Admirable novel with a few weak spots
At the beginning of White Dog Fell from the Sky, Eleanor Morse’s third novel, a hearse stops. Two men slide out a coffin and a limp body, and they leave. The limp body eventually comes to life: It’s a young man, a black South African who has been transported across the border into Botswana. A refugee, he looks up to see a thin, ghost-like dog sitting next to him. As the man begins to walk, in search of food and a place to sleep, the white dog follows him.
Isaac Muthethe, a medical student who has managed to escape apartheid, has lost everything: his suitcase, his friends and family, his future. But out of this loss, he works to build a new life. His story quickly becomes intertwined with that of Alice Mendelssohn, an American expatriate who hires Isaac to tend her garden. Alice doesn’t quite fit in; she left graduate school to follow her husband to southern Africa, where she has found a job, but she struggles with her marriage and her privileged position as a white “madam.” Her chance encounter with Isaac eventually leads her down an entirely new path.
Isaac turns out not to be so lucky. Mistakenly captured on a cross-border raid by the South African police, he is deported back home and imprisoned. The author has the wisdom to provide us with only brief glimpses of what follows; even so, the harrowing scenes of brutality and torture prove difficult to read. Isaac’s experience reveals the depth of violence and racism perpetrated by South African apartheid, not to mention the utter lack of security that affects some of the world’s most impoverished people, including those who flee poverty and oppression. As Isaac himself notes when he learns of his baby sister’s death, “Only the poor die from malaria. If his mother had not been poor, his sister would be alive.”
The novel aspires to tell a complex and multivoiced story by interweaving Isaac’s and Alice’s experiences, but it is jarring to travel back and forth between their perspectives. The gravity of Isaac’s situation could not be more dire, which makes Alice’s failed marriage and her romance with a free-spirited Brit seem distracting. The longer conversations between Alice and her lover, who studies Kung San paintings in the Kalahari desert, slow the plot and seem to serve primarily as a vehicle for disquisitions on the worldview of the San people – a worthy topic, and one that underscores the novel’s interest in indigenous African beliefs, but one that feels forced upon the story.
Condensing the lovers’ tete-a-tete might have helped, but the problem runs deeper. The plot positions Alice as Isaac’s savior, a familiar dynamic that repeats a long-standing fantasy of many Westerners to rescue the less fortunate in other parts of the world. All too often, the thrill of saving people eclipses their humanity and agency. The narrative sets up only two possibilities: Either Alice will manage to get Isaac out of jail, or she won’t. Perhaps unwittingly, this tension causes the focus to shift. Suddenly, a novel about two characters becomes a story about one: Will Alice succeed?
This is unfortunate, because the urgency of saving Isaac distracts from the novel’s many other strengths: its deeply felt sense of place; its philosophical musings on the acts of kindness and caregiving that connect humans (and animals); and the acts of cruelty that divide them.
Many parts of White Dog Fell from the Sky are admirable, particularly its willingness to voice the unspeakable and to embrace uncertainty. We are left, in its final pages, with no easy answers.