retief is an ancestor of Cartwright’s.

“I thought it would be interesting and slightly shocking for people to know that I was descended from this controversial person,” he says.

Frank flies to his seaside house near Cape-Town with his Swedish lover Nellie, to be joined by his daughter Lucinda, a recovering drug addict along with Nellie’s son. They’re living in paradise.

Meanwhile Frank’s cousin Jaco, a fervent Afrikaans who feels dislocated from the new order, asks Frank to rescue him. He’s in a mess, having left his family, and, after an encounter with a shark made him famous, joined the scientologists. He is desperate to leave the organisation, and Frank wants to help, but will contact with the ever more disturbed Jaco upset the balance of his family’s equilibrium?

Jaco’s sections jump off the page. Whilst we laugh at him, we sympathise too.

“I loved writing those sections – I had the greatest fun,” says Cartwright.  “I wrote it in Afrikaans, then translated it back – to make his voice spot on.”

He swears that the book is pure fiction, but he does share a certain amount of McAllister’s history; the childhood scenes are his; and he, like his hero, attended boarding school.

“I was miserable some of the time. We  were beaten by other boys, legally. It was pretty violent. But the fear was worse than the violence. You would be beaten without knowing why.

“You’d be doing your after dinner homework, and you would be called. You might have done  two or three things wrong, like not washing the bath, but you’d hoped they hadn’t noticed. I usually managed to talk my way out of a caning, but you would hear people being beaten. Some came back crying, other with a moist stiff upper lip. They would be bruised or scarred for about four weeks.”

A contented family man, Cartwright is proud of his two sons, and is a devoted grandfather of four. So it’s no surprise to learn that Isaac – the toddler, brought to the seaside house by Lucinda, who so delights all the adults is based on one of the four.

“I did that in his honour,” he says, softening.  “I am so taken with my grandson, Isaac. He has got immense charm.”

Lucinda was created as a nod to the many middle-class young people whose lives are destroyed by drugs. Through her we see the compulsion of it, as well as the agony, and the guilt it engenders in her father, who feels sure his marriage breakup caused it. It’s an insightful portrait. At one point Lucinda divulges that whilst it’s not difficult to come off drugs – it’s making life meaningful without them that’s so hard to do.

A fellow of his former college, Trinity College, Oxford, Cartwright is not shy to accept his prowess as a novelist. He’s won nine major awards over the years, and was shortlisted for the Man Booker. He also judges prizes, and was on the panel for the International Booker Prize. Does it irk him that his books, which have been so very well received have never won?

“It doesn’t bug me, but if I’m honest I think I deserve the Man Booker,” he says. “I review a lot of books, and I don’t think there are many better.”

A former journalist, and documentary maker who also worked in advertising, life transformed for Cartwright when he wrote his first book.

“I was 28. Life had been good up to that point, but when I wrote that book and it was well received and was shortlisted for a prize I thought, yeah, I can do this! That changed my life, because, I felt, I had my fall-back position forever.

“I’ve never been blocked – not even for a day,” he says. “In your first novel you have all these ideas and you cram them in, and in the second you think what the hell am I going to write, but you build up the story. You learn that to write a novel you just keep going. It may seem like unmitigated drivel, but if you carry on, and then look at it a day or a week later, it is usually workable.”

Cartwright writes fast – and generally completes a novel within eighteen months. He doesn’t understand why some authors take four, or seven years.

“I think, get on with it boy! Pull your socks up. In the London library there is an incredibly good-looking young man who I know slightly, who has been writing this book for, it must be, five years. I ask how he is getting on, and he says, ‘It’s going well.’

“Years have passed, he is getting older and no one has seen the book. His looks are going. It’s a very sad story!”

Alec, an ex-banker in Up Against the Night, has disintegrated since retirement, and feels lonely, lacking in self-esteem and generally ridiculous. Cartwright intends to avoid this minor character’s plight.

“Writing thrills me still. I’m cracking on 70, and I am still in demand. It’s great. So many people I know who had proper jobs and reach retirement age are going mad. They don’t know what to do with themselves. I will go  on writing, trying to write the best book that I can.

“And God forbid the day comes when I sit down at a desk at the London Library and I haven’t got a clue what to write. If that ever happens, I will then think of something else to do.”

Up Against the Night by Justin Cartwright is published by Bloomsbury at €28.50. Kindle: € 14.32.

Published in The Irish Examiner on 26th December, 2015.

© Sue Leonard. 2015.

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