Maya Fowler: The Elephant in the Room

The Elephant in the Room is a story of secrets, warped friendships and addiction. At the heart it’s about how families guard each other’s secrets with the hope of keeping up appearances or protecting each other, but with disastrous consequences.

The novel is set in Kalk Bay, the Overberg and Plumstead from about 1984 to 2000. The central character is a girl, Lily, and the action follows her experiences as the family moves first to her grandparents’ farm in the Overberg, and later back to Cape Town. The story explores the influence various strong characters, most notably Lily’s grandmother and her classmate Vera, have on Lily. We witness the creation of a brittle self-esteem, and dysfunctional notions of body, eating and food.

While the depiction of addiction is gritty at times, it is no more gritty than James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, Marya Hornbacher’s Wasted (a memoir of anorexia and bulimia) or Whiplash, a recent South African novel centred around a prostitute working the streets of Muizenberg. This grittiness is somewhat new to literature on eating disorders in South Africa (thus making it not only shocking but also original). The Elephant in the Room is a disturbing but charming read with plenty of humour to contrast with, and thus heighten, the drama.

  • Shortlisted for Herman Charles Bosman award

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