Review: Dawn Promislow, “Wan”

Wan - Dawn Promislow
A review of "Wan," Dawn Promislow's debut novel, set primarily in apartheid-era South Africa.

If you’re anything like me, you carry your choices and in particular your mistakes with you for decades.  They return to you in fleeting thoughts during the day and ongoing mental discussions at night… they color your decisions, and forever change how you view your world and your place in it.  But at what cost?  What does it change in you over the years, as you learn to live with these things?

These are some of the questions Dawn Promislow’s debut novel, Wan, engages. Set alternately in South Africa of the 1970s (the time during which resistance to apartheid was beginning to take a firmer hold) and present-day New York, protagonist (and artist) Jacqueline Kline recalls a series of events starting with the arrival of an anti-apartheid activist using her garden as a hideaway from the law.

Part of the novel concerns the deep internal struggle that results from a particular choice Jacqueline makes – and as one of those ‘wrestlers’ who never lets go of the things she should, I definitely resonate with that.

Dawn Promislow

But I also found myself reading the book in the context of our present-day reality here in North America.  Lest we applaud ourselves too loudly for leaving behind the United States’ own version of separate but (not) equal, one could argue that racism has never left us and we are seeing its resurgence as an openly expressed sentiment once again.  The extent to which Jacqueline and her husband Howard resist apartheid – and, perhaps more importantly, the extent to which they do not – reflect choices that we might need to make sooner than any of us had hoped.  It takes incredible strength to challenge the status quo – whether Jacqueline and Howard ultimately resisted it or fled it is a question for the reader to consider.

A subtext of the novel also concerns artistry and inspiration – specifically, the question of whether art can flourish in a restrictive environment where many are not free to express themselves.  Is Jacqueline’s inability to complete her painting perhaps a mirror of the multitude of people lacking freedom?  Perhaps – or perhaps it is an expression of the ways in which perception of one’s privilege over and against others weighs heavily on the soul.

Wan is stark but beautiful, a relatively short novel that nevertheless leaves the reader brooding in its wake.

Published: 1 May 2022
Publisher: Freehand Books

Photo Credit: Eli Amon

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Exposed to the wonders of CBC and Montréal Canadiens hockey as a teenager thanks to a satellite dish in rural Kansas, I have been an unabashed lover of all things Canadian ever since. I am a lifelong collector of esoteric and varied music, a teacher of piano, an avid reader, and a stamp/coin collector. In real life, I work in the field of technology.

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