Review: The Wren Hunt by Mary Watson

The Wren Hunt“Not for the first time, I cursed my name… It was the only thing my mother had given me before she ran off with a man from God knows where when I was a few days old”, the narrator of Mary Watson’s The Wren Hunt tells us in the first pages of this beautifully crafted novel. Her name is Wren. The novel opens on Saint Stephen’s Day, or the Day of the Wren, as the public holiday is also known in Ireland. It takes place on 26 December and commemorates the Christian martyr who according to some legends was betrayed to his enemies by a wren. Other tales record an occasion when the presence of Irish soldiers was revealed to the Vikings by a wren on Saint Stephen’s Day, and until about a century ago, boys traditionally hunted wrens on that day, displaying the dead birds and collecting money for celebrations of the occasion. Today, live birds or model wrens still form part of the observance.

In Watson’s novel, which is set in modern-day Ireland and gloriously infused with the folklore and fables of the land, it is her protagonist Wren who is hunted by the boys in the woods around their village, Kilshamble: “In the village, they said that the woods weren’t friendly after sundown. They said bad things lurked in the forest, hidden behind the dank, fallen boughs. The good people of Kilshamble liked nothing more than blood and gore. We were fed gruesome stories with mother’s milk.” Wren does not believe in the stories, “except on those days when the light was violet and the wind blew wild and the forest and fields felt restless.” And she is connected to them in mysterious ways. She is no ordinary girl and knows that the game the boys execute with the hunt is no ordinary play. Wren is a member of one of the ancient draoithe clans of the augurs and the boys belong to the judges – the two “would never be friends”. Caught in the clutches of David, the leader of the hunt, and his evil-meaning accomplices, Wren decides that enough is enough. She feels humiliated and frustrated when David cuts a lock of her hair; she is afraid “what dark magic he might do” with it.

Wren, David and their clans live in a world where magic rules all manner of engagement. After her mother abandons her, Wren is brought up by Smith and Maeve, her remaining family. It is Maeve who “had shown me the old ways, the secret traditions passed down through the generations. Some of them so old they came from the time when draoithe were one, with no division, no hostility. A time when we worked together as the prophets, poets, arbiters and advisers to kings.” But the time of unity is long over and the augurs and the judges are entwined in a battle for control and power.

When Wren’s family hatches a plan to strengthen their weakening position against the judges, Wren begins working as an intern for the Harkness Foundation and Calista Harkness, the owner of the Lucas Archive which contains a precious map of the mystical Daragishka Knot stones: “The stones are our only hope. If we don’t get them, it’s the beginning of the end of us. It happened to the bards, don’t think it won’t happen to us.” Secretly, Wren hopes that her search will also lead her to her lost mother.

As she is still waiting for her talent to reveal itself fully, Wren is flooded by visions and dreams which are difficult to decipher. She sees patterns in random things. It is not impossible that she might be able to see the future, but she is very much aware that the ability might come at a high price, since “pretty much everyone who’d had this talent ended up losing their minds”.

A chance encounter with a stranger at a coffee shop threatens to upturn Wren’s life in a way known to many of us, whether we believe in the magic of this world or not: she loses her heart to a boy with “marble eyes”: “Glancing up, I noticed his eyes. They were deep sludge. Murky eyes that might have been blue but were darkened to grey. Eyes like the sky on a rainy day.” The boy also has a tattoo that Wren recognises from one of her dark visions. She knows it is a warning, perhaps even a warning to back away from her family’s plan, but nothing is certain. And when she realises that the boy she has just met belongs (as has been the case for most great love stories of all times) to the enemy’s camp, she enters a treacherous world of confusion and secrets where she no longer knows whom to trust and whose ideals to follow. Gradually, the signs and her heart begin to point in an entirely different direction to the one initially set out for her by her family.

Watson, who is South African but lives in Ireland, is a highly acclaimed writer of short stories; her “Jungfrau” from the remarkable collection Moss won the prestigious Caine Prize in 2006. She is also the author of a haunting novel, The Cutting Room (2013). The Wren Hunt is her first book for young adults and will form part of a series. Watson’s exquisitely evocative prose and her penchant for distinct stories have been the main features of her oeuvre up to date. The Wren Hunt – with its lyrical, mythical storytelling – is a magical treat and an exceptional addition to the genre. It is a long time since a novel of this kind stole my own literary heart. Its supernatural elements are woven into the quotidian reality in ways that will make you see the world in a different light and awaken a longing for magic and the guiding, restorative power of love.

