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REVIEW: The Lowland

Cover Jhupa Lahiri

Cover Jhupa LahiriThe Lowland    

Jhumpa Lahiri


REVIEW: Sue Townsend

“When I first started writing I was not conscious that my subject was the Indian-American experience. What drew me to my craft was the desire to force the two worlds I occupied to mingle on the page as I was not brave enough, or mature enough, to allow in life.” So said Jhumpa Lahiri in an interview with the New Yorker shortly after her eagerly anticipated second novel The Lowland was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2013 (it subsequently made it onto the short list).

I have never been to India but I find that it has got under my skin.  Ever since reading Anita Desai and Salman Rushdie in the 1970s and 80s I have been fascinated by Indian writers (although Desai is half German and lived mostly in England and Rushdie also lives outside of India).  Desai, her daughter Kiran as well as Rushdie and others (Gita Mehta comes to mind) write about the contradictions between life in India and that in the United States or England; the tensions between the old traditional culture and the new ‘modern’ one of the West.

Jhumpa Lahiri was born in London to Bengali parents but the family moved to Rhode Island when she was two.  Here she lived and was educated and here she has set part of her new novel.  The other location is Calcutta, a city she visited often as her grandparents remained there.  The geography of the two places is contrasted but resonates – both have low-lying swamps or marshes.  The title refers to a marshy stretch of land between two ponds in a Calcutta neighbourhood where two very close brothers grow up in the 1940s and 50s. In monsoon season, the marsh floods and the ponds combine; in summer, the floodwater evaporates. It is clear that the two ponds symbolize the two brothers — at times separate; at other times inseparable. But there is still more meaning hidden in this landscape, Lahiri goes on to tell us: “Certain creatures laid eggs that were able to endure the dry season. Others survived by burying themselves in mud, simulating death, waiting for the return of rain.” Not surprisingly, one brother goes to America to study oceanography – both chemical and ecological.  But she is contrasting not only topography and culture but also the divergent lives of the brothers Udayan and Subhash.  Udayan stays in India and joins the Naxalite revolutionary movement and the breakaway Marxist-Leninist splinter group of the Communist Party of India while Subhash, the conservative brother, pursues an academic career in America – steadfastly keeping his head below the parapet. Gauri is the woman who carries one of the brothers’ child. This daughter, Bela, in turn has to deal with her mother’s decisions as well as the eventual knowledge of her true paternity.

The writing is pared to the bone but not bleak, descriptions are lyrical and the protagonists are portrayed with great sympathy and humanity as they thread their way through the consequences of decisions that, when they were taken, seemed inevitable.  Because the characters are “a family of solitaries” in Subhash’s words it is necessary for the narrator to constantly eavesdrop on their various thoughts and relay them to us. In an interview with the Chicago Times Lahiri refers to the triangles that are central to the relationships she explores – between Udayan, Subhash and Gauri as well as between Subhash, Gauri and her daughter Bela. The triangles start, however, with the two brothers and their mother Bijoli.  These triangles create the tension which epitomises a family which, Lahiri explains, has to have at least three people, usually of two generations. Interestingly, the father of the boys is a benign but uninvolved presence.

Toward the end of The Lowland, a rainstorm hits, rousing Subhash out of his lifelong timidity, that mud hiding place Lahiri describes in her lyrical opening. Part of the beauty of this novel is that it’s far from a foregone conclusion whether this hard rain will give Subhash a new life, or drown him. Gauri, on the other hand, finally returns, on a whim, to Calcutta and finds the swamp has been filled in and covered with a housing estate – no trace of Udayan or his memorial stone remains, all has been obliterated.

What a pleasure it is when a second novel exceeds the expectations raised by its predecessor.

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



PLAY REVIEW: The Orange Earth


The Pain of our Past in Classic Play

47539941_0_Img2The Orange Earth

Adam Small

NB Publishers

As I write this, it has been barely a week since Nelson Mandela passed away. All day, as I considered how to review Adam Small’s play The Orange Earth, which he describes as a “denouncement of the evil political system of Apartheid”, one of the memorials held for the former South African President played on the TV behind me. Reading The Orange Earth, which is the story of a political activist detained during Apartheid, I cannot help but think of Mandela and the many, many others who were unjustly arrested and imprisoned during that time.

Although The Orange Earth was written in 1978, it is only earlier this year that the text was published for the first time. The play follows Johnny Adams, a coloured man (he calls himself one of “the dusty people”) who is being tried for his suspected role in the bombing of a shopping centre during Apartheid. The play is structured as a series of dream-like memories revisited by Johnny during his trial and filtered through interactions with his wife, father and prison warden.

