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QUICK REVIEW: Swimming Home

swimming-homeSwimming Home

Deborah Levy

Faber & Faber

REVIEW BY: Aly Verbaan

PLUNGING right in, Deborah Levy presents a small ensemble of holiday-makers convened around a pool in the south of France — world-famous poet Joe and his frosty wife, Isabel, fellow guests Mitchell and Laura, hippie houseboy Jurgen, and the alluring extra, Kitty Finch — and then she deconstructs them, skinning back layers and exposing one intramural after another. Kitty is mentally volatile (and regularly naked in public). She’s off her meds, and is possibly stalking Joe, in the hope that he will cast his eye over a poem she’s written, but he invents convenient schemes not to, even as he finds himself seduced by her. Their sexual fender-bender is inexorable, and just how they intersect each other and what repercussions their irresponsible navigations bring generates disconcerting traction.

Levy’s Booker-shortlisted story of tedious Brits-in-Biarritz is rescued from the pedestrian by its succinctness — at just 150 pages it could be a novella. But it is no less cogent for its brevity — it hovers like a bee, and stings like one too.

This review appeared in the Cape Times in 2012

REVIEW: The Sea of Wise Insects

the sea of wise insects

The Sea of Wise Insectsthe sea of wise insects

Terry Westby-Nunn


REVIEW BY: Aly Verbaan

Once in a bluish moon a reader is treated to a run of good books, which naturally sets the bar for the next one higher and higher, eventually rendering it virtually impossible to sustain, much like a sky-diver reaching terminal velocity. I scored a hat trick this week with local writers, but Terry Westby-Nunn is the blinder of the bunch.

The difference is that formulae may sell books, but imagination makes literature. The latter is an art, but the former is a safer bet for publishers, particularly before the holidays, when many readers may be inclined towards beach entertainment rather than mind expansion. The Sea of Wise Insects is the solution to those given to indecision: here is a potent and enviable conte that feels instinctual rather than constructed.

The Sea of Wise Insects uses a fascinating, if macabre, substructure: Alice Wolfe’s body is a quilt of bad luck. She wears her scars – a script of her life – like tattoos. “They say I am accident-prone. Ill-fated Alice who draws a dark little world of scars around her. My skin, a parchment of tales. … I have always been unlucky.” A would-be suitor suggests she has a persecution complex, but, as Alice points out, it does seem that she is indeed being persecuted – by life, by fate.

Alice is not ashamed of the evidence of her quirky and accident-prone nature – in fact, she is well aware that there are those who are drawn to her precisely because of her apparently calamitous karma – but she chooses carefully with whom she shares her idiosyncrasies. Enter Ralph.

Alice, who is from Cape Town, is working in a decidedly freaky establishment in London – euphemistically called the Hotel Tisca. The Tisca is in fact a cul-de-sac of life, where those in mental disarray wander aimlessly and largely unrehabilitated, supposedly recovering from an array of illnesses – drug addiction at best, self-nominated amputeeism at its March Hare worst.

When Ralph meets Alice he asks her whether she is for real. “No. This is the Tisca. Nothing here is real. It’s all part of the collective subconscious”, comes the reply. Very Hotel California. However, Ralph appears to be quite sane, “too normal”, as Alice puts it. As with so many ill-fated relationships, there is a portent that Alice doesn’t recognise for what it is. Falling for Ralph alarmingly quickly, Alice tells us: “My only defence was to rag him about his GQ look, telling him he was a sick voyeur who enjoyed the Tisca spectacle. He chuckled at that, entertained by what he called my ‘endearing doubts’ and reassured me that his ordinary façade masked a strange and irreverent writer, who plucked characters from the Tisca for an off-kilter novel he was writing, ‘something surreal and yet… disturbingly real.”

The Sea of Wise Insects is cleverly four-squared: where many a writer would have been satisfied with the progression of this narrative as a solo, Westby-Nunn interweaves subplots of Alice’s complicated family tapestry; a gripping current situation in which her sister-in-law-to-be is killed in a car accident that Alice takes the blame for (not that she was fond of Veronica by any stretch of the imagination); her life in Cape Town with the Baron von Münchhausenesque Ralph, and the mounting horror of the realisation of what Ralph has done; plus the goings-on at the Tisca, where, for the only time in her life, Alice felt she fitted in. Down the rabbit hole indeed.

