Monthly Archives: January 2016

Book review: The Seed Thief by Jacqui L’Ange

The Seed ThiefThere are writers and then there are writers. Most of us can only dream of becoming the kind of writer Jacqui L’Ange already is, and the stunning The Seed Thief is only her debut novel. Her prose is luminous. It feels as if her words are caressing the pages they are printed on. Enthralled from the beginning, I was reading with bated breath, afraid that the author could not sustain such excellence through an entire novel, that she would take a false step, get lost along the way, and lose me as a reader. But The Seed Thief is one of those rare books which deliver on all fronts and leave you completely satisfied.

The novel tells the story of Maddy Bellani, a South African botanist with migratory roots. She works for one of the world’s seed banks in Cape Town, specialising in fynbos and dedicated to preserving the floral diversity of our planet for future generations. Brazilian by birth, Maddy is sent on a mission to Salvador, Bahia, to locate and secure the seed of the Newbouldia mundii, an African tree extinct on its continent of origin, but rumoured to have survived in Brazil, where it had been taken to by Africans during the slave trade. The plant is desired not only for preservation, but specifically for its medicinal properties. And some people are prepared to do anything to get their hands on it.

Maddy embarks on the mission after the break-up of her relationship with Nico: “Only now that it was finally ending, could I admit how much I’d wished we could have turned the mutual vulnerabilities that brought us together into something less fragile.” She is haunted by a family tragedy from the past and the relationship with her estranged father who finds out about her visit to their home country and attempts to get in touch: “Just knowing that he knew I was here made my emotional barometer plunge.”

Keen on redefining herself in Brazil, Maddy flies to the other side of the world in pursuit of the elusive Newbouldia mundii. The seed is protected by the practitioners of Candomblé, an Afro-Brazilian religious community worshipping gods and goddesses called orixás. Negotiating their different customs and loyalties is not easy and, as Maddy discovers, sometimes what you get in the end is not exactly what you set out to find.

Seeds are like love, unpredictable in the paths they travel. They take root in the most unlikely places, often against all odds. In order to gain access to the treasure she seeks, Maddy has to gain the trust of the Candomblé terreiro (the house of worship) and Zé, the mysterious man who guards their garden: “The rhythm of our interaction became a gentle ebb and flow. He would open up and play, then retreat and observe. Whenever he retreated, I found myself wanting to follow, to draw him back out and close to me. When he came in too close, I pulled back just enough for him to gather himself like the tide.”

Continue reading: LitNet

wanting_The Seed Thief

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Flame in the Snow: The Love Letters of André Brink and Ingrid Jonker

Tears in the Fence

Translated by Leon De Kock & Karin Schimke (Umizi 2015)

Afrikaans, one of the official languages of South Africa, spoken by some seven million speakers and widely recognised by the leadership of the African National Congress for its contribution to dissident literature has produced a number of writers of global significance. It remains a vibrant literary culture as the writing of J.M Coetzee, Marlene van Niekerk, and others testify. The love letters of novelist, André Brink and poet, Ingrid Jonker, written between April 1963 and April 1965, return to the reader to a time of protest against censorship when no criticism of South Africa’s race policy was tolerated, and is perhaps a timely reminder for South Africans.

Brink, at the beginning of his career as a novelist, teaching at Rhodes University, Grahamstown, and Jonker, writing her second poetry collection, whilst working as a proofreader in Cape Town, fell head over…

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One of our greats in the making: Alastair Bruce’s Boy on the Wire

Wall of DaysThe first one arrived in manuscript form for evaluation. I started reading it in bed in the morning and nearly didn’t get up until I was finished. The exhilaration of the encounter is still with me years later. I thought I was reading one of South Africa’s greats. Galgut or Coetzee came to mind – not a debut novelist.

My reader’s report glowed with praise. The novel was eventually published as Wall of Days (2010), locally and abroad, also in translation. The author turned out to be a young man from PE who moved to the UK. Last year, Alastair Bruce published his second novel, Boy on the Wire, and it is just as haunting as his first.