The Wren Hunt

by Mary Watson

Bloomsbury, 2018

Review first published in the Cape Times, 6 April 2018.

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Oudrif

IMG_4363Oudrif. Oudrif. Oudrif. A spell. A promise. We kept repeating the word to each other with longing, desperate to get away from the perils of our everyday. Our cosy straw bale cottage in Oudrif was waiting at the end of a longwinded dirt road leading to the banks of the now silent Doring River. The drought has taken its toll despite the fact that we arrived just after unusually heavy rainfalls. Leopards and aardvarks still roam in this landscape and the veld smells of earth and honey and quiet content. The light is kind here, the peace absolute. No cell phone reception, no worries. Our hosts, Jeanine and Bill, welcomed us with cider, beer and smiles. And stories. Their knowledge about the area is spectacular. Their environmental consciousness something to aspire to. And their love for animals is heart-warming. They are fantastic hosts and chefs, infusing every dish with creativity and generosity.

IMG_4360Oudrif. Oudrif. Oudrif. In Polish, we speak of such secluded spots as the places where the Devil says good night. But Oudrif is paradise on earth, day and night. Solar-powered angel lights guide you through the darkness before the stars light up the night. The place is totally independent of the municipal electricity and water grids. Any negative environmental impact is kept to a minimum.

Every day after breakfast, there is the possibility of a walk. Whether to see the rock art recorded in this landscape, or the Chandelier Lily in full bloom, or a flock of Speckled Mousebirds, the hikes restore one’s soul to oneself. (The ginormous scorpion which crossed my path – my first ever encounter – late one night shall be mentioned only in brackets.) The rocks of the area speak of pre-historic times; each layer holds a different story. We were surrounded by ancient secrets. The rock art reminds of our deep need to engage with visions and reality, to create understanding and capture beauty. A collection of heart-shaped stones of all sizes decorates the central dining area of Oudrif – I left mine behind among them. Books are everywhere, making readers feel at home.

IMG_4348All around is rooibos country, every breath infused with the typical, soothing scent of the tea bush. But it was a mug of freshly brewed coffee on the stoep of our cottage that got us going every morning. In the afternoons, dry heat lured us back to bed and the setting sun invited for a swim in the rock pools of the Doring still full of balmy waters. The laziness of those tipsy hours of sleep, lounging about and playing cribbage… And the full moon dinner stories in the company of fascinating, like-minded, isolation-seeking guests from around the world… Let us return soon and sink into the loving arms of happily exhausted days at Oudrif. Oudrif. Oudrif.

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Review: Navigate by Karin Schimke

Navigate-by-Karin-SchimkeAnyone who has read Karin Schimke’s Bare & Breaking, for which she won the prestigious Ingrid Jonker Award in 2014, will be delighted to know that her second collection of poems is now available from Modjaji Books. Navigate is sublime. Schimke’s poems steer between memory and loss, beauty and hurt, while forging a path to understanding, joy, holding on.

The poem Smoking remembers the house that was “my aunt’s speck of planet”. The woman’s existence continues beyond her life in the poet’s fragile words: “This is how dead people live on: / smiling in a shaft of memory / with smoke wreathing their heads. / A herald of hindsight.”

The volume opens with an image of “my father” removing a splinter from his daughter’s foot, the process full of kindness: “However / long it took, however sore / it was, losing the splinter / was always a loss.”

The mood swiftly changes in the following poem where the memory is of impatience and boredom on the part of the observer who is in a workshop, where “The day had whined and hammered too long.” Violence follows: “You grabbed me by the hair.” The impression is that the people involved are the same as in the previous poem, the father and his daughter. And that the immigrant of the next poems is the father, whose sense of orientation has been overthrown by migration, “When the stars are upturned” and “The immigrant belongs to nothing but his hands.” The same loving hands which can attend to a stuck splinter, repair what is broken, or offer the daughter safety as she learns to swim, can simultaneously cause pain.

The collection returns to the image of feet and hands in Superstition, where the roles are reserved as the poetic I is the one offering comfort to the you of the poem who is lying helpless in a hospital bed, machines keeping the body alive. The feet are “uninvaded territory. They’re / useless to these intricate calibrations. / But your feet are useful to me. / I can hold them and imagine / I’m steering you back here.” The confrontation with death and frailty of a loved one continues in the following poems, Do you remember the time when so many people we knew were dying? and Cleaning the wound.

