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REVIEW: The Alibi Club

the alibi club

the alibi clubThe Alibi Club

Jaco van Schalkwyk


REVIEW: Lwandile Fikeni

The first chapter of Jaco van Schalkwyk’s debut novel is fraught with anxiety. Countless faceless, nameless people are desperate to enter into the United States. People here have no names: only designations. You have Visas and Citizens. Our narrator and protagonist is number A98108755 – a Visa making its way through Customs and Immigration.

“I carry documents certifying I am free of hepatitis A and B, influenza, polio, tetanus, rubella, measles and rotavirus. I am able to prove that I am a good number with sufficient funds, that knows the address to my final destination,” the narrator tells us. The last bit, of course, is a contradiction, which reveals itself as the book unfolds. In the book, this “final destination” is as elusive as the reasons our protagonist is so desperate to get into America.

The story opens in 1998 and catalogues the narrator’s ups and downs in vivid, sharp prose reminiscent of gonzo journalism. One can sense an acute sense of self-disgust in the tone of the book. It begins to feel as though the language and style is used as a tool with which to try speak of the psychological trauma of having grown up in the conservative silence of white apartheid South Africa and the white post-apartheid fear of the unknown. The novel is hinged on a character who has left a new constitutional democracy led by a government of what he must have been taught to believe to be terrorists, to the crafting of a new American identity in post 9/11 that was founded, quite overtly, on the imagining and cultural production of “the terrorist” as a Muslim body, and how that affected the American psyche.

In one of the most superb understatements in the book, the 17-year old protagonist, who has just left South Africa exclaims, “I feel anonymous and free,” upon setting foot on American soil. Soon, he’ll find himself at The Alibi – a seedy bar in Brooklyn where he finds work cleaning toilets and mopping vomit off the mottled floors before graduating to become a barman of a mangled bar. In short, staccato sentences that sting, the narrator catalogues the drunks and the drug dealers and the drugs; the racists and the whores and the warmongers – every moiling muppet who finds himself along DeKalb Avenue in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, New York.

This is the Fort Greene soon-to-be gentrified, a place that is miffed by the looming presence of bull-horned hipsters. This Fort Greene is still rowdy and unpredictable. Our narrator survives the violence and the drabness of his new home by drowning in drink. We are never told about the narrator’s past in Cape Town, South Africa. We are never allowed even a glimpse into the nature and reason for his despair and detachment from his home country. Perhaps here the author aimed to navigate away from the niggling bits of contemporary South African history and its racial politics.

It is through the unsaid that one might say The Alibi Club represents a liminal space for our narrator. Between 1998 and 2007 his life dangles aimlessly on crumbling American ground and the birth of a dangerous Americanism built of war on terror and a fickle urbanism built on the faux-culture of hipsterism. During this time of transition, of waiting, and of not knowing what to do next or what will happen next, he finds refuge in the smoky haze of an ‘old time bar’ – The Alibi Club – where he meets the characters that give the novel such sharp luminosity.

It is these skeptical, cynical characters – desperate and dejected by the changes in their environment and with America at large – and the author’s tight-fisted language that lends the novel its pungent stench. Take for instance:

“Everybody has an Amy. Amy has a Hotmail account. Amy is crazy. Amy makes me crazy. Amy eats uppers out of plastic wrappers. I’m mad about Amy. I think we’re mad about each other. Amy wants me deep inside her. She has her reasons.”


“Tommy is a boss while Owen is gone. His hands get sick. Boils from inside his palms. He can’t paint. His skin breaks out in a rash up to his elbows. He says it’s from washing dishes.”


“Before Jean-Baptiste disappeared entirely, he owned an Alfa Romeo. Nobody owns an Alfa Romeo in Brooklyn. His was a red 1974 Spider Veloce. When it didn’t look like rain, JB drove around the neighbourhood in his Spider. The Spider moved into the raw space on Waverly Street, between Myrtle and Willoughby, before he did. Later, above the garage, he fashioned a room with a bed and a glass coffee table on which he could do more cocaine.”