In the Prologue of Boy on the Wire, John Hyde walks cautiously through his childhood home in Port Elizabeth. In one of the rooms, he sees a man, “or he imagines he can see the man … He knows, too, he cannot touch him, cannot touch the lying man. If he even touched the tip of his fingers to the man’s forehead, it would all be over.” Nothing is “clear”. What is real, what is imagined? Everything hinges on the distinction. The confrontation with the “man who lied, who told the story, a wild, fanciful story, about the death of a child, a hard and unyielding story” is what the novel is about.

Boy on the WireThe narrative takes us back to a Sunday in the December of 1983 when John, his brothers Paul and Peter, and their parents travel to the mountains in the Karoo for a family holiday. But only four of them return home. And there are no real survivors. The tragedy literally plunges them all into an abyss.

Trauma disrupts time, memory and narrative. Storytelling can be one of the most efficient mechanisms of attempting to deal with it. In order to cope with the death of one his brothers, John tells a story. But his version of the events leading up to the tragedy has severe consequences for the family: “The death of a child – there’s no coming back from that.”

We encounter John again in his thirties. In his early twenties, he’d left his family and South Africa behind, making a clean break and emigrating. Alienated from his past, and from himself, he marries Rachel and makes a successful living in London. But one day he sees a figure outside his window which draws the illusions of his past into the fragile reality he has built around him, and he is forced to return to South Africa to confront the mystery of that fatal December day in the Karoo. But as Rachel will realise: “If you examine a mystery closely enough, for long enough, certainty will follow. Certainty, but not necessarily truth.”

Boy, Bruce can write! It is austere writing, but not without a certain lyricism. No words go amiss, all hit the target. At times, the narrative tension becomes relentless, even to a point of frustration. Bruce is a master of creating smokescreens for his readers. In both, Wall of Days and Boy on the Wire, you are never sure what the real story is, or who in the story is real or imagined. The beauty of his novels lies in the intriguing mind games – it is impossible not to want to know what happened. But Boy on the Wire is not a light, entertaining read. The novel is emotionally exhausting. It creeps under your skin.

Boy on WireWhereas Wall of Days was as close to perfection as a novel can get, I had some difficulties with the characterisations in Boy on the Wire. The portrayal of John and Rachel’s relationship after his return to South Africa wasn’t convincing enough for me. I could not relate to Rachel’s responses to the unfolding of the events and found the explanations of her behaviour implausible in a few moments. Furthermore, I am not sure that readers who are unaware of the effects of trauma on the mind will find enough narrative guidance in the story to read John’s mental states as plausible. I also found my suspension of disbelief tested when it came to the simple day to day logistics of inhabiting an inherited house.

Despite these reservations, which took very little away from the impressive impact Boy on the Wire had made on me, I can’t wait to see what Alastair Bruce will do next. Without any doubt, he is on his way to becoming one of our greats.

Boy on the Wire

by Alastair Bruce

Umuzi, 2015

Book review: Roberto Calasso’s The Art of the Publisher

The Art of the PublisherEvery now and then, a book comes along which changes your life. For me, Roberto Calasso’s The Art of the Publisher is one of them. But you don’t have to be – or, like me, want to become – a book publisher to find this gem an inspiration.

For quite a while now, publishing has been steeped in a pervasive atmosphere of gloom and doom, especially in South Africa. The threat of the internet, the e-book, the retail giant Amazon, and the financial crisis have made life for the printed book difficult. Locally, a seemingly general disinterest in South African fiction and foolish political decisions have made survival tougher for our publishers, and consequently, of course, for us writers. Book sales are not encouraging. Publishers scaling down even less so. Yet, watching developments like the self-publication of Paige Nick’s latest novel, Death by Carbs, or new publishing ventures like uHlanga and Tattoo Press, I have a feeling that some creative and daring people in the country are on to something which gives me many reasons for optimism.

Roberto Calasso’s essays collected in The Art of Publishing attest to the fact that it all comes down to basics. And the basics are vision and quality. It is these two aspects of publishing that readers throughout centuries have best responded to with enthusiasm. These are no trade secrets, just simple rules which those who have been successful in publishing have always followed.

