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REVIEW: The Humans

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51y66G4dZNLThe Humans

Matt Haig

Canongate

REVIEW: Jennifer Crocker

Professor Andrew Martin is not who people think he is, and no, this is not a midlife existential crisis novel. The reason Andrew Martin is not who people think he is is because the human mathematical genius has just solved one of the most important mathematical problems of all time. The reason he is dead is because a group of aliens from the planet Vonnadoria don’t want the hypothesis in human hands. So a substitution takes place.

The only problem for the imposter Cambridge professor is that he really knows nothing about being human. Wearing clothes, for instance, and a number of other things that puzzle and baffle him. He has come to earth prepared to despise humans for a greater cause, but then things start going strangely awry. Martin has a wife Isobel and a rather surly son, who hasn’t ever had much of a relationship with his actual father. So, the family is somewhat puzzled by the new Andrew’s behaviour.

Matt Haig has written a book that the late Douglas Adams would be proud of, without making it in any way derivative of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. This is not about funny aliens, it is about ones who are very determined that anyone who knows about Andrew’s solving of the hypothesis must die. The Vonnadorians are not evil, they’re just doing a job.

But, Andrew is slowly taught, hilariously at first, through reading Cosmopolitan magazine, about what being a human is all about. And what he finds makes his mission near impossible. Because he is meant to kill his family and he finds that he is advocating with his controllers on Vonnadoria to see that humans are not all bad. They don’t buy his excuses and this leads to a tense moment towards the end of the book which will have  you on the edge of your seat, or clinging to your mattress as you wait to see who will win.

I found the book deeply moving and funny at the same time.The choices that Andrew will have to make are poignant ones, to risk being beyond immortal for the sake of being human, and to risk losing the family he thinks he might want if he acts on his instructions.

Along the way it is also a story about our human failings in relationships, how we put work before family, and fame before the common day things in life that make it bearable.

One of the shout-outs on the cover is that the book is a mixture of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, and The Man Who Fell to Earth, by Walter Tavis. It is nothing like either of them. I gulped down The Humans in one stretch of reading, and have only one gripe: that the ending rather gilded the lily.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in January 2014

 

REVIEW: 419

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Chilling thriller and lyrical narrative brings scamming to life

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Will Ferguson

Head Zeus

Review: Jennifer Crocker

We’ve all had them, that tantalising email that tells a sad story about a person who is the heir to a great fortune, but can’t access it without the intervention of a third party to clear the funds. Known as 419 scams, they seek to get credulous individuals to part with their banking details and to start sending money to the scammers in order to free up a huge chunk of the fortune for their trouble.

While many people laugh them off, and they are widely known to be scams, every year ordinary people fall for them, and get burned.

In 419 Will Ferguson has put together a complex narrative that tells the tale of two countries, sedate Canada and the sometimes wild frontier of Nigeria. It starts with a death. Laura’s father, a dependable family man, is involved in a fatal single-car collision and dies in the midst of an icy storm. He leaves behind him his bewildered wife, son, and daughter Laura.

The story shifts rapidly to Laura arriving in Lagos on a two-day trip to find out the truth about what it was that caused her father’s death. She is treading on dangerous ground, but she has no idea how complex the situation is.

The man she is tracking is the man who has scammed her father, and who she believes to be the agent of his death.

All of this could disintegrate into a story about how some poor bloke has been ripped off by an African criminal, but in the hands of Ferguson it becomes a rich story about the real Nigeria, or as close as one can get to a country that has the distinction of having turned out some of the world’s finest authors and academics, and given it one of the biggest fraud scams in the world.

Because, as we find through the Nigerian section of the narrative (which is by far the most lengthy and complex), Nigeria is riddled with its own agony, an agony that is caused by Western greed for oil and the exploitation of the oil rich areas.

Through 419 the reader is taken into the deep story of oil exploitation in Nigeria by foreign-owned companies and the devastation that it has brought to a country that was already, as with so many African countries a nation composed not so much of nationhood or hegemony, but rather by the capricious whims of the pencils and machinations of colonial powers drawing lines on maps.

This historical fact allows Ferguson to introduce two wonderful characters: a young man who prospers initially from the discovery of oil near his village, and a young woman who is walking away from shame, alone and pregnant – an almost chimeric character who will draw the young man, Laura and her father’s scammer into a devilish dance of narrative and plot.

