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QUICK REVIEW: From Courtrooms to Cupcakes


courtrooms cupcakesFrom Courtrooms to Cupcakes

Niki Malherbe


Niki Malherbe’s warts-and-all mommy-memoir recounts the vagaries of her experience of upper middle class motherhood. All the clichés are there – career woman (she’s a qualified tax attorney) turned full-time parent of four, struggling with self-actualisation issues, anecdotes about breast milk leaking onto silk blouses at work, conversations with kids about sex, their charming insights about life and so on.

For all that, the book is sweet, introspective, witty and insightful. Malherbe comes across as a fun yet passionate and committed parent to her four spirited sprogs.

It’s easy to dip into, and is the kind of text that will certainly comfort those new to the game of mothering, while making the veterans nod knowingly. Malherbe addresses the “crisis of self” which hits most women with sensitivity despite a tad too much navel gazing. Perfect for those who liked Eat, Pray, Love. – Kayang Gagiano

REVIEW: We Need New Names


we need knew names

NoViolet Bulawayo

Chatto & Windus

REVIEW: Kayang Gagiano

Penned under her unusual pseudonym, Zimbabwean author Elizabeth Tshele has turned “Hitting Budapest’’, her award-winning short story which won the 2011 Caine Prize for African Writing, into a ferocious, hard hitting debut novel laced with bitter gallows humour. It’s a cautionary tale, which made me quite literally flinch on occasion. Prospective readers should prepare themselves for the emotional equivalents of jabbing upper cuts and the occasional well-aimed gut punch to the solar plexus, as We Need New Names conjures a nightmarish vision of life in a corrupt, and politically and socially unstable African nation.

Does this get a bit much sometimes? Yes, it can. Does Bulawayo sometimes come dangerously close to creating yet another ‘trauma junkie’ portrayal of Africa? To a degree. But luckily she succeeds in balancing her often macabre vision with wonderfully irreverent passages and wry social commentary which lifts her book beyond the merely sensationalistic. Since the second half of her book is set in the United States, the juxtaposition of two very different worlds also puts a refreshingly different spin on things and creates a more nuanced end product.

The first half of We Need New Names has strong elements of a dystopian, surrealist modern day fable. The novel tells the coming of age story of Darling (also our first person narrator) who, when we meet her, is a street savvy, jaded nine-year-old girl living in an unnamed African country. (Readers will soon enough pick up that this is contemporary Zimbabwe.)

Darling is part of a marauding band of brutalised street children living in a derelict shanty town on the edge of the capital, the ironically named, ‘Paradise’. Their suburban homes have long ago been bulldozed by the overzealous Mugabe government, their schools have been closed and their teachers retrenched, their parents are out struggling to make ends meet. They are desensitised and feral and spend their days trawling more affluent suburbs stealing fruit and ferreting for booty, or engage in bizarre role playing and games most of which seem to bear some element of crassness or viciousness. They steal the shoes of a suicide victim for bread money. They pretend to be a band of presidential supporters beating an opposition party member to death. Bastard, their gang’s self anointed leader, is an unmitigated bully – a Mugabe enforcer of the future. These kids wear American College T-shirts donated by aid workers and expediently pander to the clicking cameras of do-gooders and pressmen in the hopes of handouts. Their daily activities and attitudes are there to offer readers a horrifying reflection of the spiritual and moral erosion of their society.

Bulawayo highlights mob brutality, the scourge of Aids, child molestation, the lightweight impact of international aid and other issues as she weaves her absorbing tale. It’s all rather menacing and creepy and depressing yes – but the strange fact is, these kids are also having fun, being creative and making the most of bleak circumstances. They haven’t lost their sense of vitality, no matter how tough life may be. So while Bulawayo’s weakness as first time novelist may be her urge to overdo ‘the horror, the horror’ (she can be heavy handed with the litany of woes), her child narrator’s delightful candour (used to great ironic effect), her lively prose which brims over with verve, and her insightful juxtaposition of Darling’s early life set against her later coming of age in the United States, justify her inclusion on this year’s Man Booker Prize shortlist. The novel’s unpunctuated dialogue, however, can make for tricky reading. While it adds to the narrative’s surrealist edge, I would have been glad of quotation marks to distinguish spoken words in the text.

In the novel’s second half, Bulawayo cannily describes Darling’s adolescence as part of an illegal immigrant family headed by her Aunt Fostalina and Fostalina’s Ghanaian partner. While the author continues to blend bleakness with humour in this part of the story, as Darling’s skewed immersion into the false promise of the great, ephemeral ‘American Dream’ is described, the satire is gentler and in many ways far more effective. The author, who like her protagonist immigrated to the States as pre-teen, has great fun cocking a snoot at Middle American mall culture. Hankering for home, Darling changes her accent, goes shopping with friends, watches internet porn, takes on demeaning part time jobs and finds herself (along with fellow émigrés) inhabiting a conflicted state of economic and cultural limbo.

