Wan: a novel by Dawn Promislow

Dawn Promislow’s slow-burning novel, Wan, takes the reader back to apartheid-era South Africa.

It is 1972. Jacqueline, an artist—a painter—is a white woman living a comfortable life in suburban Johannesburg with her husband, Howard, a partner in a law firm dealing primarily in corporate law. Jacqueline and Howard have two children, Helena and Stephen. They employ three black workers to perform the household chores. The family is privileged and prosperous.

Jacqueline and Howard are also painfully aware that South Africa’s social structure is based on a grotesque injustice, and despite living under a system that favours them because of their skin colour, their political sympathies are emphatically at odds with the country’s authoritarian ruling party. But other than treating their hired help well, there is little they can do. The penalty for dissent is severe, and with government informants everywhere, speaking out will only make them targets for the police. So, like many white South Africans who opposed apartheid, they resist in silence and keep their moral objections to themselves.

Then, early in the novel, they are presented with an opportunity to aid the cause in a real way. Howard’s law partner, who has contacts within the ANC (African National Congress), needs to safeguard an anti-apartheid activist who is wanted by police and asks Jacqueline and Howard to provide the man with temporary sanctuary. Joseph Weiss moves into a small building at the rear of their property that they’d been using to store household odds and ends, and in so doing sets off a chain of events that ultimately renders Jacqueline and Howard’s life in South Africa untenable. Fifty years later, Jacqueline, widowed and living in New York, unburdens herself, narrating an account of those months of Joseph’s tenancy, telling us, “I’m too old to hold on to this story any more. So I’m going to tell it to you.”

Wan recounts an exquisitely suspenseful tale of searing guilt, moral ambivalence, misplaced trust, and heart-rending honesty. Promislow relates Jacqueline’s story in crystalline prose, using a contemplative voice tinged with weary resignation that pulls the reader in and doesn’t let go until the final pages. Promislow is patient and thoughtful, and she expects the same of her reader. The story is deliberately paced. Details and events accumulate gradually, ramping up the stakes, building tension to an excruciating level. The book provides a quick, compulsive read, but the rewards of this vividly imagined, elegantly crafted novel are many.

With Wan, Dawn Promislow establishes herself as a bracing, shining talent. Readers of this, her second book and first novel, will be eagerly anticipating her next.

Dawn Promislow was born and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa, and has lived in Toronto since 1987. Her collection Jewels and Other Stories was published by Mawenzi House in 2010. Wan is her first novel.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Freehand Books (May 1 2022)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 240 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1988298997
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1988298993

 -- Website

Ian Colford’s short fiction has appeared in many literary publications, in print and online. His work has been shortlisted for the Thomas H. Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award, the Journey Prize, the Danuta Gleed Literary Award, and others. His latest novel, The Confessions of Joseph Blanchard, was the winner of the 2022 Guernica Prize and was published by Guernica Editions in 2023. He lives in Halifax.