The briefer counter-narrative, set in Laura’s home country, gives a rich background to how powerless law enforcement agencies are to stop 419 scams. The police are sympathetic but make it very clear that there is no way that the case will ever be followed up. The reason for this is because the clever 419 guys are professionals. And this is a chilling part of the book, how the real professionals get to know their prey and draw them in. For the real deal guys – not the yahoo boys, as the amateurs are known – there is an art and a craft involved. By the time they have reeled in a victim they will know so much about them that a fine and sticky web will have been spun around their lives, causing them to act, yes out of greed, but also out of fear as the web becomes more dense. Of course there are also the people at the top who control this “industry”, and of course these are very dangerous people indeed.

By going to Nigeria to attempt to get back her father’s money Laura is the figure who draws the threads of the 419 story together, and yet she also is a somewhat undrawn character, rather like the young woman who is walking and walking, until she meets Winston the young man from the village that has been plundered by the oil tycoons and then left to rot as soon as there was any risk to them.

This is both a chilling thriller and a lyrical narrative about the nature of evil, and how good people can become tangled up in it. There is no hysteria here, and a welcome and readable telling of the story of both the 419 scam and the horrors that plague Nigeria because of its oil. It’s a story told with a refreshingly un-Western approach – if that is possible for a North American writer, and it almost always is for Ferguson – about Nigeria. That he manages to weave through a story about facts a human narrative that operates on many levels makes this a wonderful read, and an important book. 419 is a fine exposition of the collision between two worlds, and the horrors of unintended consequences.

  • This story first appeared in the Cape Times in January 2014

TOP TEN SOUTH AFRICAN BOOKS 2013

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TOP TEN BOOKS 2013

By Karin Schimke

There are a great many contenders each year, but here’s my pick for The Star’s Top Ten Books of 2013. Sheesh, what challenge to narrow it down.

 

 

Categories of Persons: Rethinking Ourselves and Others

Edited by Megan Jones and Jacob Dlamini

Picador Africa

These nine engrossing essays grasp way beyond stereotype towards richer understandings of what it means to be South African. In lucid prose, each essay reveals the intimate politics of body, language or role. Outstanding writing and exciting slant-wise thought on the absurdity and inefficiency of simple identity markers.

Endings and Beginnings

Redi Tlhabi

Jacana

The rigorous and unflinching story Tlhabi’s childhood and of her friend Mabegzo – who started well but went down in flames – is driven by truth not ego. It’s savagely intense and moral without being preachy.

The Spiral House

Claire Robertson

Umuzi

Archaic language makes it difficult to get into this book with its two intertwined narratives in across two centuries, but the rewards are manifold. Complex and rich with experience and sensation.

Wolf Wolf

Eben Venter

Tafelberg

A harrowing book with a shocking sting in the tail, Wolf Wolf tells the story of a young gay man looking after his dying father. Masterful tale about people losing control.

From Quantum to Cosmos: The Universe Within

Neil Turok

Faber and Faber

This SA-trained scientist weaves personal experiences and thinking into a wide-ranging tour through science’s history and philosophy, presenting thrilling ideas plainly but lucidly.

Zebra Crossing

Meg Vandermerwe

Umuzi

An albino teenaged orphan and her brother flee Zimbabwe for Cape Town. There are no clichés in this kaledeiscopic debut about the life of immigrants on the fringes of society.

False River

Dominique Botha

Umuzi

This story of lefty Afrikaans farm kids making their troubled way into adulthood is lyrical and memorable. Poignant, funny and richly poetic, it’s not just another South African farm story.

My children have faces

Carol Campbell

Umuzi

The Karoo gypsies – known as karretjiemense – are given faces in this debut novel full of intrigue and drama. Fast-paced and filled with romance, tenderness, jealousy and revenge.

The Imagined Child

Jo-Anne Richards

Picador Africa

A jaded city woman seeks a fresh start in a small town in this gently humorous story, which explores parenthood, secrets, guilt and fear. Increasing suspense makes it absorbing.

Penumbra

Songeziwe Mahlangu

Kwela

This astonishing debut explores modern urban life and its attendant dangers for a young graduate with a cushy first job. It calls to mind the work of K. Sello Duiker and Phaswane Mpe.

