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QUICK REVIEW: Mudwoman

mudwoman

Mudwoman

Joyce Carol Oates

Fourth Estate

REVIEW BY: Karin Schimke

Being inducted to the worlds of Oates’ stories is always a visceral experience of losing oneself.

Meredith Neukirchen, president of an Ivy League university, finds her ethics and energy begin to turn against her very body as she descends into a trance of illness, quite likely brought on by her endless work hours and her unfailing fairness and reasonableness.

Her unravelling is captured in terms so uncertain yet so concrete that the reader is compelled by curiosity to know what is and is not real for this protagonist who embodies all that is admirable and good in human beings.

Meredith’s uncertain past wells up out of her unconscious until it floods her life in a series of events that are terrible to live through with her. Mudwoman does not let up the tension – and Meredith’s anxieties and uncertainties are ours.

Oates is a formidable writer.

QUICK REVIEW: N-W

nw-by-zadie-smith

nw-by-zadie-smithN-W

Zadie Smith

Hamish Hamilton

REVIEW BY: Andries Samuel

Four characters thread their way through time and north-west London, each embodied on the page via a different technique – sometimes feeling like nothing so much as the author’s own stream of consciousness about creating the story. This book was reviewed from an advance copy that hadn’t been finally edited and had typos in it. Interestingly, this added to the already disconcerting feel of the narratives in the novel: lives made on the run, and living at the loss of being a clearly defined person, becomes overpowering and chilling. The humanity of the characters are reduced to the two-letter code that defines their geographical location, and as they find their way, N-W is not a weight, but a blade and a cypher. Compelling.

This review first appeared in the Cape Times in October 2012

 

REVIEW: Kgalema Motlanthe – A Political Biography

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Kgalema Motlanthe: A political biography

Ebrahim Harvey

Jacana

REVIEW BY: Donald Paul

Not many biographers would open their work with a volley across the bow of a fellow writer, but Ebrahim Harvey states upfront that, unlike Mark Gevisser, he will write the political biography of Kgalema Motlanthe that will “comprehensively unpack the dream itself” — alluding, of course to the subtitle of Gevisser’s book “The Dream Deferred”.

The dream, says Harvey “has to confront the very nature of the decades long struggle against political oppression (apartheid) and economic exploitation (capitalism)… and of the ANC’s policies and strategies that developed in relation to those two inseparable historical realities”.

A biographer need not feel an affinity for the subject (though Harvey clearly does) and it helps that there is a frame of reference on which both writer and subject concur. The concurrence here—and it is assumed and not reinforced by anything Motlanthe says, for he says very little—is that the ANC’s policy was formed out of a socialist manifesto and that it has abandoned this in favour of free-market capitalism. The dream has become a nightmare.

The confusing thing is that we are never really certain that it is Motlanthe’s dream that is unpacked. In fact, it is hard to discern any thing that can be remotely attached to Motlanthe and wrapped in the term “dream”—a word that evokes grand aspirations, a longing for things bigger than the painstaking administration of policy documents and proper bureaucratic procedures.

This is not a flawed book; it is a bad one. The juicy bits, if they can be called such, have been splashed about in the media: that he saved Zuma at Polokwane, that he is dissatisfied with the ANC’s failure to of the poor, that the ANC did not need to expel Julius Malema, etc. But, strip away that and very little remains except a dry discourse on a need to revert to social engineering (frighteningly, of a Chinese nature, given Motlanthe’s infatuation with the Chinese way of government).

If Motlanthe is to be treated as a political animal, which the title of this book indicates, then Harvey has described some near-extinct species of sloth, patient by nature, not nurture. He describe Motlanthe’s “call to dutiful service”—embodied in his phrase, “In the struggle you do what you have to do and can do”—as a “passionate calling”: this is akin to describing the action of a hamster on a wheel as “persuasive”.

Perhaps, Harvey subscribes to the notion that politics is about ideas not personalities and thus we do not need to know or understand more about the current deputy president and maybe future leader of the country. But we cannot separate politics and personalities—rather like saying cuisine is about calories and not taste—and that is why the book is so dire.