The book follows this logic and economy until the very end. It is filled with countless characters that enliven its every page. However, they never quite give you any depth or any real insight into their lives and motivations and despair. As one reads further, the characters begin to feel more like caricatures and the novel begins to feel like an assemblage of images than a construction of meanings. Perhaps, this owes to the author’s background as a visual artist or perhaps, it was an artistic choice in the composition of the novel itself.

Stylistically, the novel is great and the narrative voice is captivating. It is unfortunate that we never get to know why our narrator left South Africa in 1998. It would’ve been ideal to learn the source of the character’s desperation to get into America during that transitional era of his home country. One only gets a sense of skeletons lurking in the shadows. Every sap and sod who finds themselves at The Alibi seems to drag a few of these skeletons to dissolve them in a drink or two, or more, while something sinister encroaches on the bar and DeKalb Avenue’s way of life.

In conclusion, perhaps, one could say that the book is about an imagined community among strangers. More precisely, The Alibi Club is a support group of people who leaned against each other for support during a tumultuous time in the history of America and the world.


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:


Tales of the Metric System

Imraan Coovadia


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


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


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


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


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


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: Esther’s House

rdphouses (2)

EHEsther’s House                      

Carol Campbell                     


ISBN: 9781415207406

REVIEW: Sue Townsend

Carol Campbell in this, her second novel, has tried to bring to life the depressing, dire situation in which many, if not most, of the ordinary people of South Africa find themselves. She is showing us what it’s like to be decent people living in an indecent world, what it’s like to have no food to feed hungry children at night, what it’s like to be a helpless person faced with official corruption and utterly unfairness. We have all read the stories of the endless housing lists, the endless waiting, the endless despair, the utter hopelessness of poverty – whether of opportunity, money, resources access to infrastructure, or, in fact, of everything.

Esther is a mother, a wife, a reformed drunk, a good friend to her neighbours and – most importantly – thoroughly ticked off with the situation she finds herself in. Husband Neville is a waistrel, daughter Liedjie is trying to pass matric at night school while son Jaco has, unbeknownst to his mother, dropped out of school.  Their friend Katjie, who is also living in a backyard shack, is managing to keep body and soul together (just) as well as deal with her no-good daughter Shireen and Shireen’s two little girls.

And so the story begins with Katjie’s shack burning down, killing Shireen, and Esther trying to care for Katjie’s family as well as her own. Without wanting to spoil the ‘surprise’ of the unfolding dramas and traumas, things do not improve from here onwards.  Although – (warning – here comes a spoiler) – they do almost all come right in the end, at least for Esther.

The aangaanery in the lokasie and the newly built RDP houses is described in a mixture of Afrikaans, English and South African vernacular without any recourse to italics or a glossary.  This is fine for us South Africans but could be a little confusing for others.  In fact, the language is pretty plat. Despite this, the protagonists often express unusually insightful thoughts which are, unfortunately, not very nuanced; they could all have come from the same person.  On the whole, this is the problem with Campbell’s book.  The intentions are admirable and Campbell clearly has done her homework on Oudtshoorn and other Karroo towns and has knowledge of the townships that hide behind their hills as well as an ear for some of the language.  But the characters, even when behaving feistily, come over as one dimensional.  The various deaths, and there are a number, are dealt with in a matter of fact manner and then the story simply moves on.

The shenanigans involved in Titty’s acquisition of a house when not even on the housing list (nor having been born when Esther and Katjie put their names down) is treated in a fleeting manner which is a pity because, I think, this was the premise that Campbell was pointing to when writing her novel – the corruption and graft that is going on in South Africa to the detriment of all. But, eventually, the ending is almost fairytale-like.


QUICK REVIEW: Tokoloshe Song


Karina Szczurek reviews two recent books with alternate realities.

