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Review: The Girl with all the Gifts


GirlThe Girl with all the Gifts 

M.R. Carey

Orbit Books

ISBN: 9780356502731

REVIEW: Liesl Jobson

Had I not gone as a journalist to report on the recent Open Book Festival event at which Mike Carey spoke — with open-hearted animation and self-deprecating humour to the topic “Sci-fi/Fantasy Rocks” — I would not have given The Girl with all the Gifts a second glance. Post-apocalyptic fantasies feature nowhere on my reading list. Ever. But when this book surfaced in the reviewers’ pool, I grabbed it.

Carey is a highly skilled storyteller. His powerful written style amply lives up to his engaging personal presence in this spectacular and peculiar multi-genre tale. Part psychological thriller, part sci-fi narrative, part futuristic horror show, this epic quest is the summation of Carey’s various writerly competencies.

The five major characters in this book make an arduous journey under enormous duress in search of salvation from an incomprehensible virus. After being attacked the host is transmogrified into an unthinking and all-consuming monster. This trope taps into our elemental terror of who we become when our human existence as we know it is threatened. “We all have the potential to be monstrous,” said Carey at the Open Book Festival. Here he explores what drives us to retain our humanity in the face of the unfathomable and unfixable.

His deft handling of these archetypal themes could be a metaphor for a range of contemporary ills: vulture capitalism fed by humankind’s rapacious and unthinking consumerism; the democratisation of stupidity as fostered by the internet; the seductive trance of television; or, our sloppy unpreparedness to handle ebola in a manner that is calm, compassionate and wise.

The condensed visual power of M.R. Carey’s history as a comic book writer (he wrote for the X-Men) meets his dialogue driven scriptwriting experience in an unputdownable tale of grace and justice, albeit of a bizarre nature. He borrows from science, exploring the grim reality of the parasitic fungus, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis. Once infected, the ant’s behaviour is manipulated by neurotransmitters that mimic the ant’s own chemistry. This results in the host’s destruction as spore-producing stalks explode from within ant’s body to proliferate and commence the new life-cycle. One might well ask whether this doesn’t echo the way human neurology is being shaped by social media and relentless online connectedness. The heartless scientist, Dr Caldwell, eloquently describes the process, which could be any variety of addiction: “Tiny chemical wrecking balls pounding away at the edifice of self until it cracks and crumbles, falls apart.”

It is impossible to describe this story without giving away critical aspects that risk spoiling the reading experience. Suffice it to say that young Melanie is a brilliant “child” (read the air quotes sub-text as you must) who is kept under armed guard and fed a diet of grubs. She imbibes stories and legends from her beloved teacher, Miss Justineau, and retells them to herself in her isolated cell. A psychologist haunted by her own dark secrets and part of the research team, Miss Justineau is determined to love her young subjects, which puts her in direct conflict with Sergeant Parks. He is the boorish military man in charge of the operation who taunts the children in an early scene. His side-kick, Private Gallagher, is a traumatised survivor, tormented by a raging alcoholic father. In an unutterably tender moment he, very much later, reads Melanie a story, offering her that which he never received himself.

The power of story is an unnamed but significant character in this book. The myths and legends Miss Justineau feeds Melanie keep her alive. She comforts herself with them when alone in her cell, where she is held under lock and key as part of a cruel scientific endeavour. The egotistic Dr Caldwell believes her research will save humanity. The stories spur Melanie’s development enabling the girl to make connections that ultimately offer the true solution for the next generation.

Structurally, there is a perfect reversal of the power dynamics. As the story arc reaches its various apices full-bodied full-blooded characters take their rightful place, unfolding their own dramatic conflicts and that of the overarching story. There is nothing not to like in this book that will live on in your memory long after you’ve closed its simple yet embracing cover.

Without having heard Carey in person, my literary snobbishness would have prevented me from reading this exquisite story. That would have been my loss.

The burning man after the burning book

book burning
This morning, the images of burning people in the news...here's a column I wrote in February 2014 and for which I was torn apart.

To burn books is to make a strong political statement. To burn a book is a symbolic act culturally understood to stand in for a hatred of ideas.

Book burning – like flag burning – is ceremonial; an overt statement of an intention to oppose freedom of thought. It is emblematic of a narrow worldview, of censorship, of a desire to silence dissent.

At around 3am this past Tuesday morning, the Zithobeni Community Library in Bronkhorstspruit, east of Pretoria, was set alight.

The library was built in 1986 and it served a large community that included two high schools and three primary schools.

It is moot that this deplorable act of violence by protestors against their neighbours was meant symbolically, but it’s worth asking if it was, and what it might be symbolic of.

