My friend, let’s just call her X, is a staunch fan of Craig Higginson’s writing. For years she has been begging me to review one of Higginson’s novels. Now I need to make a disclaimer. Before The Book of Gifts, Higginson’s latest offering, I’d never read any of his previous work. One thing I can admit now is that I should’ve listened to my friend X all that time ago. Higginson is truly a gift to South Africa’s literary industry and in Chinua Achebe’s sentiment, he is ‘a bloody’ good storyteller.
In The Book of Gifts, the author peeks into the lives of two white middle-class families, the Flint family, which is Emma and her son Julian and the Fletcher, Andrew and her wife Jennifer, who is also Emma’s half-sister. Not to dissuade readers, the story intriguingly revolves around a 15 year-old boy called Julian. After witnessing an ‘unfortunate event’ on a holiday with both families in Umhlanga Rocks hotel, the course of his life trajectory takes a major shift. It even affects the lives of those around him.
While perusing through the pages, I appreciated how that ‘unfortunate event’ allowed Higginson to showcase his prowess in storytelling and how successfully he controls the narrative throughout. He skillfully managed to entice and keep my suspense chapter by chapter. The scribe forces the reader not to put the book down as he leaves the reader with many unanswered questions from chapter one right until the end. This is largely through his unique and impressive manner in which this thrilling story idea has been structured.
The story is told in a backward format, wherein the opening chapters, the scribe slightly paints a scenario that will make a reader want more in the following chapter. He, however, only revert back in full detail to that specific scenario later. It is a risky way of telling a good story because many might interpret that as repetition and lose interest in the process. However, I personally find the style as one that truly hangs the reader on tenterhooks.
Betrayal, toxic relationships, deception, and inequality are some of the themes raised in the book. The characters will also trigger mixed emotions to different readers depending on which moral side you are on and that is the beauty of Higginson’s writing in this book. Emma really triggered different emotions within me. I found myself wanting to point a finger at her for her son’s life trajectory, but yet again I will see her as Julian’s saviour as opposed to her conniving sister.
I personally believe Higginson should have given the character Jonathan more lines in the story. This would help the reader find out whether he was indeed the biological father of Julian or not. The conundrum leaves the reader hanging and demands clarity at the end of the novel. Besides that little bummer, I believe this is a masterpiece of a novel. Many people will resonate with its storyline, whether you are a white middle-class or a black working-class it makes no difference.