Like the country where she grew up, Alice Burley, the main character in Patrick J. Lee’s brilliant novel, “On the Wild Coast,” is caught between two lives. Alice struggles mightily to come to grips with her past, find her identity and gain inner peace. Alice returns from the comfort of middle-class London to the remote outpost on the eastern coast of South Africa after learning she has inherited her childhood home in the shabby coastal town of Port Victoria.
The flashpoint for this story is the mysterious death of Martin deVilliers, a celebrity journalist whose body has washed up on the shores of Port Victoria. On her way to the region, Alice offers a ride to Mendi Mkhize, the chief magistrate, whose car has broken down. Mendi has been dispatched to Port Victoria to investigate the presumed murder, which in reality means he must determine whether it was a crime against a tourist.
Alice must decide whether to evict two elderly aunts, Alicia and Phyllis, from the family home and they are not exactly thrilled to see her. Alice must also decide what to do about her own life. Suffering from bipolar disorder, Alice has become unmoored as she deliberately eschews her medication in favor of an elite surfer she meets on the beach. Simon Scully could have been a champion, except that he tanked in every big competition. Alice is attracted to him because he lives in the moment and he becomes her lover.
While she enjoys her days with Simon, Alice learns that Menzi has arrested Breakdown for the murder and is holding him in a locked room adjacent to the general store. Alice tricks the store owner, Sammy, into releasing Breakdown, whose only crime was stealing and wearing the dead man’s clothes.
Alice’s internal struggles mirror the messy adjustment that the African National Congress has made in its ascension to power in South Africa. At one point Alice recalls watching her nation’s first democratic elections from London. “The country seemed full of the jumbled traffic of those going upwards to power and wealth bumping into those tumbling down…Yet, in Port Victoria, behind the barrier of the hills, the change was different. It was as though the present had arrived without completely displacing the past, and the two were wandering around in a blend.”
Lee has created a rich and colorful collection of local residents, and the supporting cast lends depth and humor to the story. Johnny Fourie is a fisherman so tough that he survived 15 hours in the choppy waters and sauntered ashore to attend his own wake. Clive Gilman is the owner of the shabby post colonial Cape Hamilton Hotel. Bob Peace is a burned out DJ who gets stoned and plays rock and roll records at an independent station called Radio Freedom. Woodstock is an outcast who makes a meager living doing odd jobs for Johnny. And then there is Breakdown, a larger than life homeless man who “scourged himself a habitat in the tidal zone between the ocean and the town, between civilized and wild.” That succinct and vivid passage describes everyone in Port Victoria. All of the characters are from somewhere else and find themselves in this region between the civilized and the wild.
And then there is Dom Marias, whose presence is almost spectral. Marias, who ran a community health clinic treating rebels during the war for freedom, has turned to growing marijuana, but he is fiercely protective of the town and its people.
In the end, Alice must confront painful things about her past and it is in resolving these long ago hurts that she is finally able to move on. It has been said that effective endings must be both surprising and inevitable. Lee has managed to craft a thoroughly satisfying ending that does both.