Arguably the best known of the celebrated writer and academic’s work, Small has described The Orange Earth as a fictionalised autobiography. The playwright refers to the play as “on- and ongoing”, perhaps in part because of its various versions. The play was initially written in Small’s first language, Afrikaans. He then translated it into English in 1984 to be broadcast as a radio play by the BBC. Small writes that “the drama’s Afrikaans version is somewhat tighter than the full length BBC text.” However, it’s the English version that is being reviewed here. Even in the notes around the play, Small is clear that, in his opinion, it is only through considering both versions that a director could do justice to the play, perhaps underlining the manifold dangers of segregation explored in The Orange Earth’s content.

That the play was eventually rewritten for radio seems clear when reading its opening. The first few pages are meant to be experienced in production as a soundscape, with the stage directions instructing that all lights be turned off in order for the audience to listen to “the unsettling voices in the dark.”  Perhaps this particular focus on the sounds of words, particularly those describing confusion and terror, are also linked to Small’s prolific career as a poet. The play is lyrical, using repetition and ellipses to, perhaps, point to the struggle to articulate pain through words.

I reread The Orange Earth during the past week’s deluge of homages to Madiba, thinking of his speeches around the importance and necessity of forgiveness. This play feels like a reminder that behind forgiveness there is the memory of what came before, and perhaps after, it: pain.

The Orange Earth is a pain-filled text. The feeling of a harm which seems almost irreparable and the question of how to live in the face of it (especially when you are repeatedly told, as Johnny is, that you are not allowed to) is almost palpable in the play. It pulsates. One of the most searing images in The Orange Earth is a childhood memory returned to repeatedly. In it, Johnny’s mother is instructed by a white woman to move to the back of the house rather than approach the font door. “She looks right past her, as if Mamma isn’t there,” recalls Johnny. This memory, along with others, is dragged across the skin of the play repeatedly. That The Orange Earth is loosely based on the playwright’s own experiences is clear in his decision to include a photograph of his mother on the back cover. A similar picture is mentioned in the play. In it, she looks at the camera, a bloom tucked behind an ear, posies in one hand, the other holding out her flora dress. She is, herself, budding, full of potential. Beneath the picture it reads: “The playwright’s mother as a young woman, the girl who had to go around the back.” This is one of the strongest moments of The Orange Earth for me. Here she is, her position at the back now signifying her importance, her history, her existence. She is impossible to look past.

  • Genna Gardini is a poet and playwright based in Cape Town. She is currently completing her MA Theatre-making (Playwriting) at UCT.
  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in January 2014


REVIEW: The Humans


51y66G4dZNLThe Humans

Matt Haig


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




Chilling thriller and lyrical narrative brings scamming to life


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

Prepping for the new year without resolutions


I seldom read self-help books and I never make New Year’s resolutions. Either I’m perfect, or I’m beyond help.

resolutions1So reading a book entitled Your Best Year Yet (Jinny Ditzler) – complete with notebook and pencil to hand and an entire spreadsheet of plans, lists and goals on my desktop – in the middle of December is an anomaly of note.

The only reason I did, was because a freelance writer whose work ethic, clarity of vision and time management I’m in awe of mentioned the book in passing. I’ve always found her single-mindedness astonishing, and thought perhaps the book would give me a glimpse on her magic trick.

I thoroughly enjoyed the entire extended exercise of figuring out what I want and why and how to make time to embark on the projects that really, really matter to me. You know that stuff you always want to do and think one day you’ll get to? The nonsensical things, which won’t necessarily make you rich or famous, or a better or thinner or more robust person, but which won’t leave you alone in your quiet moments of dreaming yourself beyond the dreary every day?

If the book doesn’t help me achieve any of my goals this year, at least I’ll have a detailed and clear exposition of the goals I failed to reach.

In spite of the all the jolly December frolicking that happened when I wasn’t working or deciding what I wanted to be when I grow up, I knocked off some superb books this month. I finally got around to reading The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, a book that really needed to be ticked off the list finally. In it, Didion unpicks her thinking in the year following her husband’s death. Its acuity is breathtaking, her arrangement of word and thought affecting. I’d have abandoned a sentimental, mawkish weep fest within minutes, but I did sometimes long for more heart, less intellect.

By far the most wonderful book of December was a quite unexpected thing: Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, which I cannot recommend highly enough.

I’m about three pages away from the end of The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, an entrancing, but rather problematic-in-places, novel.

I read Out of Sheer Rage, a book by Geoff Dyer, which amusingly documents his inability to get started on a project he has wanted to do for years. He’s very funny, but his procrastination – even if it has been hammed up – is so pathological I kept expecting him to realise he needed therapy.

My – and I think many other ordinary people’s dreams – are put on hold because of the press and urgency of earning money and bringing up children. Mr Dyer has no such ready excuses. There’s no dwelling on the sources of his income, but he is lucky enough to be able to not get started on his dream project in Paris, Rome, an island in Greece and in the UK, all the while berating himself for the reader’s amusement.

I wish I could procrastinate so luxuriously.

I also read Nick Hornby’s Stuff I’ve Been Reading. His column in The Believer magazine is much like this column: a record of what he’s read. It was fun to compare notes.