The Motlanthe we see shows no leadership qualities: he is a grey man, filling his time with the endless footnotes of the history of the struggle like a PhD candidate determined to exhibit to his examiners the breadth of his reading. We are told, endlessly of his leadership prowess, but at every defining moment he fails. As the head of the NUM, he was easily persuaded to accept Mbeki’s explanation of why Gear—the spear of free-market capitalism—was right. He defends his action by saying “we decided to tighten our belts but defend our independence and therefore free ourselves from the influence and in fact dictate of multilateral institutions”. He then criticises the fact that Gear was not discussed within the ANC, yet he was in a position to make that debate happen and remained silent.

He also failed as the ANC’s secretary-general to display his so-called legendary negotiating pragmatism when Cosatu objected to iGoli2002 programme but he simply went along with it. Yet, that same secretary general at a 2000 Cosatu May Day rally “called on union members to ‘intensely hate capitalism and engage in a struggle against it’. These are words by which he does not live, and Harvey brushes over such duplicity too many times to achieve credibility.

For example, Motlanthe’s account of what transpired between himself at Luthuli House and Andrew Feinstein over the arms debacle conflicts with Feinstein’s. Harvey doesn’t pursue it. And he allows Motlanthe simply to avoid the question: what did he think about the arms deal? He was asked by Archbishop Tutu to instigate an arms deal inquiry during his eight-month tenure as president of South Africa, but refused to do so. It was on his watch that Vusi Pikoli was dismissed, against the recommendations of the Ginwala commission. (He denies a substantial pay-out was made to Pikoli to keep quiet.) And the less said about his chairmanship of the deployment committee in 2008 the better (which is obviously the choice Harvey makes).

Lord Douglas Hurd in an interview on his favourite political biographies, said the good ones are “writing the story of history and the story of their times through the lives of particular individuals”. He said such books should appeal to people for whom history has no thrall. On this measure alone, this book fails.

Perhaps Motlanthe said it best: “I still insist that it is not for members or followers of any organisation to want to be leaders… To volunteer leadership is the antithesis of democracy.” And therein lies the rub: what you get is “100% Maybe” (apologies to ZANews) and a dull book.

  • Donald Paul’s own blog can be found here.
  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in November 2012

QUICK REVIEW: Luminous Airplanes

luminous-airplanesLuminous Airplanes

Paul la Farge

Fourth Estate

REVIEW BY: Karin Schimke

Rendered rootless and restless as much by the time in which he becomes an adult, as by his fatherless upbringing, an unnamed young man living in San Francisco travels to an Appalachian town to pack up his grandparents’ home after their death.

He’d spent holidays there playing with the next door children Yesim and Kerem, and listening to his grandfather read stories of about man’s history with flight, absorbing that it takes, sometimes, several hundred failures to achieve success.

And so the narrator returns to his past hand-over-hand, incidentally finding out more about his father than ever before, and falling for Yeshim all over again.

Minor and grand failures are told in the same resigned, if not outright disconsolate tone. La Farge has opened up a generation in new and unexpected ways, peeling and layering lightly, to create something odd – and oddly affecting.

∫ La Farge extended his novel on to the web. Check out the interesting project here. ∫

This review first appeared in the Cape Times in November 2012.

REVIEW: Home Remedies by Diane Awerbuck

Home Remedies - Diane Awerbuck_image_lowres

Home Remedies

Diane Awerbuck

Umuzi

REVIEW BY: Karen Jeynes

There are books you fall in love with from the first word, and others which seduce you slowly. Home Remedies draws you in, slowly, almost unwillingly at times, until you are held captive by its spell.

In the first few chapters of flashbacks and reflections it feels as though very little has happened, and yet also as though we have come to understand a lot. We have begun to feel the weight of what matters. Joanna, our heroine, is not the most easily lovable of characters – and yet she is very human, very funny, and very intriguing. The beginning of the book is a tension between the chick lit-like cover, title and tone, and some very complex and intricate themes. It’s a hard time for Joanna, who has lost her job, has a small child, feels out of place in Fish Hoek, and is experiencing a lot of conflict in her marriage. Yet beneath all these surface concerns are the shadows of deeper troubles, of violence, and darkness.