TokolosheTokoloshe Song

Andrew Salomon


ISBN: 9781415207017

REVIEWER: Karina Szczurek

Just when he thought that his life is going to be all peace and quiet after giving up a career as a lawyer to restore old boats, Richard is called in for an emergency at the shelter for mistreated tokoloshes where he volunteers. There he meets Lun. After a false start, they become friends and embark on a roller-coaster adventure which takes them across the country to Nieu Bethesda and back in search of the grain of truth at the heart of an ancient myth. They receive assistance from Emily and Sindiwe, midwives of a secret order. Hot on their heels are a ruthless drug lord and a world-class assassin.

I’m not a fantasy fan, but I have enjoyed some of Salomon’s award-winning short fiction. Tokoloshe Song is his debut novel for adults and is as delightful and entertaining as his stories.

StationElevenHCUS2Station Eleven

Emily St. John Mandel


ISBN: 9780385353304

REVIEWER: Karina Szczurek

Within a short period of time a lethal flu wipes out 99% of the world’s population. Civilisation as we know it grinds to an abrupt halt. Station Eleven tells the story of a handful of survivors of the mayhem which ensues. At its centre is the resourceful Kirsten of the Travelling Symphony, a group of actors and musicians performing Shakespeare.

Spanning a few decades before and after the collapse, Mandel draws a bleak picture of humanity, but the darkness is penetrated by flashes of light and goodwill. Creativity, art, self-expression pave the way to society’s precarious rebirth as the individual characters realise how strongly the drive to be remembered is anchored within them. A thrilling page-turner which is simultaneously though-provoking and entertaining, Station Eleven is being deservedly compared to the likes of Margaret Atwood. This is speculative fiction at its best.

REVIEW: The Alphabet Of The Birds


The-Alphabet-of-Birds-_-RGB-300x460The Alphabet of Birds

SJ Naudé


ISBN: 9781415207130

REVIEW: Melvyn Minnaar

For those familiar with the Afrikaans version that appeared in 2011 – and won acclaim and awards – one of the pleasures of this roman à tiroirs is the precision of the translation (a rewrite, more accurately) in echoing the nuances of the original.

While the settings and tone of Naude’s seven haunting inter-linking stories have, what Damon Galgut, in a pointed introduction to the book, calls a “cosmopolitan gloss”, all are anchored in that particular starkness that Afrikaans sometimes shares with the outer edges of society and characters of our country.

It’s a language that harbours a particular emotional grittiness – such as J.M Coetzee brought so energetically to his first books, and provides the vivid graphics for Marlene van Niekerk’s fine novels.

Naude uses it in polished translation to densely weave the melancholic line of displacement/alienation that runs through all these stories. The glimpses of, and Afrikaans names are also a subtextual meditation on those speakers’ place in a much changed world and the country of today.

Often his mastery of words opens up possibilities beyond the obvious and foregrounded narrative. The reader is drawn into the telling of the tales as they unfold, unlocking meaning in sentences, negotiating time frames and the evolution of the plot, finding deep delight in the passion of prose.

This is Joschka, a baker’s assistant, and ‘alternative lover’ of the worldly, high-flying expatriate narrator, a banker in London: “He has hands that are capable of anything. Hands that start shaping each day when it breaks. Hands that track the shape of whichever body may be at hand that day. Hands that knead and mould dough.”

This poetic erotic charge focuses the central clash of personalities, places and philosophies in the story of ‘A Master from Germany’. The ironies of homelessness are at tipping point here.

This tension is the edge where all the central characters find themselves as they weave in and out of the first person, main narrative that frames the book so neatly.

Most are travellers, returning to places that are now different and challenging. Street-smart in the foreign worlds they’ve explored, their old homes, past histories, become demanding testing ground, throwing up existential questions.

Sex had its place and provided pleasure in the diaspora, but is neutered in the home-coming. Cancer is a thread through three pieces, a theme of creeping despair. Ironically, that unfolding of bleakness and the highly personal provide a key to some form of understanding, if not resolution.

The latter, as the book’s title suggests, is in the domain of the birds. Birds are referenced in casual encounters throughout the stories, detail in the décor, often as markers of frustration.