The Nazis made a bonfire on Opernplatz in Berlin in 1933 and burned the books of Albert Einstein, Karl Marx, Leon Trotsky, Émile Zola, Friedrich Engels, Franz Kafka and Ernest Hemingway. They also burnt the books of Heinrich Heine, a Jewish-born German poet, journalist and essayist, who’d written in a play just over 100 years earlier, that: “Dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen” – “Where they burn books, they will, in the end, also burn people.”

Never was that direct correlation between the burning of books and the burning of people more direct and literal than in Nazi Germany.

The service delivery protests – the inflamed rash on the nation’s skin pointing to a severe underlying infection which risks bringing this fragile democratic body to within an inch of its life – are not surprising.

burning bookBut the burning of this library is a visceral shock.

The violent Bronkhorstspruit protests – where not only a library was burnt – continued into Wednesday. According to one news report, police shouted at those arrested: “You don’t want better lives. You are burning your children’s education. You are burning their books.”

Empathy for the hell in which millions of South Africans live threatens to dilute horror at the burning of those books.

Children on their way to school must jump over bubbling rivers of sewage spilling from manholes, and balance their bodies of festering pits when they need the toilet. Rubbish not collected by municipalities lies stinking next to homes, and the desperately poor scavenge there for scraps of food amongst the maggots and used sanitary towels and nappies.

Families share their shacks with rats and roaches and, when they get ill, they must walk far to a local clinic where they queue for hours before they are, very often, treated to toxic doses of the effluent that arises where nurses are overworked and underpaid: rudeness, impatience, intolerance, mockery, disdain.

Something must give – and is giving – under the extreme juxtaposition of the promised life of freedom and the dire, fetid circumstances in which so many must daily attempt to live, and live with dignity.

Perhaps there was nothing at all sinister in the burning of the library. It – like clinics and homes that have also succumbed to the conflagration – is quite likely simply “collateral damage”.

Yet, we have come to understand that “collateral damage” is euphemism for murder, committed under the banner of what some feel is a justified cause.

So the burning of Zithobeni Community Library is chilling.

If it was meant to be symbolic, what was it symbolic of? If it was not symbolic, then how profoundly has education failed in this country if it has not entrenched in every single citizen the incontestable necessity of books for a hopeful future? How far gone are we if the hope that books represent is dead enough to be cremated? How little are children loved and valued if their books are burnt?

Ray Bradbury, who wrote Fahrenheit 451 – a novel in which books are banned and “firemen” burn any that are found – once wrote: “…when Hitler burned a book I felt it as keenly, please forgive me, as his killing a human, for in the long sum of history, they are one and the same flesh”.


Six questions for Paige’s badly behaved pen


paige1Paige Nick has quite a following in South Africa, both as a columnist and a novelist. Which means, I hope – and I’m sure her publishers hope – that unlike other collections of columns, hers will sell well. I think it will. I mean, she’s funny, right? And she talks about sex. If people aren’t buying funny books by people who talk about sex then there really is no book buying public left here.

I asked Paige some random questions.

Your blog is called A Million Miles From Normal. Please list three ways in which your life – now – is a million miles from “normal”.

Number 1: This morning a stranger, who calls himself ‘Kyknet’ (why?), emailed me a picture of his (not erect) penis and asked me to sign it and email it back to him. True story.

Number 2: The three most recent search terms in my Google history are; ‘How many teeth does an adult have?’, ‘Nostalgia paresthetica’, and ‘image of businessman tied up with a telephone cable’.

Number 3: No two days are the same, one day I’m writing about blow jobs and condoms, the next I’m doing a job for an ad agency, which has me researching different kinds of retirement annuities, or the best pram to buy.

So apparently you divide your time betweeen the US, the UK and SA now. You do know how glam that sounds, don’t you? 

Ha, if only. I love a good rumour. My home is in Cape Town. Last year I was lucky enough to get in a three-month trip, which included a month and a half in the UK, writing, a few weeks in Amsterdam doing research for my new novel, and a month in the states doing a big road trip.

No matter how popular a columnist, collections of columns are supposed to sell notoriously badly. (Not as badly as poetry, I’d venture, maar nou ja.) What are your hopes for this book? 

That it’s an actual book at all was one of my biggest hopes. It started out life as a Sunday Times e-book, and there were no guarantees it would ever make it into print. The fact that it’s a book of columns and crazy letters will hopefully lend it more appeal than a book of just columns *she says crossing fingers and holding thumbs*. I guess now my greatest hope is that it makes whoever reads it laugh.

Paige Nick in number?

You know what they say; there are three kinds of people in the world; those who are good with numbers, and those who aren’t. I’m in the latter category, but let’s give this a whirl anyway.

pensbehavingbadlyI’ve written 218 columns for The Sunday Times Lifestyle section. Pens Behaving Badly is my 6th published book. I have 31 of my own teeth (one in the back, on the left, is missing). On a massive week after a column about penis size or farting, I can receive up to 20 or 30 letters. On a slow week, just 4 or 5. Pens Behaving Badly contains 152 real letters (78% of which are nuts), from 119 individual letter writers (many write regularly). I am 41 years old and still have all 10 fingers and 10 toes, which come in handy when I have to count stuff.

