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Reviewed by BERNIE BELLAN
I read “Nightwatching” in one long gulp – beginning Friday evening (July 3)  and grabbing every spare moment I had over the ensuing three days to finish reading this marvelous novel so that I could write a review in time for our July 8 issue.


Méira Cook is a multi-talented poet and novelist, hailing originally from South Africa, who has now made Winnipeg her home.
As I noted in a December, 2012 story profiling her back then, “She told me that she grew up in a middle-class Jewish family in a Johannesburg suburb in the 1970’s and 80’s where, like almost every other white family, black servants were part of the family’s life.
(Méira, in fact, is named for her late grandfather, Meyer, she tells me.)
Language was always a very important factor in her early childhood, she notes. Like so many other Jewish families of Eastern European descent, Yiddish was spoken primarily by her grandparents, and Méira’s first memory of language was the cursing for which Yiddish is so famous. When it comes to describing the atmosphere in her home that imbued her with such a flair for language herself, Méira says that she “grew up with the ‘snap and crackle’ of language”, whether it was spoken by whites or blacks.
“Language,” she says, “permeated both worlds.”
And it is the language of “Night Watching” that grabs you from the very first sentence. As you begin to read the story – set in an unnamed town in South Africa some time in the 1970s, the rhythm of Cook’s poetic descriptions sets a scene that is almost magical in its vividness.
Much like her first novel, “The House on Sugarbush Road”, “Night Watching” deals with relationships between blacks and whites in the former Apartheid-ridden South Africa, but there is no political orientation to the storyline.
Instead, we are introduced to a cast of characters, beginning with 11-year-old Ruthie Blackburn, a gangly girl who just can’t come to terms with her sudden growth spurt. Ruthie is a troubled child – and there’s a strong sense of foreboding surrounding her. (If you had read “The House on Sugarbush Road” you would know that Cook is expert at sudden deviations from a placid calm into horrific violence – then back again as if nothing much had happened.)
Set in a torrid summer – and this would make for an excellent summer read, especially on a hot day when you can practically taste the dust in the South African air – Ruthie has a penchant for sneaking out at night on her bicycle and spying on anyone and everyone as she skulks about.
Her widowed father – a decent man by the name of Lionel Blackburn, seems the model of stolid appropriateness, until one day he comes home with two guests, a brother and sister whom Ruthie finds both fascinating but somewhat upsetting.
So, too, does the household’s “ousie” housemaid, Miriam – a model of strength similar to a character whom we also met in “The House on Sugarbush Road”.
Miriam retains her dignity throughout, no matter how much she may resent the relationships between white employers and black servants that was the norm in South Africa (and may still be the norm – I’d love to see Cook write about contemporary South Africa some day to see whether things have really changed all that much.)
The languid pace of the novel is misleading. As I’ve noted, Ruthie’s quite schizoid thought patterns leave the reader on edge – especially the manner in which she torments eight-year-old Sip, the next door gardener’s little boy who holds a fascination for Ruthie. Sip’s total innocence is set in juxtaposition to Ruthie’s malevolently sadistic treatment of him.
Here is how Cook describes Sip at one point: “Sip was sitting under the thorn tree by the abandoned water reservoir. He had come in search of his Ruthie, propelled by a queasy mixture of love and restlessness. Love ticked within him as steadily as the hour hand around which the restless minute hand of a kitchen clock revolved in tight, overlapping circles. The world shimmered and pulsed with heat, and still Sip sat trying to remember what had confounded him…”
Every line of Cook’s writing exudes a magical facility with language. Yet, as enchanting as “The House on Sugarbush Road” was (and it did receive the 2013 McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award), “Night Watching” is quite a bit more accessible. There is no moving back and forth in the more recent novel between different settings,  unlike her first novel, which contained a host of characters whose names were often difficult to keep track of. Instead, the action takes place over a short period of time in one isolated town and the relatively few characters are all well established in one’s mind by the book’s end.
Horrified as I was by the violent ending of “The House on Sugarbush Road” I was bracing myself for a similar result in “Night Watching”. I won’t spoil anything by divulging whether there was a similar climax in this book, but the novel does read like a well-thought-out mystery in so many respects.
Méira Cook is a writer of incredible virtuosity. If, as she told me a couple of years ago, she “writes and rewrites until she is satisfied with the finished product”, her ability to combine poetic language with riveting storytelling is a testament to her discipline. One can only look forward to the next novel that Cook might be contemplating – and anticipate her winning yet another Book of the Year Award for “Night Watching”.