The historical Nineveh was one of the greatest cities of the Assyrian Empire, although it was built on a fault line and therefore periodically ravaged by earthquakes. It then fell into ruins following a period of civil war in the region. The Bible portrays Nineveh as a wicked city, worthy of destruction, although it is ultimately spared by God because its inhabitants repent and fast.
In this book by South African writer Henrietta Rose-Innes, Nineveh is the name of a modern gated development on the outskirts of Cape Town, but it’s impossible not to read something more metaphorical into the name of the settlement and the storyline. The hopelessness of fighting against nature, or overcoming a colonial heritage, or simply the fear of the ‘other’ and the illusion of staying in control: there are hints of all of this and more in this quietly atmospheric story which avoids any of the obvious loud party tricks and twists. The property developer also points out that there is no connection between the Assyrian Nineveh and this contemporary ‘paradise’: one of the early investors was from the Middle East, that’s all. Ha! Believe that at your peril!
Nineveh is pristine, luxurious, but empty: homeowners cannot move in because there is an infestation of mysterious insects. Katya Grubbs has followed in her father’s footsteps and is a pest controller (or relocator, rather, for she specialises in humane entrapment and movement of pests, rather than exterminating them). She is called in to free Nineveh of this nuisance. She moves in and succumbs to a sort of strange spell. The place is ominously quiet and antiseptic in its cleanliness. She explores the surroundings, the swampland and shanty-town bordering the development. Everything about Nineveh seems wrong, yet oddly attractive. Katya is already planning how to trick the property developer into giving her permanent free on-site accommodation. And yet… and yet… there is a pinprick of menace, which grows and grows. The insects seem beautiful individually, shimmering in their iridescent colours, yet it’s only a matter of time before they start swarming.
Along the way, Katya has to mend fences with her father and handle an irate employer. There is an earthiness to her humour, a pragmatism to her style, which makes her flawed but endearing. This is a book which whispers (rustles and crackles and pitter-patters, hisses and sweeshes and hums) rather than shouts, but it is entertaining and thought-provoking, an increasingly rare double feat.
It’s a delight to see that Henrietta’s book has now been published in the UK and US (the South African edition came out in 2011). A French translation has just been published by Editions Zoe.