A lot of history is interwoven with Joanna’s story, tales of the Fish Hoek man, of Piers’ Cave, of human relics forgotten or else used as pawns in political games, and the ever present echo of Saartjie Baartman, a woman objectified, a woman made to symbolise so much to so many. There is a real life of the history which surrounds all of us on a daily basis and yet is continually ignored. That we never look up, and see beyond our immediate worries. Complicated concerns about bodies, remains, and belonging all surface, and Joanna’s preoccupation with the Fish Hoek man reveals much of her own psychology. Awerbuck cleverly pokes fun at the media frenzy around Saartjie Baartman, at the desire everyone has to be a part of a story. And through all these twists and variations, Awerbuck guides us gently.

Awerbuck is a magnificent writer, and her skill is evident here. She sketches life in Fish Hoek in delightful detail, bringing to life a suburb unknown to most. She gives Joanna a light humorous flair in her dialogue, inner thoughts, and tone, but also a starkness and a directness which is at times unnerving. Joanna talks freely about her insomnia, her fears, how her husband has only dated black women before her, and about her conflicted relationship with her now ex-employer.

Readers should be aware that the book becomes increasingly darker, and two tragedies befall Joanna. Her preoccupation with violence turns into a reality. They are – and are intended to be – harsh and jarring, but perhaps are a little too much, a little excessive, in that they make Joanna increasingly hard to relate to and understand. But these things are never clear cut, and no one’s responses to horrifying events should be easily judged.

Home Remedies is a bold novel about individuals scarred by history, and once you have been seduced you will not be disappointed.

This review first appeared in the Cape Times in November 2012.

REVIEW: Just My Type by Simon Garfield

9781846683015

Just My Type – A Book About Fonts

Simon Garfield

Profile Books

REVIEW BY: Andries Samuel

After finishing this book, you might rush off and design your own typeface – you have been warned. This is a book about pleasure and delight; in the union between eye, hand and its modern partner – process. Printing presses can be called the first modern machines and their lubricant, type, the first test of the evolution of handcraft.

Just My Type is an attractive book, with much thought given to its design and layout. The cover seems unnecessarily attention-seeking, since the title is laid out in a jumble of different and rare fonts, but here the central thrust of the book already becomes clear: for a typeface to be successful, it must not draw attention to itself. This sounds simple but the enormous scope for interpretation of this stricture forms the bulk of the story.

It is also a book-lover’s book. The smartness of the design runs throughout the hard cover edition. In spite of the transfer of fonts from the type foundry to the software studio, which the book does not shy away from, this reading experience is immersed in what the printed page can be. The structure of the chapters does as much to educate as to draw the reader through the delights of all the major typefaces. There is the role of Gill Sans in the branding of 20th century London, the Swiss takeover of the world by Helvetica, the development of Transport (designed by a South African woman) for Road Signs, Barack Obama’s capture of the White House with Gotham, and the never named serif on the base drum that accompanied Beatlemania.

The development of the book is tightly paced and holds together throughout. However, its just as useful as a reference work and any chapter can be read as a stand-alone piece. The driving force is always the inquiry about why and how typefaces work, what makes them beautiful and how they are made. This last point is particularly important, as the book never abstracts its subject matter. The craft of letter-making is real enough to make one catch a whiff of printing ink.

Garfield also discusses many issues related to typefaces and printing, some humorous and some verging on pop-psychology. But how else does one discuss “Why not to use Comic Sans?”? Many of the designers of contemporary fonts are still alive and the author reports on extensive correspondence and interviews with them: what does the creator of Comic Sans have to say for himself? What is the world-view of the creator of the latest default Microsoft font, Calibri? Further discussion relates to licensing and piracy of fonts, designers ‘borrowing’ ideas from each other and the rise and fall of Letraset. Without getting too technical, Garfield remains authoritative.

