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TOP TEN 2011

Because of the popularity of my post on the top ten South African books of 2012 – as published by The Star newspaper – I’ve decided to also post my other lists. The list for 2010 can be found here:

lost_groundLost Ground

Michiel Heyns

Jonathan Ball

In spite of dealing with the clash between personal and political history – and how the two are inextricable, no matter how determinedly individuals might deny that – Lost Ground grows lush out of the simplest elements of outstanding story making. Believable story facts, entertaining dialogue, gentle tension that builds gradually, an acute sense of time, place and character and – most delightfully – humour, enliven this South African dorp story. Deceptively packaged as a crime novel, but landing explosively in the heart as only literature can, Heyns’ wonderful book has a reach wide enough to hold even the fussiest and most easily bored of readers.

Double Negativedouble negative

Ivan Vladislavic


Vladislavic’s extended meditation on the alienation in your own country offers ways of seeing by running his themes through first one photographer, then another’s, camera lens. Searing, short passages of truth sting in a focused narrative from this award-winning Joburg writer.

bad sexBad Sex

Leon de Kock


The narrator’s failed relationships lead him to therapy where uncomfortable memories  from his rough and ready sixties Mayfair childhood are exhumed to provide hard to swallow truths about the present. Unashamedly butch, brave and  authentic.

Sometimes there is a voidsometimes there is a void_image_lowres

Zakes Mda


An engaging memoir by this writer of commercially and critically successful books. Mda tells how he was shaped by his father, about the women in his life, about politics and art, and about post-democracy disappointments.

30 Nights in Amsterdam-Etienne Van Heerden_image_lowres30 Nights in Amsterdam

Etienne Van Heerden


Van Heerden’s idiosyncratic voice and his ability to elasticise language remain intact in this outstanding translation from Afrikaans by Michiel Heyns. Utterly engaging characters make this story of self-discovery, history, psychology and politics a thumping read.


Mongane Wally Serote


A poignant post-democracy view of the entanglement of past, present and future. Chile and Zimbabwe –with their traumatised psyches, like South Africa – make up the trio of countries in which the individual’s life is set against a complex background.

killing kebbleKilling Kebble: An Underworld Exposed

Mandy Wiener

Pan Macmillan

Thorough journalism gives us the inside track on a fascinating South African saga of crime and corruption, power and policing. The gritty, bizarre and tragic details are lifted into the light for our appalled benefit.

Read here about the killers that are going to star as themselves in the movie based on this book.


Hanlie Retief


Retired super sleuth Piet Byleveld’s story is told to a seasoned journalist. Any news follower will recognise the names of some of the cases he’s helped solve in murder-rife South Africa. As compelling as road-kill.


Henrietta Rose-Innes


With musical fluency Rose-Innes tells a story about a female pest remover, sucking great opposites into her narrator’s unusual  scope. Returning to her favoured themes of the city and the creatures that inhabit it, Rose-Innes writes charmingly.

little-liberia-jb_webLittle Liberia: An African Odyssey in New York

Jonny Steinberg

Jonathan Ball

Venturing out of South Africa, this enormously talented writer reminds us of both our cruelty and our resilience in a story about ex-pat Liberians in New York. Steinberg has the gift of turning thorough research into captivating, lucid prose.

REVIEW: The Dinner


The Dinner

Herman Koch

Atlantic Books

(Translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett)

REVIEW BY: Aly Verbaan

NOTHING says bourgeois quite like the Western five-course dinner.  A metonymic drama in five acts — aperitif, appetiser, main course, dessert and digestif — The Dinner is diabolically postmodern, dancing in the ruins and toying with the fragments of one family’s takedown.the-dinner-jacket

An obscenely ostentatious restaurant in The Hague, stocked with the quintessential maître d’, and where the waiting list is no less than three months for a table next to the toilets, is the darkroom where four diners’ negatives are fixed and held up to the light.

Aspiring prime minister Serge Lohman is nothing if not pretentious. Brother Paul obscures his revulsion of Serge by the narrowest of margins.

But now the brothers have another problem — possibly the only thing they have in common — that forces them to conspire with each other rather than against. Their teenage sons have, quite casually and apparently unapologetically, done something terrible – with wide and worrying consequences – and only their parents know it.