What are you working on right now?

Earlier this year I finished a new novel. It’s a biggie for me and I’m extremely excited about it. It’s set in a strip club in Amsterdam, where all the strippers are celebrity impersonators. The reluctant heroine is a Rihanna lookalike from South Africa. It was at times the hardest thing I’ve ever written, and the funnest thing I’ve ever written.

So are you proof that someone can make a living from writing?

It’s tough this writing gig. Not as tough as being a brain surgeon, of course, in that the only life that’s really on the line is your own. But tough nonetheless. I supplement my fiction-writing income with the freelance advertising writing, the columns and some prostitution.

Internationally, Paige Nick is best known as one third of the Helena S Paige trio, whose first “choose your own adventure” erotic novel, A Girl Walks Into A Bar, was launched in 2013. It has now been published in nineteen countries around the world.
Locally, Paige is best known for “A Million Miles From Normal”, her weekly column in the Sunday Times Life & Style magazine. As one of the anchor columnists of the Life & Style section since 2011, she has produced hundreds of hilarious columns and received hundreds more hilarious responses. Pens Behaving Badly is a collection of the best of her columns and the best of the wild letters they’ve inspired.     
If you don’t know Paige’s work, check out what she refers to as her “smutty and ridiculous blog”, which is also called A Million Miles from Normal.

My Top Ten Badilisha Poets and why I chose them

What do I want from poetry? What makes me return to some poets, and immediately forget others? I’m constantly checking and re-checking these answers for myself. And now I’ve had the opportunity to do it again in selecting my Top Ten for Badilisha Poetry X-change.
This is how far I’ve got with my answers for myself: I know that I am an impatient reader of poems, so if a poem is going to be long, it needs to keep me on side with every word and every line so that I don’t find myself thinking eight or ten lines in “Why am I reading this?”
The brevity of the form is what appeals to me: jamming neuron-electrifying images and concepts into as few words as possible.
Secondly, I am drawn to specificity. Poems that meander around mustering vague ideas of things (like the concept of “woman”, or the concept of “my Africa”, or the concept of “love”) bore me. I like detail. I like the universe to be revealed to me in the detail. And I like to know that the poet knows what he or she is trying to convey – I like to feel assured that they have something to say that is new and interesting and worthwhile.
Thirdly, and possibly most importantly for me, is the language. When a poet shows that he or she is undaunted by the possibility of language, is exhilirated and enlivened by surprising word combinations, is not a slave to adjectives, then my poet’s ears are opened to anything they have to say. When a poet has this puppy-dog love of language and its gymnastics, I will allow them to lead me even to the end of an epic poem.
And, finally, I realise that I have a particular soft spot for poets who display humour. This is not an absolute requirement and I must be clear that I’m not asking for comedy in my poetry. But when a poet shows a lightness, a kindness, a wryness about all that he or she observes in the world, then the chances are that I will return to their poetry.
Each of the poets I have chosen fulfills each of these requirements. Their poems are not too long, but when they are, I don’t get bored with trite and vague language. With each poet, I have a clear sense that they know what they’re trying to do…they are not merely arranging pretty words and interesting thoughts around for their own amusement, but  they have something urgent that needs saying. Many of these poets have to a lesser or greater extent shown me in their poems (not necessarily the ones you’ll read on Badilisha) that they understand humour, that they wield a wry pen, that they do not take all of life so seriously that the readers squirms.
But most importantly, each of the poets I have chosen here knows words, knows the rhythms of meaning, can extract the sounds of any emotion, however fleeting, using the same 26-letter alphabet we all use. Each invents language again with every poem. And that, finally, is perhaps my greatest satisfaction and the reason I return to them often.
Read about my Top Ten Badilisha Poets here.

Do you need something to be really proud of, South Africa?


There’s this thing you need to know about if you have any clear and strong feelings about getting books into children’s hands. ALL children – not just the lucky few whose parents read to them.

It’s called PRAESA, the slightly awkward acronym for the very awkwardly named Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa. For years, they’ve been quietly getting on with what I consider to be some of the most important research and real, life-changing work that exists in this country. But, probably because it doesn’t involve health or crime, it’s not an organisation the lay person knows about much.

PRAESA promotes children’s literacy in all official languages across South Africa, and they’ve been doing it for more than two decades. Last week, in Sweden, this wonderful non-profit organisation was awarded the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award (ALMA). This is the world’s largest award for children’s and young adult literature and reading promotion.