It should be essential reading for architecture and graphic design students. And if you have even the faintest interest in the fabric of the cultural world around you, you’ll enjoy this immensely.

Read here how this book inspired the reviewer to design his own font.

This review first appeared in the Cape Times in September 2011.

 

 

REVIEW: Bom Boy by Yewande Omotoso

BomBoy_FrontCover_96 dpi

 

Bom Boy

Yewande Omotoso

Modjaji Books

REVIEW BY: Aly Verbaan

It is often said that there is nothing more boring than other people’s dreams. I beg to differ. I don’t believe in Freud, but I do believe in the meaning of dreams and nightmares.

Ten-year-old Leke has a dream on the first page of Bom Boy, a simple child’s dream of acceptance and victory, but it’s a precursor to the 20-year-old Leke’s dreams, which uncloak just enough to convince the reader to give Leke another chance. Because Leke, or Bom Boy, is by no means a sympathetic character. He’s cold and calculating, and not particularly friendly to the other characters. But his dreams touch a common nerve: we know that someone who “slept, fell into a charcoal black hole and emerged exhausted, his muscles aching from a fight he couldn’t remember” is battling demons. His dreams are more real to him than reality, in which he is unmoored and without a compass.

Adopted as a baby by Jane and Marcus, a childless, white, middle-class Capetonian couple, Leke is an object of ridicule amongst the other kids: they know he is adopted because he is of mixed race. As an adult, Leke is rootless and immensely alone. Jane has died a protracted death to cancer, and Leke’s relationship with Marcus is fraying at the edges. The only affaire de coeur Leke has is with his car, Red, which he parks inside his studio apartment and sometimes sleeps in.

Packed to the gunwales with quirks, Leke is sometimes to be found planting Four O’Clocks in the moonlight, sometimes thieving at the local mall. He is sensitive and overwhelmed by life, but he is also siphoning off money from the Western Medical Fund where he works as a programmer.

Leke aches for human contact, touch, more urgently than anything else. He uses the medical fund to pay for a slew of medical check-ups: GPs, dentists, herbalists, optometrists, Hellerworkers, and even blood donations, just for the intimacy with another person. “‘Where does it hurt?’” asks the physiotherapist. “…Leke pointed to just below his hairline at the back of his head, and flapped his hands to indicate ‘everywhere’.”

Intertwined with Leke’s day-to-day life is his biological parents’ history two decades earlier when Leke was born. Elaine and Oscar’s relationship is doomed from the start: Elaine is trapped between the demands of her boss at the supermarket where she works, and taking care of the baby on her own, because Oscar is in jail for killing an elderly man.

Cape Town writer Yewande Omotoso

But it is not as it seems: Oscar’s intention was to quell a family curse, something Leke learns of from a series of letters Oscar wrote to him when he was in jail and Leke was a baby. They tell of his Yoruban roots, his grand- and great-grandparents, and of the hex that predestines that only sons will be born to the family and they will not live to life expectancy. Leke’s somatisation reaches the high-water mark when he finds he cannot read the letters because his eyes can’t focus on the words, although there is nothing wrong with his eyes otherwise.

Bom Boyexplores the idea of rebirth and the meaning of family against the mise en scène of black magic in a modern world. Omotoso illustrates inimitably what is means to be alone, materially and in mind, and just how thin the fabric of society is.

Bom Boy is an unusual and laudable debut, marred only by the editor’s massacre of commas and capital letters, and the occasional understandable, but unforgivable, slip in spelling.

  • Bom Boy was shortlisted for: 2012 Sunday Times Fiction Prize and the M-Net Literary Award in the Film category. It won the 2012 SALA English First-time Published Author Award

This review first appeared in the Cape Times in November 2011.

 

 

REVIEW: A Possible Life

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A Possible Life

By Sebastian Faulks

Hutchinson/Random House Struik

REVIEW: Karin Schimke

I am a fan of Sebastian Faulks. He had me hooked from Birdsong and wriggling happily all the way through to Engelby. Then came A Week In December and I thought the spell had been broken.