Theirs is language that we don’t understand, but yearn to know. Ancient and poetic metaphor of the unknown, inaccessible logic and the mysterious, Naudé elegantly activates this mythical framework in contemplation of the human condition.

The Alphabet of the Birds is a marvellously dense book and rewarding for that. Layers unfold as references (names, for example, are highly charged) reveal themselves and connections fall into place. Personal histories are stylishly pieced together in jigsaws of time.

Yet while the stories point to loss, if not inexorable tragedy, Naudé has composed such beautiful, honed prose that it drives you passionately and cerebrally from page to page, from story to story. The darkness of the unanswered questions is lit by the vividness of words.

His characters will ring in memory – often for the simplest, briefest detail ascribed to them and their actions.

There’s Sandrien, in the brilliant first story ‘Van’, who self-destructs in a relentless pursuit of redemption in the moral chaos of modern South Africa. Mrs Nyathi, who appears in this tale, and again later, is a colourful, cigar-smoking matron-hotelier. Sam is a freewheeling man of the new South Africa, and of the dance. Ondien is a musician-singer in search of herself as a cultural being deep in the alienated country.

They are people that could only inhabit or come from contemporary South Africa. They carry in person, philosophy and actions the complicated social issues of this land, which makes Naudé’s book also an open-ended morality tale.

When it appeared in Afrikaans in 2011, Naudé was widely praised as an exciting new voice. Many reviewers made particular reference to the fact that it should not be limited to that language. And so it has come about – brilliantly.
















REVIEW: Home Remedies by Diane Awerbuck

Home Remedies - Diane Awerbuck_image_lowres

Home Remedies

Diane Awerbuck


REVIEW BY: Karen Jeynes

There are books you fall in love with from the first word, and others which seduce you slowly. Home Remedies draws you in, slowly, almost unwillingly at times, until you are held captive by its spell.

In the first few chapters of flashbacks and reflections it feels as though very little has happened, and yet also as though we have come to understand a lot. We have begun to feel the weight of what matters. Joanna, our heroine, is not the most easily lovable of characters – and yet she is very human, very funny, and very intriguing. The beginning of the book is a tension between the chick lit-like cover, title and tone, and some very complex and intricate themes. It’s a hard time for Joanna, who has lost her job, has a small child, feels out of place in Fish Hoek, and is experiencing a lot of conflict in her marriage. Yet beneath all these surface concerns are the shadows of deeper troubles, of violence, and darkness.

A lot of history is interwoven with Joanna’s story, tales of the Fish Hoek man, of Piers’ Cave, of human relics forgotten or else used as pawns in political games, and the ever present echo of Saartjie Baartman, a woman objectified, a woman made to symbolise so much to so many. There is a real life of the history which surrounds all of us on a daily basis and yet is continually ignored. That we never look up, and see beyond our immediate worries. Complicated concerns about bodies, remains, and belonging all surface, and Joanna’s preoccupation with the Fish Hoek man reveals much of her own psychology. Awerbuck cleverly pokes fun at the media frenzy around Saartjie Baartman, at the desire everyone has to be a part of a story. And through all these twists and variations, Awerbuck guides us gently.

Awerbuck is a magnificent writer, and her skill is evident here. She sketches life in Fish Hoek in delightful detail, bringing to life a suburb unknown to most. She gives Joanna a light humorous flair in her dialogue, inner thoughts, and tone, but also a starkness and a directness which is at times unnerving. Joanna talks freely about her insomnia, her fears, how her husband has only dated black women before her, and about her conflicted relationship with her now ex-employer.

Readers should be aware that the book becomes increasingly darker, and two tragedies befall Joanna. Her preoccupation with violence turns into a reality. They are – and are intended to be – harsh and jarring, but perhaps are a little too much, a little excessive, in that they make Joanna increasingly hard to relate to and understand. But these things are never clear cut, and no one’s responses to horrifying events should be easily judged.

Home Remedies is a bold novel about individuals scarred by history, and once you have been seduced you will not be disappointed.

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