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2014’s Top Ten South African books

ten on yellow

Every year, The Star asks me to select the top ten South African books of the year. Lists – just like literary prizes – are inherently problematic, exclusionary and faulty, yet I love them for their cranky assumption that they are right. Cranky, because I think lists know their own vulnerabilities but bliksem forth anyway.

I chose this year’s list by asking myself: if a foreigner came to live here for a while, which books would give him or her a sense of what it’s like to live here, what it’s like to be South African? These are the books I’d send them to:

TOP TEN BOOKS OF 2014

Tales of the Metric System

Imraan Coovadia

Umuzi

Spanning almost four decades in South Africa from the seventies, this intelligently devised chronicle takes in the lives of figures on the fringes of power, taking in broad social change and highlighting the individual against the backdrop of history. Coovadia’s fluid and unstrained prose shows the complexity of being alive in difficult times.

Lost and Found in Johannesburg

Mark Gevisser

Publisher

Memoir and history meld together around Gevisser’s cartographical journey into the social and geographic soul of Johannesburg. A breathtaking, intelligent and incisive poetry of place and identity emerge from the pages of this compelling non-fiction work.

Postmortem: The Doctor Who Walked Away

Maria Phalima

Tafelberg

This brave author, who seeks first to find fault with herself for her inability to continue coping within an inoperably sick public health care system, lays bare one of the most appalling failures of post-apartheid South Africa.

The Diving

Helen Walne

Penguin

This marvellous work is quick to read but plunges very deeply. Walne writes with a kooky clarity of vision about her brother’s death, examining suicide with unflinching intelligence and – oddly – with humour.

Dear Bullet

Sixolile Mbalo

Jonathan Ball

A devastating story about a single act of insouciant, casual and unspeakable inhumanity.  The “before” story has warmth; the “after” story is chilling considering how many men and women around us have been similarly brutalised.

An Imperfect Blessing

Nadia Davids

Umuzi

Davids investigates notions of liminality and heritage in this compassionate and humorous novel about Alia, a teenager at the time of the first democratic elections. She captures the in-between spaces in South Africa’s history, geography, identities and relationships.

A Man of Good Hope

Johnny Steinberg

Jonathan Ball Publishers

A chronicle of a young Somalian’s journey to South Africa at a time our country was particularly inhospitable to foreigners. Steinberg investigates the loss of control, the “in-betweenness” of having been displaced by great forces of history.

I See You

Ishtiyak Shukri

Jacana

Set in a fictional African country and around the life of an abducted photojournalist, this utterly singular novel elucidates how the present is also a part of history, and makes a case for dissonant and dissident voices.

Black Dog Summer

Miranda Sherry

Head of Zeus

Stepping gently into the potentially explosive area of farm murders, Sherry writes about the rippling effect of trauma through the eyes of a young girl. This is an unsentimental and richly rewarding novel that tightens its grip as it develops.

The Reactive

Masande Ntshanga

Random House Struik

Set in Cape Town before anti-retroviral drugs became generally available, Ntshanga’s brilliant debut follows Lindanathi’s life as it segues into the murky world of legal and illegal drugs. Lyrical and haunting, the novel “hears” the youth the way the goverment refuses to.

  • This list first appeared in The Star in December 2014.

 

REVIEW: Weeping Waters

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weeping-watersWeeping Waters

Karin Brynard

Penguin

ISBN: 9780143539124

REVIEW: Jonathan Amid

Released in 2009 to critical acclaim, Karin Brynard’s Plaasmoord, now translated ably into English by Maya Fowler and Isobel Dixon, laid bare just how farm murders have infiltrated our nation’s psyche – particularly the collective unconscious of the Afrikaner minority, their ties to the land intimately connected to a sense of being and being at home.

Brynard, renowned journalist and political correspondent for Rapport for many years, was canny enough to construct a white knuckle crime-thriller that stood out for marrying acute social diagnosis and socio-political commentary with a deep understanding of the need for suspense and tension and the exploitation of reader fears and anxieties.

An assured debut – intriguing from its inception, punchy, gritty, by turns gruesome, sensitive, dense and ever evocative, covering much from stock theft to muti murders, and everything in between – it was Brynard’s background in journalism, one shared by fellow Afrikaans krimi writers Deon Meyer, Chris Karsten and Rudie van Rensburg, that allowed her to get to the heart of the story she was telling.

And it’s far less political than some readers might expect.

Although I was anxious over the way that Brynard’s emotive brand of storytelling would play out in translated form, the end result is a worthy, well-weighted grappling with language and meaning, capturing on balance the unsettling tone and menace of the original, the unctuous dialogue and the crackling different dialects, while the translated text evinces its own gut-punch poetics.

Weeping Waters is an excellent title for this translation, a lead-off into the way that the novel functions is carried ahead by a large and finely drawn ensemble cast, of whom I can only mention a few here. Among the most memorable and well-drawn of these translated figures – a translation of characters that are by definition variations of the Afrikaner, thus allowing for a process of deep cultural translation in the work being done by the writing from Afrikaans into English – are the central figure of artist Freddie Swarts, coming into the Huilwater farm after the death of her father.

Freddie is the central absence that hovers over the action, the brutally slain adoptive mother of a young girl of colour who is also killed. The translated title sets up a change from the more politically discursive and incendiary Plaasmoord, literally “farm murder”, into the more measured but no less resonant Weeping Waters. What this change achieves in relation to the death at the novel’s heart – both a metonymic kind of death and a tragic culling of individual life and livelihood – is to focus a jaundiced eye on the way that space functions in relation to both real people that populate our country, and fictional subjects that help us to understand these actual living beings in the real world.

The extended metaphor of weeping – of lamentation, of trauma bottled up but also released – extends from the Huilwater farm and Freddie herself to her troubled relationship with her sister Saar. Brynard sidesteps an (exclusive) focus on farm murder discourse, and reveals how murder both political and intensely personal.

In bitter conflict with Freddie about the affairs of her ailing father and his estate before his death, Saar becomes one of the novel’s most central figures, her loss and pain over the death of her father and sister flowing directly into the way that we see the main suspect in the eyes of the community and police. Dam, or Adam, is a direct descendant from the bloodline of historical figure Adam Kok, the Griqua leader who by all accounts had a fascinating relationship to Empire and missionaries in South Africa.

Dam is painted in lush strokes and with a terrific eye for interiority and motivation by the translation (much like in the original text), and through the unpacking of the complex relationship between Dam and Freddie – who drew remarkably lucid but disturbing visions of her impending death before it happened – we are able to see just how skilled Brynard is at setting up wave upon wave of paranoia, mistrust and fraught intimacy.

If Freddie’s relationship with her immediate community allows Brynard to dig deeply into issues around land, the erosion of community ties, right-wing obsessions, rural ways of life amid growing political discontent, Brynard’s narrative is always grounded in the reader’s identification with the everyman investigator Inspector Albertus Beeslaar, the novel’s flawed but compassionate figure of detection who must grapple with both the transition from the evils of the city and a personal life in crisis and the darkness of men’s (and women’s) hearts in the rural idyll.

Ultimately, what Weeping Waters gets spot on is the introduction of another compelling leading man, an indisputably goodman, who can allow readers in English to traverse the diverse social strata that make South Africa such a fertile ground for its skilled writers.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in November 2014.

REVIEW: Below Luck Level

Below Luck Level by Barbara Erasmus_image_lowres

Below Luck Level

Barbara Erasmus

Penguin

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.