The sequence of the poems tells a compelling story. It is clear that the internal compass needed to “navigate” is as upset as the external one. Home is a mere suspicion (The existence of home) and belonging must be questioned, specifically in our socio-historical context which requires extreme sensitivity: “Belonging is as delicate as a machine: / one foreign speck of dust makes each part / question itself. You must keep the system clean.” In a note to The Shasta daisy’s native range, we learn that the flower “grows from seed like a classic perennial. But once established, it is permanent and never invasive.” The immigrant father “loved those Shastas”. They demanded “little” of him, “how compliant they were. How / attractive their simple perennial solace.”

The garden is full of Shasta daisies, other plants and fertile memories, but the next poem, Hybrids, classifies: “You never planted your bones here… You grew hybrid languages and hybrid children. / Unlike God, you were not pleased.”

The poet is a creator, too. Time flows; change is inevitable. In the four poems which make up Praxis – four steps to understanding change, Schimke captures the nature of transformation which acknowledges the part-futility and part-uncertainty of the process. The final result cannot be asserted with confidence. The word “maybe” – in parenthesis – precedes the final stanza of the quartet in which the woman who was once a little girl is watching out in anticipation: “for the forgiveness / that comes before an apology / or to marvel that she was grown / and was seldom afraid now.”

Doubt enters the equation. The seven poems – or “songs of self-censorship” – of Taped beak are heart-wrenching, especially in the context of the poem which follows them, The things they do not tell you, when “Unspeakable things were happening not far away” and were impossible to process at the time by an eight-year-old “you”. The poem Then why establishes the purpose of trying to carve out a space for creativity among binary codes: “we make, / that’s all. the pen / the brush the drill / the wood the tool / the trowel, your hand –” and when the pain of it all is questioned, the answer is simple: “it hurts, i said. / here, she said, / pouring ink / into my palm. // it’s medicine.”

Eventually, a sense of calm descends on the collection when the poetic I speaks of simple, ordinary, but emotionally charged, experiences: independence in January swim (“I own this body as though / I am its first citizen.”), erotic fulfilment in Truffler (“I, the earth and hot, / swell of my fruiting bodies / for the hog’s horny snuffling.”), or watching a film about the life of John Keats in the poem by the same title, Bright star (“i wept for everything / and all of it: the sun, the wind, and our / infinitesimal belligerent important / little love.”)

Life is a journey, they say. It’s easy to get lost, especially in treacherous or dreamlike territories far away from everything familiar. “I will have to eat stars to be guided back”, says the first line of When I finally get to Bhutan, the penultimate poem of Navigate. But, it is the simple gestures of tenderness that return us to the safety and belonging of home, as Schimke reminds us in The first time we went for a walk. The beach walk along a metaphorical “cosmological crack” ends on a “wooden deck / where a wind rustled and you dusted / sea sand from between my toes. / My feet were at home in your lap.”

Navigate

by Karin Schimke

Modjaji Books, 2018

Review first published in the Cape Times on 23 March 2018.

Review: Mine by Sally Partridge

MineAt first glance, it looks like a typical boy meets girl story. However, Sally Partridge’s latest novel, Mine, is so much more. The book’s stunning cover illustration by Astrid Blumer introduces us to Kayla and Finlay (or Fin), the protagonists of the novel: we don’t see their faces, but we know that Kayla’s hair is in part strikingly blue, Fin is wearing a hoodie with a thunderbolt on his back. They are sitting on bench. One of them must have arrived to the meeting on a skateboard. Someone carved their initials into the back of the bench. Next to “K+F” is a broken heart. A squirrel watches on.

Fin’s alter ego is Thor, hence the thunderbolt: “now there’s someone I can respect”, he tells us. “Strong. Angry. Invincible. The guy can control lightening. They say that when it storms, it’s Thor fighting giants.” The moment Fin steps onto a stage and begins to rap he turns into his hero. At night, he is the star of a popular band, playing to adoring audiences in Cape Town’s clubs. During the day, he is mostly stoned so that he can survive the drudgery of school and the threats lurking at home in Lansdowne. An only child, abandoned by his mother when he was a young boy, Fin is growing up with a violent father who couldn’t care less what happens to his son.

Kayla is the skater. She loves comic books, has a rather unusual penchant for classical music and plays the flute. She comes from a more stable home, but like most teenagers feels that her mother and step-father do not understand her. At school, she has the reputation of a “slut”. “There is no such thing as romance anymore – guys just want one thing”, she says. She feels so lonely and insecure that even this kind of abusive attention she receives seems better to her than none. What she does not recognise and others refuse to see is that she is not only beautiful, but smart, kind and super talented.