It hasn’t been. A Possible Life fills, satisfies, warms and holds the reader just like Human Traces and Charlotte Grey and On Green Dolphin Street did.

I have always liked Faulks for his ability to enliven and humanise history; here it is history – and future – that enlivens the characters, by pulling a thread from past to future.

The effect is a sense of wholeness, a wide-angle lens view on life beyond the brackets of individuals’ births and deaths. This book, with its five apparently unrelated stories, unrolls a historical universe which provides a perspective on life so large that it reminded me of the feeling I used to get when Carl Sagan’s TV series “Cosmos” opened up the universe in my parents’ living room.

In the introduction to that series, Sagan says: “Our contemplation of the cosmos stirs us…we know we are approaching the grandest of mysteries.”

For Faulks, in A Possible Life, the grandest mystery is “why humans are as they are” as Elena, the main character in the middle story, asks. To demonstrate this unfathomable mystery, he tells us five stories, each placed in a different time in history.

The first is about a mild-mannered and educated linguist who leaves teaching to become a British agent in France in the Second World War, recalling the milieu of Faulks’s fourth novel Charlotte Grey.

In the second part, we meet Billy, sent to work in a Victorian workhouse because his shoe-maker father has fallen on hard times. Through sheer dogged survival he overcomes abandonment, hunger, cruelty and illiteracy to create a life for himself and his family.

The third story is set in Italy in the near future, and tells the story of the scientifically minded Elena who is given a unique chance to investigate self-awareness in humans which allows them “to infer thought processes in others and to predict what they are going to do; [which lets them] them empathise, guess, anticipate, manipulate, out-think, out-fight – and, where necessary, co-operate”.

In the fourth we meet Jeanne, “the most ignorant person in the Limousin village where she spent most of her life”, a nursemaid to the two children of a rich landowner whose wife is incapacitated by depression.

And finally, set in the early part of the 1970s – amongst the hippie communes and hopefulness of the folk rock music industry – the story of Jack, who is renamed Freddie by his Joan Baez-like lover Anya.

The initial pages of the “novel” – it is moot that it is a novel when the stories are so distant from one another in time and place – were slow-going. Faulks seemed to ring fence his character Geoffrey, who appears both objectively rather boring and emotionally uninteresting. It is only once Geoffrey reaches France and is later taken prisoner by German soldiers that the story’s own momentum engaged me, even though the character himself remained closed.

This arms-length characterisation is, I believe, a style choice, and is not evident in some of the other characters whose inner lives are less puzzling to the reader. On the one hand, making Geoffrey of the first story, Billy of the second story and Jeanne of the fourth story closed, he is demonstrating their own incapacities for self-examination and introspection. In each case, this stunted emotional response to life is a natural consequences of the social and familial circumstances each was born into.

This detachment enhances one of the key themes of the book, which is how we become the people we are through our involvement with others, and how there is a search always for the Other, for some completing and fulfilling finishing of the self through relationships, particularly through a primary love relationship. Finally, each of these characters – and each of us – is essentially alone in the world in spite of a search for communion, in spite of the generation before us, the love we share with a partner or the generation we give birth too.

Faulks also toys with endlessly with the nature versus nurture debate. Does what we are reside in our bones, drive us from within our DNA? Or are we what we become because of what happens to us? Placing the scientific character Elena – and her history and story minded adopted brother Bruno – at the centre of the book, the writer demonstrates his preoccupation with these questions, but resists giving any answer.

Instead, he takes in entire lives, allowing glimpses into moments of illumination and transcendence that break through even the bleakest lives.

Each story carries within it echoes, symbols, material things (a small Madonna bust, a farm house) from the other four stories. They’re not always easy to spot, and once spotted, not always easy to link – sometimes even seeming ever so slightly contrived. Yet, again, this presses home the largeness of the loop of life, our “recycled brains” (as Elena puts it), the patterns of repetition from generation to generation, and century to century.