Now seated before microscopic swanky dishes, Serge and wife Babette, and Paul and wife Claire thrust and parry until the topic becomes too weighty to ignore. They awkwardly plough their way through “lamb’s-neck sweetbread marinated in Sardinian olive oil with rocket … the sun-dried tomatoes come from Bulgaria” and grapes “lying beside a deep purple piece of lettuce, full two inches of empty plate away from the actual main course, “fillet of guinea fowl wrapped in paper-thin sliced German bacon”.’ Observing his dish, Paul points to that most definitive element of avaricious restaurants — the vastly unpopulated plate: “… I am well aware that, in the better restaurants, quality takes precedence over quantity, but there are voids and then there are voids. The void here, that part of the plate on which no food at all was present, had clearly been raised to a matter of principle.”

The grandiloquence of the fare is patently meant to reflect the gluttonous self-gratification of its capitalistic protagonists.

This edifice is perhaps somewhat synthetic, but it’s also convincing, and Koch toys with the reader, queueing signs and red herrings, introducing an itchy skepticism. “It’s like when someone leaves a pistol during the first act,” Paul tells us, “you can bet your bottom dollar that someone will be shot with it before the curtain falls. That’s the law of drama.” In this metafiction, the gun is Michel’s cellphone, which has stored the crime.

As the couples surreptitiously try to establish who knew what and when, skeletons in the closet come out into the light, contextualising the boys’ actions, with unanticipated coalitions being formed as it becomes clear just how far parents are prepared to go to protect their children — and themselves.

The overarching erotema is “what should honest citizens do?” Who of the four will ask themselves that, and what actions will they take? To what extent can the sins of the son be blamed on those of the father? Because we soon discover that Paul is not a sympathetic protagonist after all. His vicious streak, juxtaposed with his apparent need to play Happy Families with his wife, reveals him as that most familiar of dramatis personae: an exceptionally unreliable narrator.

As a protagonist, Paul’s own psyche is also the antagonist, and here Koch factors in another dimension: that time old conundrum of nature versus nurture. What is the nature of evil? Is it a genetic defect, like Down’s Syndrome or haemophilia? Was his son Michel’s hypocrisy and involvement in a heinous act just a matter of time? It would be disingenuous of Koch to attempt to foist an answer on the reader, but, by subverting the rules of social interaction and familial loyalty, one is led to a single universally disturbing conclusion: a pointless random act can change not only the course of many lives, but even the course of history.

The back-cover blurb suggests a comparison to Christos Tsolkas’s Booker longlisted The Slap, but, to my mind, it is rather less contentious but more engaging. The ethical heft of The Dinner and Koch’s composed, sociological eye gives witness to how powerful fiction can be in irradiating the modern world. The reader will leave the restaurant not sated and replete, but with dyspepsia, or perhaps even food-poisoning. The Dinner is sure to find a placemat on the tables of those who enjoy seeing the smug confidence of middle-class families smashed on the floor, when the watery façades of decorum and etiquette are tossed aside, revealing the savage beasts that sit down to the chicanery of the modern dinner.

This review first appeared in the Cape Times in December 2013.


TOP TEN 2012


For the past three years I’ve been asked by The Star newspaper to compile a list of the top ten South African books of the year. Here is this year’s:

The Big Stick

Richard de Nooy


A mother travels to reclaim her gay son’s body in Amsterdam, which is where he fled to escape his dorp community’s misunderstanding of his “condition”.  Self-identification, finding “home” and understanding, are themes tackled in pacy, excessively readable prose using multiple voices that range from earthy to elegiac. De Nooy’s sad and funny second novel establishes him as a confident, bracing, sophisticated voice with global appeal.

The Garden of Evening Mists

Tan Twan Eng


This Booker Prize shortlisted book contains big themes, delicate landscapes and elegant writing. Memories of the scars of the Boer War, WW II, and Malaya under colonial rule come together as an old woman tends a memorial garden.

My Father, My Monster

McIntosh Polela


This ex-TV news reporter and current Hawks spokesman tells an irresistible biographical story tautly, and avoiding mawkishness, in a story about abandonment, violence, hardship, kindness and finally redemption through the love of teachers and “new” parents.

The Hungry Season

Leonie Joubert


South Africa has enough food, but 80% of households are food insecure. Powerful pictures by Eric Miller supplement compelling research by  one of our top science writer, who has a talent for accessibly written narrative.