Mine alternates between Kayla’s and Fin’s perspectives. We fever along with both of them as they are trying to find a way to each other. The first time Fin sees Kayla, she flits by on her skateboard, her blue hair flashing. She immediately leaves an impression. When he accidently sees her again at a school recital, playing her flute, he is clearly smitten. But the girl who is chasing after Fin warns him of Kayla’s reputation. Their first proper encounter is awkward, yet Fin recognises something in Kayla that is all too familiar to him: “She acted just like I do whenever someone compliments me. I whack it back, retreat into my little cave of self-loathing.” And so, from the start, he senses that he can be truly himself with her.

Falling in love is never easy, especially when you never feel worthy. Or “impossible to love”, as Kayla thinks of herself. Fin’s song lyrics flow from the heart: “Does anyone know me? … I’m nobody, a freak. Never be, ever be, good enough to be the One.”

What do you do when you “feel like all my cracks are showing”? Kayla and Fin decide to give it a try, to open their hearts to each other and break the cycles of self-doubt that repeatedly get them into trouble. Cautiously, love is declared and promises are made. Previous patterns of engaging with others are tested and abandoned for something new, better: “We stand like this in silence. Her face is so close to mine. I want to kiss her more than anything in the world. I can see she expects me to. Wants me to, even. And that’s exactly why I can’t.”

Fin needs to show Kayla that he is not like all the other boys: “She makes me want to believe I can be the good guy for once.” And Kayla desperately tries to be the kind of girl he imagines her to be. She has only ever known disappointment before: “But I can’t help that I want the things other girls have. I mean, why shouldn’t I?” she asks. They are both scared out of their wits, but willing to risk it all. Yet, sometimes the best of intentions cannot stand up to the destructive habits of one’s own past. “Love also stings sometimes… We both know that.”

Partridge is never afraid to tackle the big issues young people have to deal with growing up. And in Mine, she also does not shy away from addressing the horrendous consequences of peer pressure, our need to belong, or the minefield of budding – anything but innocent – sexuality. It is about that first big love: “I’m on such a high from being around him, it’s like I’ve slipped and fallen into his universe and it’s just us and no one else.” It all feels incredibly real, including Cape Town – the other main character of the novel.

In André Brink’s An Instant in the Wind, one of the main characters fears that “love is the beginning of violence and betrayal. Something in oneself or in the other is killed or betrayed”. This fundamental recognition echoed in my mind while I was reading Mine and heading towards its explosive, unpredictable ending. What touched me most about Partridge’s novel is that its emotional truths resonated with the teenager I once was and the woman I am today. I believe that, unlike many young adult novels which are specifically aimed at teenagers, Mine will appeal to anyone who has dared to defy his or her one’s own demons for love. “For the unrequited lovers and broken-hearted”, reads the book’s dedication.

Partridge is an acclaimed novelist and short story writer. Three out of her previous novels published locally were awarded the prestigious M.E.R. Prize for Best Youth Novel. The fifth one appeared only in German translation. She has been recognised by IBBY International for her young adult fiction. Mine is her best work to date.

Mine

by Sally Partridge

Human & Rousseau, 2018

An edited version of this review first appeared in the Cape Times on 17 March 2018.

Review: The Cabinet of Linguistic Curiosities – A Yearbook of Forgotten Words by Paul Anthony Jones

CabinetLanguages are living, breathing, mutating creatures. The English language of today is not the one of 1602 when, according to Paul Anthony Jones in The Cabinet of Linguistic Curiosities: A Yearbook of Forgotten Words, “the Elizabethan playwright Thomas Dekker coined the word love-libel – literally, ‘a handwritten admission of someone’s love’”. Or the English of the early 1400s when the striking word “recumbentibus” (which, like so many of the words Jones collected in his remarkable book, the spellcheck on my computer does not recognise!) was adopted into the language from Latin: “In its native Latin recumbentibus was used merely of the act of lounging or reclining, but when the word was adopted into English it was given a twist: English writers…began to use it to refer to forceful, knockout or knockdown blows”.

Despite linguistic evolution, many obscure words remain in the language, if not in everyday use then at least in Jones’s quirky bookish cabinet, home to such delightful words as “fedifragous” (an adjective describing a break of promise or a violation of oath), “spike-bozzle” (a verb meaning “to sabotage; to ruin or render ineffective”), “miraculate” (“to produce by a miracle”) or “eucatastrophe” (a noun for “a sudden and unexpected fortuitous event”).

