Like In the Spirit of McPhineas Lata, this is another story that ostensibly not about any politics, but about the characters and the relationships between them. Here, though, the real story is about power and resentment.
I very much liked the way the story was told, the pacing of it. We see a lot of Nola's bitterness coming through, but the constant calling of her Nola's husband "the powerful man" is an excellent choice, as it tells us so much about their relationship without going into too much detail. The power imbalance in the relationship is driven home by how we do not even know they are married until about half-way through the story.
The Mistress's Dog is very much like What Molly Knew in its themes, albeit less dark and less political. I hate to compare both just because their South African and written by white men (and I did compare Keegan's story to J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace in my review), but they bought struck a similar chord in that one moment when the oppressed figure in the story had one chance at making their own decision, and the self-defeated stance each woman took. Molly did not take the letter to the police in the face of evidence that Rollo may have killed her daughter. Nola chose to roll over and accept a situation she did not want, even when she had a choice to say no. This looks to me a definite point of view regarding power relations in the country, but I'm trying not to make too much of it.
Even as Nola obviously derives pleasure from seeing the mistress's efforts at fitting in, from the interior decorator to the dinners and wine, you get the sense that Nola felt a certain kinship to the mistress through what she sees as their mutual oppression. This passage, in particular, illustrates this:
Nola saw in the mistress the hesitation that the hearty laugh could not hide, the timorousness that was silent but present all the time, like a heart murmur. It was evident to her that the mistress had become a snob largely because she dreaded the judgement of snobs.
In everything she did and said, the mistress declared her determination to be free. She was, she believed, making and remaking herself. It was very hard work. It was expensive too. But it would be worth it if, by chipping away at herself, she could set herself free forever: a complete metamorphosis.
Nola knew, however, that the mistress had not even begun to emancipate herself. And she suspected that she never would. For she, Nola, was not free either, except from anxieties about money. She knew what the mistress had not yet discovered, which was that nothing grew in the shadow cast by the powerful man.
And you get confirmation of that notion as the story draws to a close:
We are the survivors, she thought, the two of us. The powerful man had died in a Cape Town hospital after weeks on a ventilator. The mistress had died in the frail-care section of the retirement village in Johannesburg. The mistress’s dog had outlived them both. And so had she."
The mistress, then, is a fellow traveler in a sense. Nola hates the mistress not so much for daring to have an affair with her husband, but for reminding her so much of herself. The dog Nola is now saddled with, then, is a ticking time-bomb that threatens her with the possibility of power, a decision waiting to be made that will lead to her emancipation.
Of all the Caine Prize shortlisted stories, I'd call this the most subtle in the delicate way it handles its themes. I like that delicateness, but I wonder if it does not have too soft a touch. It was not a very vivid story, and the character herself does not really come into her own at all in the story. Perhaps that was on purpose -- a woman who has spent so much time being suppressed could come across as flat -- but I do not think this needs to have been the case. For one thing, this character hides her lack of esteem well behind resentment. I would have liked to see some more of that anger come across, however seething. Her reaction to the lady in the supermarket rang false to me, because Nola is not a woman unaware of her privilege. I expected her to be apologetic but curt, not to hover and make excuses.
At the end of the story, Nola asks questions we wish Molly had asked herself.
Had she chosen him? Or had she ended up with him by default because she had not, during her life, made the wise, the adroit choices? If we are our choices, then what did it say about her that the mistress’s dog was her last companion?
One finds oneself relieved at the soul-searching and hoping she does indeed hold on to the strength to take her life into her own hands.
A big shout-out to ZunguZungu for being so awesome and hosting the awesome reading session. Go to his blog for links to the posts from the other bloggers reviewing this story.