My favourite part of Dawn Garisch’s novel, Breaking Milk, (released in the UK by Heloise Press), is the description of cheese making. There’s both an ease to the language and an underlying precision which makes it the perfect carrier of the themes of the novel. For although it covers a vast range of themes, the novel works within a restrictive constraint with all the action taking place in the course of a single day. Dawn Garisch is, of course, an extremely accomplished author with seven novels, as well as two poetry collections, plays, films, and short stories to her name – it shows.
The novel begins as Kate awakens. Kate is an organic cheesemaker on a piece of land in the Eastern Cape, South Africa. She has divorced her unfaithful husband, left her career as an embryologist, and is estranged from her daughter – the same daughter whose conjoined twins are being surgically separated as the novel unfolds.
As the twins undergo surgery in London, questions arise back on Kate’s farm about the encroachment of developers (ever-present at the edge of her land), the meaning of motherhood, and the relationship of the so-called modern world to more traditional wisdom and practices. There are constant collisions/elisions – things transgress and are given away or taken.
The novel deals with the compromises of modern life; when foreign gastro tourists arrive at Kate’s farm bringing with them their cultural ignorance she has to acknowledge they play an important part in sustaining the farm financially. And white visitors ask her if she is afraid, living there alone, but of course she is not alone. She lives alongside the Xhousa men and women who have long lived on the farm, working with her and caring for her elderly father. (the Eastern Cape was colonised by white settlers in the 19th century)
It seems to me that the novel takes place in a single day because it deals with the despair of this moment. This time, right now, when the world is asking itself so many urgent questions. This is a moment in the history of the earth when, ecologically speaking, we are faced with choices which it is almost too late to make. As the twins, and their mother – Kate’s daughter – face an uncertain outcome Kate experiences this branching moment as a forked and cored dread that has taken up residence behind her sternum, inserted behind the edge of her ribs.
When we are dealing with the endlessly proposed binaries of nature/science, micro/macro, visible/invisible and finding them to be inadequate tools for coping with the nuanced issues of the current moment, our world, like Kate’s, can be overwhelming. Kate wills events to halt for one prolonged moment, for plans to freeze over right down to bedrock, so that she can catch her breath, so they can all stop, stop and again reconsider the options.
And rather beautifully and tragically, just as we are all implicated in the ecological crisis, so too are we implicated as turning the pages advances that unstoppable time and brings Kate’s story to an end.
Breaking Milk was originally published in South Africa where it was shortlisted for the Sunday Times South Africa/CNA Literary Award in 2021.
The first UK publication of Breaking Milk is with the acclaimed Heloise Press in March 2024.
Heloise on the web, here
Dawn Garisch is online, here