Critic, writer, and a publisher himself, Calasso has been at the forefront of Italian publishing for decades. His love for literature and the book shines through every single paragraph of The Art of Publishing. His passion is one of beauty. His insights are heartening to read.

When it matters, publishing is not about money, although, as with all art forms, moderate financial rewards cannot and should not be excluded. There are enough examples out there to prove the case. All aspects of the form play an integral part in its success: “choice and sequence of titles published…texts that accompany the books, as well as the way in which the books are presented as objects.” Calasso does not deny that this is “the most hazardous and ambitious goal for a publisher, and so it has remained for five hundred years”, but he also reminds that “literature loses all of its magic unless there’s an element of impossibility concealed deep within it.”

He goes into the fascinating history of publishing, asks what constitutes culture, celebrates the great publishers of our times, explores the relationship between the publisher and the writer, demonstrates how crucial the nourishment of writers and the care for the book as an object are to a thriving publishing environment, and most importantly, to our intellectual and emotional lives.

Calasso also shows that even if often unbeknownst to us why a particular publisher attracts our enthusiasm, as readers we understand the value of our “repeated experiences of not being disappointed.” And that is what only a publisher of vision and quality can offer.

The Art of the Publisher by Roberto Calasso

Translated from the Italian by Richard Dixon

Penguin Books, 2015

Review first published in the Cape Times, 22 January 2016.

Two comments:

When I truly enjoy a book I have the need to share it with others. I have already bought several copies of The Art of the Publisher for friends, two more today…

I was attracted to the book in the first place because it appealed to me as an object. I saw it displayed at the Book Lounge in Cape Town and could not walk away from it…

“Your library is your soul”: Reflecting on Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins

A God in Ruins_Costa

Despite her substantial literary success, I did not know Kate Atkinson’s work before A God in Ruins was recommended to me by a friend whose taste I value. It won the Costa Novel Award in the beginning of this month, as did Atkinson’s previous novel, Life After Life (2014). The two are related, but can be read independently. I hope to turn to the sibling soon, as A God in Ruins is one of the most exquisite novels I have ever read, and the idea of Atkinson’s backlist reassures me greatly.

A God in Ruins is many things. It is the story of a British family set against the historical background of the past century. It is a novel about war and its aftershocks. It is a fine enquiry into human nature. But above all, it is a declaration of love for literature, its power and its manifold mysteries. And it is highly ambitious. What astounds about A God in Ruins is that it never falls short of these formidable ambitions. Such novels are rare. They take root in your mind and blossom in your soul. Even ferocious readers encounter a novel like this only once in a while.

The way it captures fiction’s ability to heal, to open up spaces in us we never even knew existed is striking. It is poetic in style as well as in its wisdom. For me personally, A God in Ruins was a magical key. It opened two doors in my life. Two doors connecting the past to my fragile present: one appeared while I was still reading, the other after I’d finished the novel. I stepped through the first, an imaginary one, during one of those serene nights when you are at peace with the world and yourself. It was around midnight. I was lost in the arms of a comfy easy chair; a soft caramel light illuminated the room. When I looked up from the book, I saw something so beautiful that I wanted to hold on to it forever. But I was scared to disturb the scene by searching for my camera, so I turned to the last blank page of A God in Ruins and drew a sketch of what was in front of me: a moment of flickering hope. It is also engraved in my heart.

The second door was real. It is the door to my late husband’s library. There are innumerable books in our house. We have roamed among them with the great pleasure that exploring books can bring only to two readers in love. When I finished A God in Ruins, I was crushed by the inability to share it with André. It was published a few weeks after his death. But I knew, had he been alive, I would have passed the novel to him the second I was finished with it that early Sunday morning, and I would have asked him to read it immediately so that we could discuss it in detail. Instead, I was all alone in an empty bed and all I could do was weep. What I have discovered about grief and loneliness is that it is not the lows which are unbearable, but the emptiness of the highs, when all you want to do is experience them with the person you love and there is no-one there to hold you…

Continue reading: LitNet

Book review: The Penguin Lessons – A True Story by Tom Mitchell

The Penguin LessonsLast year, I realised that I have a penchant for penguins with foreign names. Midyear, I was enchanted by Misha, the penguin who stars in Andrey Kurkov’s wonderful novel, Death and the Penguin (originally published in Russian in 2002). Towards the end of 2015, I fell in love with Juan Salvado, the protagonist of Tom Michell’s memoir, The Penguin Lessons.