The book comprises of 366 entries for every day of the calendar year, each with a tale attached to a particular date in history. The author traces each word’s etymology and tells a story illustrating its use. For 1 January, Jones chose the delightful word “quaaltagh”: “Proving there really is a word for everything, your quaaltagh is the first person you meet on New Year’s Day morning.” The noun was borrowed from Manx, “the Celtic language of the Isle of Man, in the early nineteenth century.” With its roots in the verb “quaail, meaning ‘to meet’ or ‘to assemble’, as it originally referred to a group of festive entertainers who would come together to gambol from door to door at Christmas or New Year singing songs and reciting poems”, a quaaltagh soon became a symbol for what the new year was about to bring: “dark-haired men were said to bring good luck, while fair-haired or fair-complexioned men (or, worst of all, fair-haired women) were said to bring bad luck – a curious superstition said to have its origins in the damage once wreaked by fair-haired Viking invaders.”

The words contained in Jones’s The Cabinet of Linguistic Curiosities are as fascinating as the stories accompanying them. Incidentally, the entry for 27 April, a date engraved on South African hearts, is “cosmonogy”, meaning “the creation of the universe”. The word was coined in the seventeenth century when thinkers of the time were beginning to reimagine and understand the nature of our solar system. In 1619, for example, the German astronomer Johannes Kepler postulated that “the universe…had come into existence on 27 April 4977 BC.” He was off by a few billion years for the universe, but I like the idea that he chose 27 April for a new beginning.

The Cabinet of Linguistic Curiosities: A Yearbook of Forgotten Words

by Paul Anthony Jones

Elliott and Thompson, 2017

Review first published in the Cape Times on 9 March 2018.

Review: New Times by Rehana Rossouw

New TimesRehana Rossouw’s debut novel, What Will People Say? (2015), was already on its seventh impression when I was reading it earlier this year. Being reprinted so often within a relatively short period of time is no small feat for a local novel. Even though I came late to the party, I immediately understood why it was so popular. Rossouw, a veteran journalist, succinctly captured an era and a community – the Cape Flats of the late eighties and early nineties – and made them come alive through a handful of characters belonging to the Fourie family. This was the time of volatile politics, raging gang wars and impossible choices. Decency and family values did not protect you from the evil of the system and the cruelties of the streets. Only the toughest survived to thrive.

Rossouw’s second novel takes up where What Will People Say? left off, but with an entirely different cast of characters. Set in 1995, just before the Rugby World Cup and Mandela’s world-famous reconciliatory gesture of wearing the Springbok jersey at the tournament, New Times tells the story of one woman trying to navigate the precarious early days of democracy, the constant swings between socio-political euphoria and despondency, and her personal rollercoaster ride between hope and despair.

Ali (Aaliyah) Adams, the narrator of New Times, grew up in the Bo-Kaap, but she is not as devout as her Muslim family and finds it difficult to conform to the expectations of her patriarchal and deeply religious community. She does not dare to reveal to anyone that she is gay. After the death of her father, Ali takes over his responsibilities as the breadwinner of the family and continues supporting her mother and grandmother. The family wrestles with the mother’s grief and her ensuing breakdown, hospitalisation and severe depression. She returns home, but she is a daunting presence who offers little support to the other women.

Ali is fighting her own demons. When the newspaper she works for closes down, she struggles to keep it all together. Eventually she is hired as a political reporter for a respected Cape Town weekly: “I am playing my part again in building a better society, back on the job.” After initial difficulties, her career stabilises, but it is only momentary relief. Preparations for her best friend’s wedding trigger memories of the passionate love the two women shared when they were younger. Reconnecting professionally with another friend, Lizo, a former political prisoner on Robben Island who now works for Madiba, brings with it its own challenges. And she has to cope with the fact that Munier, the one friend she always runs to for comfort, is in danger of dying of AIDS.

A fearless political reporter, Ali does not mind stepping on anybody’s toes in her quest for truth, but her unstable emotions are threatening to get the better of her and jeopardise her career. She understands the necessity of the upcoming Truth and Reconciliation Commission and is already working on the kind of stories which will make headlines once the hearings begin. Interviewing a black woman fighter pilot in the Air Force for an article, she discovers that she was involved at Cuito Cuanavale where a young man Ali is also investigating died fighting for the apartheid government. Sinister forces would like to keep that particular chapter of history closed forever. Together with a colleague, Ali tries to get to the bottom of what happened to the soldier who never came home to his desperate parents.

