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Book review: Dark Windows by Louis Greenberg

Book review: Dark Windows by Louis Greenberg

Dark Windows by Louis Greenberg (Umuzi)
By: Women24

In an alternative South Africa, the Gaia Peace party has been in power for the past ten years. Somehow, its combination of New Age beliefs and social welfare policies have ‘cured’ crime. 

Unfortunately it all seems too good to last. Not everyone buys into Gaia Peace’s happy hippie miracle and Joburg is growing restless with the threat of violence. 

At the same time, Minister of Wellness Meg Hewitt is quietly setting Project Dark Windows in motion to prepare for some mystical, world-changing event. 

Something momentous is about to happen, no one knows what’s coming. Aliens? The apocalypse? A new age of enlightenment? Or just social upheaval?

Kenneth Lang has spent 35 years working in government, from the apartheid regime through the ANC years to Gaia Peace. He holds a vaguely titled but senior position and specialises in strange an unofficial operations so, Meg Hewitt, instructs him to set Project Dark Windows in motion. 

The requirements are simple but very specific. Find five rooms that have been left vacant after the death of the occupant, within a target area. 

Clean the windows and paint them black. Set up motion and heat detectors, then lock up. Lang has no idea what the point is, but he complies partly because he’s intrigued and partly because his job has taught him to shut up and follow orders.

Lang hires Jay Rowan, who’s been doing weird, sporadic jobs for him since the 90s. Jay is reliable and discreet, but after having his life fall apart over the past year, he also wants to “show he’s good for something, even if it’s obscure and vaguely ridiculous government work”.

The best thing in Jay’s life at the moment is his affair with a married woman named Beth. He takes her to one of the Dark Windows’ sites, where they learn about the supposed suicides of the two girls who lived there. 

Beth is moved by the girls’ stories and endeavours to learn more. Her investigation leads her to a suspicious student protest group while reminding her of the dark secrets of her past. Political stories intertwine with personal ones, and Joburg moves slowly toward an unknown possibility.

You might think that the idea of a New-Age political party called Gaia Peace is absurd (I did), but I think that’s the point. 

Many of the characters feel that way too. In fact, none of them – with the possible exception of the President – can take all the New Age stuff totally seriously, although most just play along. 

The very idea really is ludicrous partly because it’s so kooky (with the herbal tea and healing colours) and partly because the majority of South Africans are just too conservative. 

For example, the president in Dark Windows is a black lesbian in a multi-racial marriage.

Gaia Peace’s policies also include security reduction – most of the locks, gates and alarm systems that many South Africans would consider essential to their safety are now illegal. Again, it seems impossible that our society could give this up, although in this case there are people railing against it:

How did a bunch of “hippie activists” do it? Lang works in the presidency and he doesn’t even understand it.

Some people seem opposed to the party just because they can’t believe what it’s achieved. 

It’s “hard for disillusioned people to buy new illusions”, as Jay suggests. The novel doesn’t offer a satisfying explanation; what’s more important is the way people feel about it, and what it means in this context.

I think the absurdity of a New-Age party revolutionising our political landscape reflects a sad truth about South Africans – we’re so disillusioned that the idea of a progressive government that minimises crime, corruption and nepotism, while providing quality education and healthcare for all is just ridiculous. 

If you believe that one of our political parties will actually deliver this then you might as well believe in colour therapy and Reiki too.

Then again, perhaps belief is all you really need, and this is another important issue that Gaia Peace raises. As I said, none of the characters we encounter seem to believe in any of the New Age stuff, but lots of people are just happy to play along because it works. 

It’s also just kind of nice and inoffensive to most. 

But there are problems. Gaia Peace isn’t perfect, or at least can’t be perfect. At least it’s not the dystopian scenario you might expect – Gaia Peace doesn’t have a sinister side that enabled their rise to power. They’re exactly what they say they are. 

As Greenberg states in a guest post for Lauren Beukes about his inspiration for the book, it “not a dystopian novel but rather a vision of utopia rubbing up against reality”. 

Reality is human nature. Reality is a country with a long history of violence. Reality is the people who can’t forget that they or their loved ones were victims of violent crime. Jay is one of them. 

He likes Gaia Peace, but when his wife was sexually assaulted in their home, violent crime had become a kind of political blind spot. Her trauma was “made invisible”. “How do you achieve justice for something that didn’t officially happen?” Jay asks, with no hope of an answer.

Jay’s concerns bring me to another important point about the novel – despite the political framework, it’s very personal. All the major characters are grappling with their own issues. 

Project Dark Windows has the same kind of personal desperation to it, even though it could concern the whole country or even the whole world. It could be total bullshit, or could be epochal, but who knows what will happen?

It’s understandable then that this book never ceases to be uncertain and, at the end, offers as many unanswered questions as it does resolutions. It’s the kind of literary novel that will frustrate some spec fic readers because it’s very slow and contemplative. 

I have to admit that I wasn’t sure what to make of it when I’d finished. 

I had to think about it for a while and go through my notes before I could even begin writing the review. That’s probably not the kind of experience you’d expect when someone says the word “apocalypse”. 

In fact we never find out if there will be an apocalypse, so don’t come to the novel looking for action and destruction. Instead, enjoy it for Greenberg’s very beautiful writing, his characters, and his insights into the personal side of SA politics, morality, faith, and human nature.

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