You are likely wondering what insects have to do with all this. Here comes the overlay that makes this more than the usual “ripping good yarn”. Westby-Nunn comes out of left field with her use of factual information bytes to head up each chapter, extracted from existent biological works, for example: “‘Full investigations have been made into the extraordinary way some insects can remain alive and even active when such apparently vital parts of the body as the head have been removed.’ From Man and Insects by L. Hugh Newman”, and “I like writing about the firefly, too, for the very reason that this little insect is still wrapped in intriguing mystery. What is the motive of the light? What is the light? I can tell you very well what it is not, but the opposite side of the balance sheet will remain blank’, from The Soul of the White Ant by Eugène Marais. Or beautiful aphorisms, such as Emile Cioran’s “‘What  would be left of our tragedies if an insect were to present us his?” And this from Salvador Dali: “When I was five years old I saw an insect that had been eaten by ants and of which nothing remained except the shell. Through the holes in its anatomy one could see the sky.”

Impeccable choices all.

A vicarious murder escalates the intrigue, while wickedly dark humour relieves the intensity, putting one in mind of the arthouse film, Delicatessen.

Westby-Nunn’s imagery is startlingly original, by turns grotesque and enchanting, and the bodily and emotionally scarred Alice’s dates with destiny and disaster border on the existential.

Naturally there is a twister of a twist that leaves one hanging, which is oddly satisfying, in the way that books are when readers are left to draw their own conclusions.

The Sea of Wise Insects is an inimitable debut and undoubtedly my pick for the local book of the year. One certainly looks forward to a second, and soon.

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


REVIEW: Below Luck Level

Below Luck Level by Barbara Erasmus_image_lowres

Below Luck Level

Barbara Erasmus


REVIEW BY: Aly Verbaan

“She was dead when I woke up beside her the next morning.”

Writing courses always say “hooking” the reader within the first page is crucial, and Erasmus has certainly delivered a definitive thunderbolt of an opening line. Perhaps her three-year stint as editor of Crime Beat lent some of that urgency and pace that had me reading Below Luck Level in one sitting. But this isn’t krimi, and Erasmus’s versatility is remarkable as she braids in various strands of family life, relationships and careers — and how Hannah’s mother’s Alzheimer’s takes over Hannah’s already fraying life.

Chloe Cartwright has had a stellar career as a celebrated writer in Cape Town, while daughter Hannah hasn’t been much good at anything except shoplifting. One could speculate that Chloe’s borderline neglect of her children — “‘What’s for supper?’ we’d whine. Have a piece of bread! she’d cry as she rushed to meet her deadline.” — precipitated Hannah’s attempts to get attention. Or maybe it was just living in Bo-Kaap, colourful, eccentric if you’re white, and a whole lot of fun.

Chloe is outré, to be sure, with joie de vivre in spades, and to hell with convention. On a particular bunking expedition to the theatre with Hannah and her brother Karl, they have the misfortune of running into one Mrs Holmes, Hannah’s homeroom teacher. “‘They’re feeling sick,’ said my mother blandly, looking Mrs Holmes brazenly in the eye. ‘I’m trying to cheer them up. You know how much they hate to miss a day at school.’”

It’s curious how the gravity of serious subjects can be best expressed through humour. Comedy humanises: the light touch gives weight. Erasmus has used it to great effect in this tragic story of her family’s battle to come to terms with her mother’s early-onset, and ultimately fatal, Alzheimer’s.

Hannah recalls that she was embarrassed to have a “mad” mother when she was at school. “I adopted alternative mothers like other kids collected stamps,” she writes. But perhaps that prevised what was to become of Chloe — not eccentricity, but dementia.

Hannah, who is rather in need of direction herself, now finds herself alone (her brother Karl lives overseas) as a parent to her parent.

As Chloe’s memory corrodes, Hannah’s is illuminated with memories of growing up in Cape Town, and Erasmus puts to good use the artifice of a secret drawer in which Hannah has cached her shoplifted keepsakes to elicit these memories.

Now, although Chloe’s life wanes, it must inexorably proceed for Hannah, and, just in the nick of time, a relative of Luck has come to stay. His name is Daniel — a nice enough chap to be sure — but I’m not convinced it was entirely necessary to introduce a knight on a steed for Hannah at this point. He’s the story-book man to stand by a damsel in distress, but, admittedly, he does add texture, and Erasmus sagely works in the weft and woof of Hannah’s other life — the one in which she is not just a caring daughter, but a woman who must make something of herself, her shoplifting repertoire notwithstanding.

Erasmus has achieved something remarkable: she has said in interviews that she never bases her characters on real life or people, and it is perhaps this stratagem that elevates Below Luck Level to something more than what, in lesser hands, could easily have slipped into a touching, yes, but mundane memoir of a mother with a terminal illness.

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











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.