The New South Africa is haunted by these ghosts. Ali herself is plagued by recurring nightmares and flashbacks which are caused by layers of trauma she experienced as a reporter before the transition, as a daughter when her father was dying, and as a woman unable to live out her sexual preferences. Her emotions are in overdrive. She finds it impossible to trust people. It is only a matter of time until something has to give. Feeling hopeless about the silences and tensions in their home, Ali’s grandmother takes things into her own hands and embarks on a mission to help the family. But are coconut ice and a traditional healer the answer?

Intimate, emotionally charged, New Times offers a fascinating glimpse into the birthing pains of a free South Africa. Reimagined from the perspective of more than two decades of democracy, it is a revealing take on what still needs to be faced in order for us to move towards and not away from those initial dreams of a “better life for all.” Rossouw’s insights shine a guiding light.

New Times

by Rehana Rossouw

Jacana, 2017

Review first published in Afrikaans in Die Burger on 5 March 2018.

Review: The First Law of Sadness by Nick Mulgrew

first-law-of-sadness_nick-mulgrewThe short story continues to fascinate me for two reasons: the precision of thought and execution it attracts as well as its unpredictability. If well done, it can surprise and satisfy like nothing else in literature. And Nick Mulgrew does the genre justice like few other contemporary South African writers. His work has been recognised with multiple awards and his vision and skill have been highly acclaimed by critics. Mulgrew is also an editor and the director of the flourishing poetry press, uHlanga, which published his debut poetry volume, the myth of this is that we’re all in this together, in 2015. In his many impressive literary incarnations, Mulgrew understands that short art forms require meticulous attention to language. He knows how to make words count.

Mulgrew’s debut collection of stories, Stations (2016), was a stunning accomplishment. His latest, The First Law of Sadness, expands on the predecessor’s sound foundations and takes us to the heart of sorrow: “There is the universe, I have come to know, and it is full of pain. This pain can neither be created nor destroyed: only transferred. For every pain healed in someone, a new one is felt in another.” This is the titular “first law of sadness”. Sadness in these pensive and beautifully crafted short stories comes in many guises, manifesting as loss, loneliness, melancholy or anguish. Each piece is accompanied by a colour photograph from the series “Robot Run” by Michael Tymbios, a Cape Town-based graphic designer. The images add a soulful dimension to the narrations.

The First Law of Sadness opens with a thought-provoking, and unsettling, epigraph by Genna Gardini: “Horror’s not the seedling. It’s the pot.” It is followed by an eerie prose passage in italics which includes this paragraph: “Your body, face-down. Ripples from the skin. Buoy at the edge of the world. Your body, it turns. Blue face, neoprene. A smile of teeth, beckoning. A hand of fingers, divining.

Then a photograph and the title “Anew” announce the first story in the collection. The image is of skid marks on a road heading into an overpass tunnel on a clear, sunny day. Human presence is implied by its absence. There is a suspicion that despite appearances, something is out of control, that the calm of the surroundings is only an illusion. You never know what will shift a straightforward situation into a different gear or what will be needed to survive. The opening lines of “Anew” confirm the sense of instability and passing, setting the tone for the entire book: “Like water, it evaporates. Some small memory, in the sitting room, with the green damask carpet, the Lladros a silent audience. Sifting pictures on the floor, captured light, un-mounting paintings from the wall-paper. Last week’s newspaper, bubble wrap, boxes in the ruin. Strange how there is no memory now of what was living, but only the cleaning, the division of spoils.”

The First Law of Sadness includes ten other short stories, each introduced with a striking photograph by Tymbios. The images, ranging from an empty petrol station at night to a flower arrangement on display next to a car seem mundane at first glance, but closely observed, they can reveal moving stories in their own right and enrich the eerie atmosphere of the collection.

In “For Sale: Set of Secondhand Imported Momo Mags for Toyota Corolla (Mint Condition), Bargain”, an online sales ad for the item described in the title tells the tale of heart-breaking loss, reminiscent of the famous six-word story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

“Ever Elizabeth” captures the moment of return to a place of one’s past, when anything but escape felt like a trap. Elizabeth comes back to Port Elizabeth where, from the moment she lands at the airport, everything feels out of joint: “Everything built for a future that never became a present. An international airport with flights only as far as Johannesburg. An arrivals hall with one rotating carousel. Unused custom booths, filing cabinets gathering the receipts of years.”