LAST YEAR: 1.The Big Stick 2. The Garden of Evening Mists 3. My Father, My Monster 4. The Hungry Season 5. The Great Agony and Pure Laughter of the Gods 6. The Long Way Home 7. This Book Betrays My Father 8. Eloquent Body 9. Biko 10. Absent Tongues

 

REVIEW: False River

9781415203811

9781415203811

False River

Dominique Botha

Umuzi

REVIEW: Ruth Browne

Dominique Botha’s dense, gorgeous novel-memoir, dedicated to her parents, tells of the growth and dissolution of her brother, Paul.

Raised together on Rietpan, the Free State farm owned and inhabited by the Botha family for generations, Dominique and Paul explore childhood and adolescence together on wide-open farmland in a country of closed minds. The oldest of five children, these two carry the family legacy and the expectations of their parents most heavily. For Paul, the road out of Rietpan led to a deep existential despair.

False River reads in part as a mapping of that trajectory, but it is also a portrait of the relationship between a sister and her older brother, complete with petty cruelties, love and infinite longing.

Botha portrays herself as a soft-hearted child, barefoot and sunburnt and easily swayed. Paul marches ahead of her, winning prizes for his poetry at the local school, reading everything that comes to hand, learning independence the hard way.

Soon Paul is sent off to a private English school in Natal, and Pa’s greatest concern is that his son will forget his Afrikaner heritage. When Dominique follows her brother to attend a nearby girls’ school, her loyalty to her ancestry is also tested, and the tension between English- and Afrikaans-speaking white South Africans is subtly disclosed through the snide comments of classmates.

But Rietpan is always on the horizon for Dominique and Paul both, as though each has an anchor sunk in the muddy pan that dries to a husk in summer, its floor covered in flopping fish. For Paul the farm has an earthy resonance that is at once of and beyond words: the ploughing of soil, the hard work of operating a tractor and caring for cattle. In some sense he is planted in Rietpan – it is the only solid ground he knows.

For Dominique, who exists in a state of constant, submerged anxiety, Rietpan is merely home. She writes the details of preserving fruit and meat, of cleaning and maintaining and preparing, with a thoughtless familiarity that shows just how deep her roots go. Ouma’s pantry shelves are “lined with aniseed rusks and preserved watermelon”, and at home, guinea fowl fillets are “cut with a thick seam of fat and laid head to toe in vats and layered in salt” for biltong. Even more telling is her encyclopaedic knowledge of the plants and animals that share her world, from English oaks, white stinkwoods and pepper trees to waterbuck hiding in the wag-‘n-bietjies, and doves “swirl[ing] above the chimneys before oncoming storms”. The barbels and leguaans in the water inspire chilling mythologies for the children, and the smells, sights and tastes of rural life are evoked with great care and poetry. History lies thick on Rietpan, and Botha knows exactly how to sample that rich atmosphere and display it in all its poignant delicacy.

Botha blurs the line between biography and fiction with refreshing honesty, rather than claiming total recall of long-gone thoughts and conversations. At the same time, she draws out the history of the Viljoenskroon district and its place in the national context, referencing her parents’ activism and the segregated categories of black and white still very much in force during her childhood. Young Dominique echoes her father’s educated turns of phrase and political sentiment, and also takes correction from his belt. Pa is a hard man struggling to be fair in a nation wracked with inequality, and his efforts to remain strong, honest and decent have mixed effects on his children. His wife is sharp-minded with a head for business, but leaves much of the angst and discipline to her husband.

As Dominique grows, her voice matures, and she retreats further and further into herself. She reads as a profoundly lonely narrator, following her brother’s wild spoor scattered across the wilderness and then the world, as he grows up and leaves the farm. Botha assaults the fraught ideals of rigid masculinity, but they nevertheless possess the power to hurt her brother and everyone around him.

Paul Botha is a poet, and in writing him his sister has revealed herself as a poet too. This is not a hagiography. In some ways Paul comes across as a character in a Julian Barnes novel, like Adrian Finn in The Sense of an Ending: at first a precocious schoolboy intellectual, then increasingly worldly and mournful.

But Botha has drawn him with scars and flaws intact, powerfully human. In that telling, she also embodies herself in fiction, telling the story again so that nothing may be forgotten.

Finally, with her eye for context, history and human interaction and emotion, she writes us too, as a nation, holding up all of our wounds and contradictions for everyone to see.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in 2013