Critics have muttered about the looseness of the ties between the stories, and a sense that they link too obscurely. I had no such issues: there is a lucid refrain, a recurring melody of inquiry in A Possible Life and each story sings in harmony. – Schimke is an independent writer, a poet and the editor of the Cape Times books page.

 

 

REVIEW: No Time Like The Present by Nadine Gordimer

2012-10-24 13.34.49

2012-10-24 13.34.49No Time Like The Present

Nadine Gordimer

Picador Africa

REVIEW: Karin Schimke

Sweeping, cohesive, almost epic – and I use the word advisedly – in its scope, No Time Like The Present is the literary thermostat under the tongue of democratic South Africa. But to get the reading you first have to break an almost impossible code.

Nadine Gordimer remains the nation’s one true instrument for taking the political and sociological temperature, but in this, her fifteenth novel, she makes no concessions to the reader; appears to have no truck with stylistic niceties; considers – it seems – no-one and nothing  in a fever to get down what must be gotten down.

The reader must simply learn to read over, through and under the convoluted stream-of-consciousness writing. The prose is inconsistently and oddly punctuated. Truncated sentences contain subordinate clauses which contain their own subordinate clauses. Points of view flit and alight not just from chapter to chapter, but sometimes within paragraphs.

It’s rough going. It is very, very rough going.

And yet, here it is: the one novel that sums it all up, that combs through the knots and lice of democracy’s tangled hair and seems to smooth it all out for our stunned observation. Minutia swept together – sparkles and shards and the dust of a thousand post-freedom political storms and intimate tussles of conscience in a book which balks at nothing.

Steve and Jabu are the poster post-apartheid couple – he, white, middle-classed, born to a Christian father and a Jewish mother; she, the educated Zulu daughter of a church elder and school principal from KwaZulu-Natal. Their children are coloured, their friends, ex-Umkhonto We Sizwe cadres, their values and ideals in line with the struggle they fought for freedom in South Africa.

Now they are in “the present time”, finding a way to live “(a) normal life. (At last?) What is that. In what time and place?”. (This irregular punctuation is Gordimer’s).

They move from a flat to a suburb, she from teaching to law, he from working in a paint factory after making bombs in the underground, to being a science lecturer at university. Each grapples earnestly with the challenges of a split country, doing extra work – for free – in their attempts to help knit together a badly fractured society.

In a very general way, post-apartheid writing has followed two main, decidedly uncheerful themes: in non-fiction the tomes that record the rotten arms deal; in fiction crime, that burgeoning genre garnering our authors international book deals.

Gordimer manages a far wider range, her riff more perplexed, more doleful and more poignant than her cerebral, biltong-tough writing makes apparent. There are zero simple answers – there is no black and white in freedom, though black and white underpins it all – that will account for the dismaying turn the country’s fortunes  has taken.

“For this we fought?” asks a character.

She is thorough, punctilious and meticulous as she lays out the map of free South Africa, pointing bluntly at that which sickens and appals. And she does this – convincingly – through the eyes of former freedom fighters, loyal supporters of the ANC.

There is no public event or concern she avoids: capitalism, poverty, degradation of the environment, HIV/Aids, crime, corruption, immigrants and xenophobia, emigration, school bullying (and the underlying reef of violence that nudges sickeningly above ground at various times), education, electricity, service delivery protests, affirmative action.

There is no personal emotion that she doesn’t lift out of the mess to examine: responsibility, duty, betrayal, patriotism, the desire for a “a normal life” (which, questions Steve, might also include for him and his privileged family the Epicurean “right to happiness” – and the guilt this produces in one who, like all freedom fighters, put the greater good before personal satisfaction), the shame of racism, the horror of watching principled men and women fall to greed and genuflect to the requirements the ascension to power lays before them.

Gordimer speaks eloquently to the development of the self – “The synthesis of the self” – portraying the country too as a self that must grow. The country is an adolescent, she has one of her characters think, offering it not as an excuse for bad behaviour, but an almost exasperated, perhaps even hopeful, observation of the obvious.