And finally, a slow meander through The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai. He writes – I’m forcing this back to the topic of resolutions and change and plans whether you like it or not – “And it is written that we too shall change,/like the words,/in future and in past,/in plural and in lonliness.

Happy new year, readers.

  • This Chapter & Verse column by Karin Schimke appeared in the Cape Times in January 2014. 




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


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


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


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


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


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


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.


Songeziwe Mahlangu


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



False River

Dominique Botha


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

REVIEW: And The Mountains Echoed

mountains echoed

And the mountains echoedAnd The Mountains Echoed

Khaled Hosseini


REVIEW: Shirley de Kock Gueller

Profound sadness and a trenchant sense of longing streak through Hosseini’s new book and yet, and yet, there’s an odd upliftment. It’s a softer read , perhaps, than his others, but a strong and complex one.

Although the narrative is essentially about a brother and sister, Abdullah and Pari, there are parallel stories, all of which add seamlessly to the atmosphere more than to the direct narrative.  Hosseini calls it multi-generational family story, but in some ways it is almost like a series of short stories with overlapping characters and the overlapping themes of betrayal, loss, and separation. Set in the turbulence of Afghanistan of the ‘pewter sky’, past and present, Hosseini begins with a fable in the 50s.  He keeps us with him from the poor of Shadbagh to the excitement of early Kabul and the horrors of the post-war capital, the solitude of a Greek island to Paris and San Francisco, from jihad to jinns via the complexity of relationships with their truths and lies.

With The Kite Runner still in my mind, I began this book with a feeling of impending doom. Hosseini is a captivating storyteller as he proved again in A Thousand Splendid Suns. And The Mountains Echoed is a novel of a different sort – it’s all about dislocation of physical place and mental turmoil. Drawn in by the fable of mischievous divs who take young children, I settled in to see how the story unfolded and found there were six.

The losses are huge and overwhelming – from the loss of a way of life under Taliban’s Afghanistan, to loss of movement to rheumatoid arthritis, loss of memory when Alzheimer’s arrives, and freedom when a dog destroys a face, and loss of life itself. The betrayals are equally ghastly: when a child is sold and siblings separated, this is a Sophie’s Choice of a different kind with different and equally destructive consequences. Or when a child is left wanting, or when a pretty twin is pushed to paralysis from the branches of a tree.

A reality check comes in the form of a refugee father and son returned from Pakistan to reclaim their home, only to find it occupied by a braggart warlord with a son of his own, whose perception of his father is shockingly shaken.  So there’s some redemption.

It’s very now, with wars in our living rooms, and Hosseini reinforces that by the commitment of a much-needed surgeon, and then destroys our belief in redemption as another fails a girl in need of repair. Like The Kite Runner’s Amir who goes to America, so do Abdullah and other boys from the village,  one of whom makes so spectacularly good that his largesse seems vulgar.  At times there’s a painstaking pasting together of the pieces of a torn photograph with a patience that brings success.

And the Mountain Echoed is a story of conflict, confusion, misinformation, of children rebelling, heartbroken, when they see what tyrannical fathers really did, of secrets and sacrifice and of suicide when the secret is too much to bear; of Islam versus the west; of a kid wanting to deny his good education in Afghanistan so as not to jeopardise a place in a US college; of what women want or are entitled to, or not.

Hosseini knows how to present pain, for almost all of the characters are damaged, and there’s too little too late to bandage the wounds. Whether the idea of a finger “cut to save the hand” works, is moot at best. He also knows how to understate love. Hosseini allows the reader to swing from emotion to emotion as one learns more about his people, their lives and their fears.

Contrasts are  stabbingly stark – the dusty streets of the villages of Afganistan and the paved SUV-studded highways of America, or the tree-lined avenues of France. The jaded Afghan-American boys who order chapli kabobs, the closest thing to hamburger in the Afghan-owned Abe’s Kabob House in San Francisco, where an ancient Abe of 67 is a far cry from the young Abdullah of Afghanistan; and the refugee boy who teaches the rich man’s son about values. Stark indeed is the fact that the home theatre in San Francisco could have paid for a school back home in Afghanistan.

In sketching the culture shock as one travels back from one to the other, one feels the First World is wanting. There’s a dignity in the poverty of the peasants that is sadly missing in the middle-class wealth, and Hosseini shows it beautifully. Don’t get too attached to any characters – he has a habit of rewriting them which changes the way one feels about them as he transforms them from.

A couple of parts don’t really ring true – a very rambling and almost indulgent interview in an arts magazine seems out of place. It works as a device to reveal character, of course, as it shows the “lurid melodrama of shackled beauties and doomed romances and pervasive oppression”.

Still, I couldn’t put the book down. As can be expected, Hosseini’s prose is eloquent. In the end, it may not be the story that gets you; it will be the telling of it.

Until the end, I still waited for more resolution, satisfaction, revenge, redemption, compensation and even though there’s not too much of this, I read it again and really discovered its power.

  •  This review first appeared in the Cape Times in 2013