Book ReViews: The Unseen Leopard
‘The Unseen Leopard’ is a real winner
Cape Times October 7, 2010.
The Unseen Leopard is one of those rare novels that manages to almost seamlessly integrate multiple themes and narratives without becoming contrived or clumsy. The central theme is that of the relationship between educational publisher Samantha Campbell and her dead sister, Melissa.
Their parents die when Sam is 24, and Sam has to come to terms with the fact that she is “mother, father and big sister to Melissa”, and is legally made Melissa’s guardian.
Fast forward 16 years to the opening pages of the novel, and it is three years since Melissa died in a car crash on a remote mountain pass in a fictional version of the Baviaanskloof. Sam has just turned 40, and is barely able to cope with her grief and sense of loss.
There are many sub-themes: Sam can’t bear to go back to the family farm, Cedar Hills, in the fictional version of the Baviaanskloof, Elands Kloof. This was where Melissa was living, running a rural clinic, when she died. But pressure mounts on her to return as the locals go head to head with competing land use plans – one wants sport hunting, others want the entire area declared a conservancy, there are political pressures from, among others, the Stuurman family, who lost their land under apartheid and have recently had it returned to them.
There is conflict between the farmers who want to gin trap the leopards of the kloof and the conservationists who want to save them. And one of the prime movers behind the leopard sanctuary is James McIntyre, the American scientist who, at the start of the novel, writes to Samantha and says: “I killed your sister, which is hardly endearing.”
There are grand themes here of a wonderful love between two sisters, and the grief, loss and salvation that arises from that love. And this is a book that is passionate about conservation, with sub-narratives on the genetic modification of seeds, big issues around land use and the environment, and of the fragility of that most magnificent of African landscapes, the Baviaanskloof (it should be on every South African’s bucket list of places to see before they die).
I found The Unseen Leopard absolutely compelling and multilayered, conjuring up a wonderful word picture sense-of-place of both Cape Town and the Baviaanskloof. I read it in one sitting. It is my South African novel of the year so far, and I predict it will be a major contender for our premier literary awards.
© Cape Times 2010. All rights reserved.
The Unseen Leopard by Bridget Pitt
Margaret von Klemperer
The Natal Witness 15 Dec 2010
FICTION fired by moral outrage is a tricky thing to handle. The best example in recent years was probably John le Carre’s The Constant Gardener where his anger at the behaviour of big pharmaceutical companies drove a superb plot.
Bridget Pitt’s outrage is directed at genetically modified foodstuffs, and the dangers of their unregulated use — and the impossibility of regulating them anyway. And, with this as a backdrop to the plot, she has produced a fine novel in The Unseen Leopard.
Its protagonist, Samantha Campbell, is in the throes of deep depression. Three years before the novel opens, her beloved younger sister Melissa, a doctor, was killed in a road accident in the Eastern Cape, and Sam is struggling to come to terms with the death as she brings up Melissa’s son and battles against her resentment of his father, Dylan, and the fear that one day he will want to take the child away from her.
A second strand is the diary, or letter to Samantha written by James McIntyre, an American conservationist and former microbiologist who was Melissa’s lover. He opens by saying: “I killed your sister”, but that bald statement hides a complex and disturbing truth.
There are many unseen leopards in this book, the dangerous things that lurk just out of our sight, but closer than we think. It is a complex novel, but Pitt deftly weaves her strands together, and the climax is both gripping and moving.
There are a couple of moments, particularly towards the end, where you can feel Pitt trying not to allow her feelings about GM either to overwhelm the human story or to seem as if they have been tacked on. But generally she succeeds, and has produced a powerful novel about people, grief, the long, clutching fingers of the past and, ultimately, forgiveness.
Margaret von Klemperer