One hot, lonely summer in the Orange Free State of South Africa, feisty Ruthie Blackburn finds herself at odds with everyone around her. She squirms under the watchful eye of her nanny, Miriam, and bristles at the neighbour’s gardener’s boy, Sip, who follows her everywhere and is her only friend. But mostly she misses her distracted widower father who is more absent each day.
Ruthie runs reckless through the bleary, dull days of summer until the monotony is interrupted by the arrival of two guests from the big city. The events of this one weekend will alter the course of Ruthie’s adolescence and lead to a devastating tragedy. Set against the shifting political tensions of the late 1970s and written in prose that is both poetic and evocative, Nightwatching powerfully captures a young girl’s sudden end of innocence.
“The really good books are the ones that stay with you. Long after reading Nightwatching, I find it still vivid in my memory. Cook has created three wonderfully memorable characters — an adolescent white girl, a middle-aged black woman, and a wayward eight-year-old boy — bound together by love, circumstance, and place, then rent apart by the tragedy that was South Africa during the Apartheid era. An intimate and emotionally intense book that resonates far beyond its particular time and place.” Lewis DeSoto, author of A Blade of Grass and The Restoration Artist
“Cook is an award-winning poet with a gift for tightly drawn characterization and sharp lyricism… Long passages in Nightwatching jangle with Ruthie’s directionless internal tension… Nightwatching is an impressive achievement for its prolonged atmosphere of unease, its sustained tension.” Julienne Issacs, Winnipeg Free Press
“… it is the language of Nightwatching 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.” Bernie Bellan, Jewish Post and News.
“The writing about South Africa is hauntingly beautiful — the countryside coming alive in the prose. The principal character, a young girl by the name of Ruthie, is brilliantly portrayed in her loneliness and the ways in which she attempts to overcome it. Her interactions with Miriam, the black cook, and Sip, the young boy who ‘loves’ her — are memorable.” The Jury of the Margaret Laurence Award for Fiction.
Winner of the 2016 Margaret Laurence Award for Fiction
“The writing about South Africa is hauntingly beautiful — the countryside coming alive in the prose. The principal character, a young girl by the name of Ruthie, is brilliantly portrayed in her loneliness and the ways in which she attempts to overcome it. Her interactions with Miriam, the black cook, and Sip, the young boy who ‘loves’ her — are memorable.” Statement from the jury for the Margaret Laurence Award.
This summer was different though, or maybe not. No different in the wandering, the silent watching, the snatches of radio music from open windows at night, the itchy stillness beneath bushes, the cool glass against her face and the day’s stored warmth of bricks against her body, the pins and needles shaken out of her limbs, the stars revolving in great wheels through the heavens, moons waxing and waning, the hasty cycle home through the strange and familiar darkness of neighbourhood streets. Why different then? Ruthie would have been hard pressed to say. Something had come loose in her for one thing, a connection. Now she was unanchored, a fidgety creature with no ease or hope of it to come. Her clothes were too small, her hands and feet too large. She woke up with salt on her cheeks although she could never remember her dreams or even the event of them. At odd moments of the day words would fly into her head and lodge there and she would whisper them over and over without knowing what they fully meant — I wish … I want … I will … Sometimes minutes would pass this way before she became aware of the words and then the world would rush back into her body and she’d catch herself and think, But what, what do I want? There was no satisfactory answer, just the asking and how this acting persisted through minutes at a time — the sun moving across a patch of grass, the wind rising and falling, a sudden soaking afternoon rain shower — and still she would sit there staring vacantly into space, the words blowing through her, I wish … I want … I will …