When he was in his twenties, Tom Michell travelled to Argentina to teach at a boarding school during the politically volatile 1970s. In his free time, he explored South America. On one of his trips, he arrived at a Uruguayan beach to discover a massacre: corpses of oil-coated penguins scattered all around on the sand. There was one survivor among them, a Magellan penguin barely moving, covered in oil and tar like all the other birds, but clearly still alive.

“I needed a penguin like a penguin needs a motorbike,” Michell writes, but on the spur of the moment, he resolved to rescue the penguin and took him back to the flat he was staying in. The ensuing story of their initial encounter and the fascinating relationship which developed between the young man and the sea bird is one of most moving books I have read last year.

After a nearly disastrous but hilarious attempt at cleaning the penguin in the pristine bathroom of his hosts’ home, Michell tries to set the bird free, but his new acquaintance is extremely reluctant to be abandoned again. Not knowing what else to do, he names the penguin and devises a plan to smuggle him into Argentina. And so their adventures and a remarkable friendship begin.

Back at the boarding school, Juan Salvado forms the most extraordinary relationships with the students and staff alike, irrevocably changing all their lives. Michell’s commentary on the socio-political situation of Argentina of the time is subtle but highly intriguing. His descriptions of penguin and human natures and how the two can relate to one another are simply beautiful.

Magallan penguins do not live forever and since all of this had happened four decades ago, I assumed that there would be heartbreak at some stage in the book. I was reading the dreaded scene in a coffee shop where another customer became quite concerned about me when she saw my copious tears falling. I was too choked up to articulate my sorrow, but she understood when I pointed at the open book in front of me. I cried again before the last page, but not because of sadness. There are two revelations towards the end of the book which touched me deeply: one concerns the reason why Juan Salvado refused to go back to the sea when Michell first met him, the other is a description of a recent find among Michell’s memorabilia. If there ever was a feel-good book, The Penguin Lessons is it. It goes to show that, occasionally, we all need a penguin in our lives.

The Penguin Lessons: A True Story
by Tom Mitchell
Penguin Books, 2015

First published in the Cape Times, 15 January 2016.

Rambling on about books: Reacher Said Nothing by Andy Martin

PersonalIt’s not often that you get to star in a Fairytale where you are The Princess and a real Hero comes to save you, but that’s the story of my Christmas Miracle.

To say that last year was rough for me would be a bit of an understatement. Yet being a glass-half-full kind of person, I will not deny that magic and beauty did not abandon me when all else seemed lost. Both continued flowing not only from the hearts of the amazing people who love me but also from complete strangers.

One of the most magical moments of last year was encountering Jack Reacher, my Hero. Falling in love – fictional or otherwise – is a beautiful gift. When that love allows you to reclaim something as precious as reading is to me, then you let your long braid hang out the window and hope that your Knight In Mattress-Pressed Armour holds on tight. Nearly twenty books later – i.e. approximately 2 000 000 words – he still does! (In my book, that’s a miracle in itself.) I am almost finished with Personal – the last of the existing Jack Reachers for me – trying to make it last by reading only for comfort when Dragon Insomnia rears her ugly head, but soon that adventure will also come to an end and I will have to join the rest of the Reacher Creatures who are counting the days until September when Night School, Reacher No. 21, is published. As a reader, I ask myself what are all the other months in the year for? But I suppose Lee Child should be allowed to sleep at some stage. And I need to get my act together and follow Jack’s example by simply sleeping when I want to. Perhaps I must see whether headbutting works on dragons…?