She also reflects on the dismay when the thing that is being grown (a person, a self, a country) grows skew, gnarls in unexpected ways, showing selfishness, and dangerous concessions to cult of the individual.

Marriage, making whole, growing up – these are leitmotifs trailed by both the characters and the milieu.

In public Gordimer has spoken clearly and consistently against the government’s Protection of Information Bill, colloquially known as the secrecy bill. In the privacy of her disciplined dedication to daily writing, she has laid out why in this novel. Just like apartheid South Africa needed her and her courageous ilk then, so we continue to need our vociferous, critical writers and artists now.

There is no time like the present. The past is – in all ways but the most critical, in its legacy – a different country. What happens now – what has happened in the past 18 years – is where Gordimer has pointed her merciless beam.

In doing so she again will make herself a tolerated – not welcomed individual – amongst the touchy, over-sensitive rulers, just like she was in apartheid SA. Good. She’s our golden thorn in the government’s flesh.

Like loyalty to a country in the face of extreme disregard for its citizens, this book is hard work. But its rewards are far more certain and immediate. It must be read.  – Schimke is the Cape Times books editor.

 

 

REVIEW: Lost Ground by Michiel Heyns

LOST GROUND

Michiel Heyns

Jonathan Ball

REVIEW: Karin Schimke

There is the story of the story, and then there is the writer’s story, of which the reader is often not aware. Sometimes, the writer too, remains ignorant of how his or her story underpins and overlaps journalistic observations; moves and feints around the building blocks of the narrative they are constructing.

Peter Jacobs, the narrator of Lost Ground is a writer who trips over his own story in an attempt to write a long feature article for an international newspaper. Of course, the elements for involvement are already there: he is a man returning to the Little Karoo town he grew up in because his enchanting cousin  Desirée has been murdered.

The richness of the material for a piece that would interest an international audience is easy to spot: Desiree comes from a conservative white Afrikaners family, her father a former mayor of the tiny town of Alfredville. Desirée’s husband is the coloured police chief of the town and former ANC activist Hector Williams. He is also the suspect in the murder and has been arrested, leaving the town’s law in the hands of his deputy Bennie Nienaber.

Explaining his writerly interest in the story, Peter tells his new friend in town – a psychologist called Nonyameko – that the press covered the events of the murder but “I want to find out what the facts mean, what they tell us about the possibilities or impossibilities of a non-racial South Africa”. He believes that the murder is more than just a “bad marriage” gone wrong, but that there was also some “significant confluence of events”.

There was indeed a significant confluence of events that lead to Desirée’s skull being bashed in by a small household statue: Peter’s involvement with the ‘characters’ in his story is not merely as the inquisitive eye of social analyst, but he finds that, in spite of his twenty year absence from South Africa and the fact that he has not had contact with his cousin or other family, nor with his school best friend Bennie, he is central to – even it seems implicated in – Desirée’s death.

It all sounds very heavy, doesn’t it? Where history and politics of a country crash into the history and politics of the individual, the consequences are seldom gentle sentimental waves, but devastating emotional tsunamis. And yet, Ground Work doesn’t give off any of the airs one sometimes expects from novels that deal with Important Topics. It grows lushly, in fact, out of the simplest elements of successful story-making: interesting basic  “facts”, believable and entertaining dialogue, well-paced information release, a gentle tension that builds gradually, an acute sense of time, place and character and, most triumphantly, humour.

It is, however, Heyns’ style – his dry, funny scrutiny of his characters, his narrator’s self-effacing and slightly self-mocking personal insights, his ability to convey the grainy texture of even the simplest emotion – that makes Ground Work  an unmitigated novelistic happiness to stumble into. Not that one stumbles into Heyns – not, in any case if one is an avid reader of South African literature. That he is enormously and impressively awarded for both his novel writing and his translation of major Afrikaans novels into English is no secret.

Readers who may “stumble” into him by way of alluring book displays in airport books shops or in mall shop windows are likely to buy the book because of its – richly fulfilled – promise of a mystery/murder story, but will be pleasantly surprised by the multi-facetted, diamond-like quality of this wonderful work of fiction.