In “Bootlegger”, Yerodin Fermin, a foreign student at Rhodes, runs over a duiker on his way to Grahamstown while under the influence of drugs. He comes up with a wild idea what to do with the carcass of the animal. In “Rise of the Shogunate”, the narrator tries to deal with the challenges of his post-divorce life with an interest in Japanese aesthetics. An encounter with an albino turtle exposes a heart-breaking vulnerability in “The Turtle-keeper”. A dog is killed by a bird of prey in “Smaller”; the incident brings the pet owner’s ugly emotions to the surface. Unwillingly, a man becomes an internet porn sensation in the sinister “Patron”. The removal of a man’s tattoos tells his story in “Therapist”. Seeing the Springboks after their World Cup win, Kip’s life takes a new turn in “Jumper”. Help arrives in an unexpected form after a freak plane accident in “A Descent”.

The last image in the book is of a dark ash-grey gargoyle statue with burning red eyes. But the gargoyle is not perched on a building as usual and is unable to fulfil its traditional architectural function (to convey water away from the structure it aims to protect). It just sits there panting on the ground in front of a dull brick wall. Another creature seems to be attached to the wall behind it, but it is impossible to discern what it is, as only a part of a curled tail is visible at the top of the picture. I wasn’t sure whether the image is meant to go along with the photographer’s biographical note on the next page, or whether it is a visual comment on the proceeding texts. If the latter, it is a brilliant conclusion to the collection: a displaced gargoyle and an unidentified tail are the perfect symbols for a book of stories in which everything and everyone seem lost in one way or another.

The First Law of Sadness

by Nick Mulgrew

David Philip, 2017

Review first published in the Cape Times on 23 February 2018.

Review: The Mother of All Questions – Further Feminisms by Rebecca Solnit

The Mother of All QuestionsIt was by pure chance that I discovered a recent online essay by Rebecca Solnit in which she was writing about women, art, motherhood and selfishness. As a creative woman who chose not to have children, I found it most affirming. After some research about the author, I could not believe that I had never encountered Solnit’s work before. But fortunately, the article led me to her impressive oeuvre and the latest piercing collection of essays, The Mother of All Questions: Further Feminisms. In the introduction, Solnit mentions “the rapid social changes of a revitalized feminist movement” and how it is “changing our understanding of consent, power, rights, gender, voice, and representation.” She speaks of the movement as being “gorgeously transformative”.

This book was published before the #MeToo Campaign and its momentous recognition of the inequalities and abuse women, bafflingly and unforgivingly, still face today – everywhere and at all times. But Solnit’s collection, divided into two parts (“Silence is broken” and “Breaking the story”), seems prophetic in her anticipation of such a quantum leap in understanding the crisis. She writes that “when words break through unspeakability, what was tolerated by a society sometimes becomes intolerable.” How we proceed from there is essential: “A free person tells her own story. A valued person lives in a society in which her story has a place.”

The Mother of All Questions “is a tour through carnage,” she writes, “a celebration of liberation and solidarity, insight and empathy, and an investigation of the terms and tools with which we might explore all these things.” In her essays, Solnit examines what it means to be a woman in relationship to our biology as well as to creative and intellectual pursuits. She looks at the history of silence and its dehumanising and exclusionary effects on women’s lives. Solnit stresses the importance of empathy as “a narrative we tell ourselves to make other people real to us, to feel for and with them, and thereby to extend and enlarge and open ourselves.” She explores the roles shame, language, violence and power play in the making of our lives. We need to imagine, articulate and work towards more favourable realities and opportunities than patriarchy offers: “there can be, must be, something better.” Art is a vital tool in this creation.

Above all, Solnit looks at the question most of us seek to answer: how to live a meaningful life? The reply will be highly individual for every person, but it is crucial to consider “addressing our own suffering while learning not to inflict it on others” as “part of the work we’re all here to do. So is love, which comes in so many forms and can be directed at so many things.”

What I love most about Solnit’s feminism is that it is encompassing and not alienating. She makes sure that we can all feel comfortable embracing her ideas. Accessible, wise and beautifully tender, The Mother of All Questions is a brilliant companion to our times.

The Mother of All Questions: Further Feminisms

by Rebecca Solnit

Granta, 2017

Review first published in the Cape Times on 16 February 2018.

Review: Knucklebone by NR Brodie

KnuckleboneA house robbery “gone bad” is sadly not an uncommon occurrence in South Africa, in reality or in fiction. The one with which NR Brodie’s debut thriller Knucklebone opens seems routine enough: two young men try to break into a home in Johannesburg; one escapes but is eventually caught, the other one is shot dead by the owner. But here, nothing is at it appears.

