A FEW MONTHS AGO, during an interview with Mary Gaitskill, I asked her to respond to a quote from a New York Times critic who had observed that Gaitskill's writing "falls outside the domestic realism readers have come to expect from female writers."
After dismissing the notion that domestic realism is entirely or exclusively the purview of women, Gaitskill moved on to challenge the assumption that the domestic sphere itself is somehow limiting.
"There's an awful lot that can go on in the domestic frame," she said. "I'm reading a book right now called Agaat by a South African writer named Marlene van Niekerk. It's a domestic situation, all right, but it's extraordinary—it encompasses everything from the most primal, basic impulses that people have to the most refined social dynamics to the politics to the history. You can do a lot in the domestic sphere, so to speak of it as though it's somehow minor or inferior is wrong to begin with."
Gaitskill could not have chosen a better example to demonstrate the myriad worlds contained within the parameters of the domestic. Agaat, just released from Tin House, meticulously unpacks the vastness contained within any microcosm: the worlds contained within bodies and within minds, and the worlds those bodies and minds occupy.
Milla is a South African farmer's wife, a white woman of Dutch descent who works her land—from the 1950s onward—alongside the sharecropping families who have lived there for generations. This highly politicized dynamic is meted out in domestic measures: how many sheep does each family get; how much bread; who calls the doctor when a farm hand is injured. Milla lives in a state of rarely suppressed hostility with her husband; a frequent point of contention is the amount of freedom Milla gives to her maid, Agaat. But even as Jak insists that if you "give them the little finger, they'll take the whole hand," it's impossible to regard Milla's attitude toward Agaat as admirable: Her good intentions have in some ways created the perfect slave, a foil for all of her needs and responsibilities. Unspoken in all of this is apartheid, the end of which is decades away.
More a novel of relationships than of plot, Agaat is told from Milla's sickbed as she remembers her life and prepares for death. The book unfolds on twin tracks both toward Milla's death and toward an explanation, rooted in the past, of Milla's relationship with Agaat.
As Agaat tends to Milla's dying needs, it becomes clear that the two women share a complex and loaded history—Milla is paralyzed, so they communicate with their eyes alone, in an unspoken language of love and resentment. No detail is spared regarding Agaat's ministrations: It takes Milla three pages to have her teeth brushed; seven more pages are devoted to a bad attack of itchiness. These deathbed scenes are interspersed with diary entries from Milla's years on the farm—slowly, the focus of the book shifts from Milla to Agaat herself, and to the life that Milla, her intentions ever muddy, both saved and destroyed.
As important as the politics and the family dynamics, is the language itself: Agaat is a tangle of language and rhyme, of wordplay and digressions, of Afrikaans and South African words. Both absorbing in its minutiae and provocative in its allegorical approach to apartheid, Agaat explodes the domestic sphere to encompass the world.