Pippi Longstocking

There were 197 nominations from 61 countries for this award, so this is not a small deal by any stretch of the imagination. Previous winners include Maurice Sendak (a hero for some of us), and Philip Pullman (also a hero for some of us). Plus the award is named for Astrid Lindgren – who made Pippi Longstocking! Pippi was my hero long before I knew the name Astrid Lindgren or knew what heroes were.

PRAESA director Carole Bloch said the award would make a huge difference to the reading work PRAESA does.

“Having this award come to the African continent gives great acknowledgement to the importance of growing a love of reading with all children, irrespective of their language and background.”

And here’s what Bloch had to say about Lindgren:

“Astrid Lindgren was a human rights activist, feminist and author of the famous Pippi Longstocking series of children’s books which have been translated into 64 languages. She was passionate about treating children with dignity and respect and her spirit resonates with the work that my colleagues past and present in PRAESA are committed to. This incredible award encourages us to continue, ” concludes Bloch.

Dignity and respect for children. I wish every human being on earth would cultivate a bit of that.

I am beyond delighted for PRAESA. Here’s a little about them:

PRAESA is an independent research and development unit established in 1992 at the University of Cape Town by the late Dr Neville Alexander. A leading advocate for multilingual education in South Africa, Alexander spent ten years on Robben Island for his political activism. Under his directorship the PRAESA team advocated for the use of African languages and the growth of a reading culture across Africa, working on language planning and policy implementation and conducting research into multilingual classrooms. PRAESA’s current Director, Carole Bloch, has initiated and led many of its projects to enrich children’s early literacy learning experiences and the publication of storybooks and other reading materials in several languages for use in multilingual settings.

Most recently, PRAESA began the Nal’ibali reading-for-enjoyment campaign, which aims to spark all children’s potential through storytelling and reading. Launched in 2012, Nal’ibali works with partners to put in place the conditions that support the initial and ongoing literacy learning of all children. It combines a mass-media advocacy campaign highlighting the critical link between children’s love of reading and educational success, with a grassroots programme of training workshops and reading clubs.

To date, there are over 300 clubs in a growing network across the country. In addition, the campaign produces a fortnightly reading-for-enjoyment supplement with partner, Times Media. The supplement is the only bilingual resource of its kind in the country and provides children and their caregivers with regular stories and literacy tips and activities in six South African languages. Further, 30 000 copies of the supplement are delivered for free to Nal’ibali reading clubs, as well as schools, libraries and early childhood development centres every second week. The campaign also broadcasts children’s stories three times a week in all 11 official languages on public radio stations. – Karin Schimke







Oh, but your information really is so beautiful!


infoisbeautifulInformation Is Beautiful

David McCandless


“Do you have something I can press on?”

I was in a meeting, but we got shifted out of the boardroom and I had to make notes on my printout on my lap. A colleague passed me Information Is Beautiful.

I have wanted this book for many years and I’ve just not bought it. I spent the rest of the meeting trying surreptiously to page through it. At the end I just gave up and asked whether I could borrow the book until our next meeting.

So I spent a happy afternoon over Easter weekend paging through this book and exclaiming some random bits of information to whoever walked into the room. But you can’t. You simply cannot randomly quote from this extraordinary book. This is a book you have to see and spend time with.

McCandless, in an effort to better see and understand the information he felt swamped by, decided to filter what he was finding on the net through a visual net – or several different kinds of visual nets. The result is a colourful and fascinating book that presents a miscellany of ideas and facts as charts and graphs and pictograms.

Some of these are quite incomprehensible to me – either because of the complexity of the visual presentation, or because the information was of no interest to me. McCandless made pictures form the things that interest him – “subjects that sprang from my own curiosity and ignorance – the questions I wanted answering”. And since none of us wonders about the same things, a 100% overlap in interest is unlikely.

But that in no way detracts. Every page is quite beautiful, made so made so by a particular kind of mind, that sees and processes in a specific way.

One segmented polar grid (I know it’s called that, because there’s a page with a graphic presentation of Types Of Information Visualization), I was particularly drawn to was “Being Defensive”.

Defence mechanism from the outside in.

Defence mechanism from the outside in.

Salad Dressings

Salad Dressings

Being often completely puzzled by my own or other people’s behaviours, I have on numerous read about psychological defence mechanisms to make slightly better sense of things. McCandless puts them all together in a very interesting way that gave me a new – and fuller – perspective on the matter.

Some of the information is utterly completely useless to me (useless, but never dull). Other information is so useful, you want to tear out the page and stick on the fridge or the notice board. Like this one, which gives you a breakdown of how to construct salad dressings.

I’ll have to return the book next week, but I’m so glad I’ve had a short sojourn into the McCandless mind. There’s lots more on his website – and some of the graphics are interactive. Go and check out Novels Everyone Should Read and Non-fiction Books Everyone Should Read.