Bulawayo’s dense prose is layered with meaning. For every observation Darling makes, whether it be about a bogus lay preacher plying his salvation trade in a Harare ghetto, or about her Americanised aunt’s obsession with diets and Victoria’s Secret lingerie, there is much incisive social commentary in this unusual and thought provoking text.







REVIEW: The imagined child

imagined child

imagined childThe Imagined Child

Jo-Anne Richards

Picador Africa

Review: Kayang Gagiano

Jo-Anne Richards’ novels have a distinctive narrative pattern to them: readers invariably find themselves introduced to a cagey female protagonist originally hailing from the Eastern Cape. These prickly heroines have fraught, problematic relationships with their lovers or spouses, close female friends and/or children, and a tendency to refuse to open up. They harbour shameful secrets and traumatic pasts (often linked to the politics of the time) which must (we, as clever, more emotionally grounded readers naturally realise) be confronted. And then there’s ‘the big reveal’ towards the end of each book, some long repressed demon or skeleton-in-closet exposed, followed by a contrived, over hasty resolution. Richards’ latest endeavour, The Imagined Child, though less overtly political, gentler in tone and more humorous than some of her previous works, is not very different in this regard.

However, to reduce Richards’ impressive oeuvre to a mere formula would be churlish; she is a fine writer with a particular gift for evoking a sense of place through lyrical prose and astutely-observed descriptions. Whether she is conjuring the rugged beauty of an Eastern Cape farm (as in her bestselling debut, The Innocence of Roast Chicken), the vibrancy of (newly) post apartheid Jozi (in Sad at the Edges), or the insularity of a small Free State dorp (as in this latest novel), Richards’ writing is at its most powerful when sketching vivid, atmospheric backdrops to her angst-heavy human dramas. And somehow, however irritating I find her insecure, sometimes abrasive heroines, their compelling histories do inevitably lure me in.

Jo-Anne Richards

Jo-Anne Richards

The Imagined Child is about the pitfalls of keeping secrets and the burdens of motherhood. Odette is a divorcee in her early forties who writes story outlines for a local soapie. Seeking a fresh start, she has recently relocated from crime-ridden, smog-heavy Jozi to the (fictional) Free State farming hamlet of Nagelaten. (And indeed the name, which translates as “left behind” is no coincidence, we shall discover). After experiencing a big romantic disappointment and surviving a frightening burglary – and perhaps most significantly, having sent her slightly learning impaired daughter off to London to au pair – Odette is ready to embrace bucolic bliss. She has purchased a quaint house on the proverbial wrong side of the tracks (because it has a great river view and a fruit orchard and because she is an enlightened type who fantasizes about befriending her squatter neighbours) and plans to open a coffee shop serving pukka cups of joe.

Describing herself as ‘guarded with her own innards,’ Odette has few friends. Every week she travels to Johannesburg to meet with her therapist (these are painfully frustrating sessions in which she prides herself on disclosing absolutely nothing of emotional value) and to attend meetings with her fellow soap hacks (caricatured secondary characters who offer some amusement, but mostly raised my hackles).

Though Odette yearns for an uncomplicated existence, one senses that she is ambivalent about both her move and her daughter’s life abroad. There is something not quite right about young Mandy; her condition is alluded to in cryptic terms by her defensive mother. As the plot unfolds, we discover that both the town and our protagonist harbour dark, guilty secrets.

Nagelaten is not panning out to be the great escape Odette had envisaged. Its parochial white populace, consisting primarily of conservative Afrikaners trapped in a cultural time warp, tend to frustrate and her attempts at inter-racial friendship largely fall flat, or remain superficial. She develops a more acute sense of the town’s potential menace when she hears of a gruesome farm slaying and is robbed of most of her domestic possessions. Then there are the veiled hints about a salacious scandal involving the local dominee and the mystery surrounding strange young indigent, Wolfie, who slopes around town and whom few will acknowledge. Life is further complicated when she begins a relationship with the murder victim’s widower, Adriaan, an engineer turned farmer who has a more cosmopolitan background than the town’s average inhabitant, but who remains strangely tight lipped about his wife’s untimely demise. When her daughter is implicated in the death of the baby in her charge, Odette’s life is thrown into further turmoil.

The elements of mystery and suspense, which Richards introduces to her tale, first subtly and then more overtly, make for an absorbing read.  Her ‘small town with big secrets theme’ also reminded me to some extent of Michiel Heyns’ award winning Lost Ground. Like Heyns, Richards uses South Africa’s still-brittle cultural, class and race relations to great effect. While the sarcastic Odette, who is more saturated with unacknowledged guilt than a deep sea sponge is with salt water is perhaps not the most likeable of characters, she is fully realised and interesting. Richards’ usual habit of rushing her dénouement did not overly detract from my overall enjoyment of this flawed but intriguing novel. – Gagiano is a freelance writer and reviewer.

  • This review first in the Cape Times in 2013