Old colleagues, Ian Jack and Reshma Patel, meet on the scene of the crime. Ian is a former police officer who now lectures at the university and is present because he’d accompanied the armed response team on their call for his research. Reshma is investigating the case.

It all looks simple in the beginning, but then there is something unusual about the shot wound of the victim, and the strangely unperturbed woman who killed him is definitely not who she claims to be. Born in Romania, Eva Lecca runs a thriving enterprise as a taxidermist, but it soon transpires that she has lethal secrets to hide. Did she fire her gun in self-defence or did she have a completely different motive? “Eva stepped closer to him, her shadow making a grotesque short shape against the wall. Ian pressed his back against the brick, trapped between the building and the woman. His mouth was dry. He couldn’t understand why, but every nerve in his body screamed danger.”

When unexpectedly the apprehended robber, Njabulo, has a diabetic fit in the interrogation room, collapses and ends up in a hospital, things go from strange to otherworldly and then to outright scary. It becomes clear that there are other thieves involved who deal not only in house break-ins, but also animal poaching and trafficking. Soul kidnappings or demon possessions are also not beyond them.

A monkey’s paw leads Ian and Reshma to a much more gruesome find in a hidden warehouse. A collection of one-cent copper coins are found during an autopsy. Demons are on the loose. And a friend goes mysteriously missing. Reshma and Ian do not really know what or who they are dealing with and they have to keep their minds open to face the eerie challenges of this case. They seek the help of a sangoma and a coven of witches to understand and survive the forces they are trying to bring to justice.

Ian has a personal history with Reshma and encountering her again brings back memories of their failure at a relationship while they were still working together in the past. His hope for another chance is rekindled when she responds positively to his invitation to dinner, but is her returned interest real or is she under the influence of some sinister power?

Knucklebone is set in an African metropolis where people from all over the world live and practice their rich and intriguing beliefs. Brodie brings them seamlessly into the story. Reshma finds out about a “Witchcraft Indaba” – “Africa’s first multi-national conference dedicated to sharing knowledge and information about magickal [referring to real magick] practices around the continent!” – and gets in touch with the organisers to help her solve the uncanny puzzle of her case. Ian does not know what to believe when he witnesses an exorcism – which is one of the best scenes of the novel, Brodie’s descriptions making you want to scream and run and simultaneously keep you glued to the page:

“Njabulo arched his neck, his mouth falling open in a wide grimace. He started breathing harder, his breath coming in laboured pants. His features were so swollen that it was hard to make out any expression on his face.

“Ian was about to ask if he should get help when he saw something.

“A fingertip emerged from the inside of the boy’s mouth.

“Then it was joined by another, waving from the cavity between his teeth. The two fingers, edged with blackened nails, curled around the outside of Njabulo’s lips.”

When Ian questions what he saw, the sangoma performing the ritual, MaRejoice, tells him: “Everything is real, Mr Jack. It all depends on what you want to see”. I don’t believe in witchcraft, but I find the way Brodie writes about it and weaves it into her storyline fascinating and wonderfully convincing. You see magic or spiritual and religious practices at work through the eyes of her characters and even though you might not think any of it possible, it seems quite real in the most ordinary way within the context of the narrative. While reading, I often found myself thinking of The X-Files UFO poster displayed in Agent Mulder’s office, stating: “I want to believe.”

Brodie is an established journalist and the author of five successful non-fiction books, among them one about the Mother City and one about Joburg – its history, places of interest and people. It is thus no surprise that the Joburg of Knucklebone is as vividly portrayed as its striking characters: “The eastern part of town had once been the heart of the city’s garment district. Now it was a mix of semi-abandoned industrial buildings and offices as it bled from City and Suburban into Jeppestown and Troyeville. The noise from the highway rumbled down through concrete, to where the traditional Mai Mai market carried on its business just a few blocks away from the new hipster cool of the Maboneng precinct.”

Brodie’s crisp writing, her short chapters which often end in nail-biting cliff hangers and a great plotline drive the narrative along. She brings all its strands together in a stunning magical finale which I found highly satisfying.

This is Brodie’s first foray into the thriller genre. Her take on it is very refreshing. I don’t read thrillers often, and I am usually not too keen on fantasy either, but I found Knucklebone’s pace and imaginative prowess invigorating and could not put the book down. A sequel is something to be wished for.

Knucklebone

by NR Brodie

Macmillan, 2018

Review first published in the Cape Times on 16 February 2018.