The Great Agony and Pure Laughter of the Gods

Jamala Safari


A Congon boy’s voyage from happy childhood to boy soldier to escape is told in rich, poetic language, holding the reader’s attention like no news article ever will, to tell the story of how it feels to be a refugee.

The Long Way Home

Dana Snyman


This non-fictional account of the writer’s travels through SA attempts to understand cultural inheritance in our social and political landscape. This journey into identity is an almost faultless, deeply engaging and searingly truthful read.

This Book Betrays My Brother

Kagiso Lesego Molope

Oxford University Press

A spellbinding story about a young girl recalling a childhood summer is aimed at young readers but deserving of a much wider audience. Complex, unsentimental and with surprising literary depth, it has the makings of a classic.

Eloquent Body

Dawn Garisch


Doctor-writer Garisch uses vibrant poetic imagery to tackle the relationship between the arts and intuition on the one hand, and developments in the sciences on the other, applying intellectual rigour to debates on physical health and creativity.


Xolela Mangcu


This biography of Steve Biko is a deeply thought-provoking contribution to South African history and politics. Mangcu doesn’t pretend the iconic man was a saint, and fills in important gaps towards a more complete understanding of Biko.

Absent Tongues

Kelwyn Sole

Hands-on Books

Sole is an experienced poet. In his sixth collection he deals with a variety of contemporary themes in language wielded like a surgeon’s scalpel to dissect minute details and splay open disappointment, anger  and passion.

A story for Christmas


Drawing by Willem Samuel

In spite of the extra time I’m banking on over Christmas, I am unlikely to get through the piles of books I have. For the first time in my life I will not have a book title on my Christmas wish list. But I am not without a book-related wish.

At the risk of sounding like a desperate vacuous wannabe Miss World tottering on six-inch heels and speaking through a superglued smile, staking her winning ambitions on a vaguely formulated desire for world peace, I will share my hopeless wish.

But I insist that it is not a frivolous wish; that it has gravitas, history and gargantuan piles of academic research to back it up as a real answer to many of the ills that plague the world.

My wish cannot be reviled by a god-squadder of any theistic hue or brand. It cannot be subverted by any politician. It will not be sullied or trampled on or argued with, because its very nature and longevity have proven it an unerring joy and an immovable force. It will not be owned, boxed or tamed. It is deeply private and joyously communal.

My wish is that every baby born from now on, and every child that currently walks the earth, will be inducted to the magic of stories by having one told to them by someone they know. By a grandmother, an uncle, the local shopkeeper, an older cousin. By a father washing the dishes, by a mother helping a toddler into her sandals. By a teacher, a Rabbi, priest, monk or imam, the doctor, the dentist, the sangoma, a social worker, a friend.

Because a story is a tilling, the invaluable preparation for a garden. Because stories beget stories. Because stories beget  a demand so urgent (“Tell me of another one, tell me another one!”) that it ignores a child’s lack of confidence or shyness.

Because stories beget curiosity. Because stories begin the first loop of learning more effectively than anything else you can possibly think of inside the ancient human endeavour to hand down something to a next generation.

No one needs time or money to tell a story, and no amount of ersatz stuff you can buy at any shop can ever replace the experience of being told a story by an older person.

No one needs a special qualification, a special education, a special (acquired) language or an especially interesting life to tell a story. Almost anyone can tell a story, some better than others – though we do exult and cherish those particularly.

I wish Christmas really was magic. In the proper way of magic: supernatural forces mysteriously combining to grant wishes. Perhaps if I induce ritual – climb up into a pair of shiny stilettos and speak nervously through bright lipstick – my wish will come true. But no number of world-peace endorsing long-legged, glossy haired women ever brought about even an instant’s ceasefire.

So I’ll just have to rely on words – mine and others’ – repeated ad nauseum: if you want a better world, tell a kid story. Or read them one. And do it every opportunity you get, until you, personally, have done every single thing in your limited power to make something in this often truly vile world a bit better.

This column appeared in the Cape Times in December 2012

The drawing is by the comic book illustrator Willem Samuel whose work can be seen here and who blogs here.

Don’t know how to tell or read a story? Here’s where to look: Nal’iBali website.