Reacher Said NothingHaving become one of Jack’s greatest fans, you can imagine my excitement when I found out about the publication of Andy Martin’s Reacher Said Nothing: Lee Child and the Making of Make Me. It appeared towards the end of last year and before it became available in South Africa (still waiting for it to arrive on our shores, so that I can share it with friends who love Jack as much as I do), I tweeted about it, saying something like, “What could possibly make me happy for Christmas?”, and adding, “Karina said nothing.” At that stage, I hadn’t clicked that Andy Martin and I were actually following each other on Twitter. My friend Helen Moffett, whom I’d infected with Reacher Fever, saw my tweet, and kindly offered to get me a copy of Reacher Said Nothing as at the time she was staying in the U.S. where the book was already in the bookshops. Lo and behold, Andy Martin saw our Twitter exchange and generously offered not only to send Helen a book for me, but to sign it, get Lee Child to sign it, and to add a second signed copy for her into the parcel. There are moments in life when it is easy to believe in fairytale miracles. And this was only the beginning!

Helen received the promised gifts, but resisted the temptation to read the book until her return to South Africa in mid-December when she delivered my copy to me and we began our Christmas tandem reading of Reacher Said Nothing. And what a joy it has been! The book is everything that a Reacher fan might have wished for, and more.

Reacher Said Nothing signedReacher Said Nothing is dedicated to “all those loyal readers of Lee Child who may have bought this book by mistake” and opens with two epigraphs: a quote from James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson, and one from one of my absolute favourites, Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading in which the author writes about the different ways of reading – for the action and characters of the story, and for the detailed exploration of the texture of the narrative. Andy Martin’s ensuing analysis of Lee Child’s creative process is both.

Martin approached Child with the idea for the project in 2014, only days before 1 September when Child traditionally begins writing his next Reacher novel. It was to be the twentieth in the series, Make Me. In an email of 22 August, Martin proposed “a kind of literary criticism but in the moment, in real time, rather than picking it up afterwards…trying to capture the very moment of creation…you would have someone (i.e. me) looking over your shoulder as you are typing the words.” Five days before the first word of Make Me appeared on Child’s computer screen, he said yes. And off they went.

Writing a book as great as Reacher wasn’t easy.

Reacher Said Nothing takes us not only behind the scenes of Make Me’s genesis, but also to the day in 1994 when Child bought the paper and pencil with which he wrote Killing Floor, the first in the Reacher series, and explores much of the before and in-between from uncertain beginnings to stratospheric success. More importantly, it throws light on the magic that happens whenever any writer picks up a pen and begins dreaming. In this respect it is as much a book for readers as for writers. When writing, Child thinks like a reader; that’s his thing. But there is no magic formula. Only a lot of doubt, hard work, and hope. Trust. And when you are lucky, a good story to tell.

Andy Martin has a great story to tell. Reacher Said Nothing itself reads like a thriller. Like a master of the genre, Martin builds up the tension to the moment when Child sits down to write the first sentence. From there, he continues about the power of storytelling – the written word’s extraordinary potentials for both, writers and readers. After all, one particular book Child read as a kid led him to the life he has today. His own books have entertained millions of readers around the world for two decades. Even though I am not particularly fond of crime fiction or thrillers, Child’s books have changed my life, and I am grateful. It is all about the “[h]ope of a hero coming to save you. Hope of becoming a hero.”

“He would have been good around the campfire, Lee – he would definitely make you forget about the wolves or the saber-tooth”, Martin writes.

Yes. And about the pain of grief…
Make Me and Reacher's Rules
From the start when I began reading Killing Floor, I recognised and was captivated by a quality in the novels that intrigued me: an attention to word choice, syntax, punctuation – a kind of poetry that I now realise is fully conscious, intentional. “It all mattered, linguistically”, Martin writes. It’s about noticing things. And to see the process unfold is fascinating. Child writes only one draft, but the meticulousness with which he constructs the narrative allows him to.

I loved the humour of Reacher Said Nothing, the banter between the two authors, and Martin’s often hilarious commentary. An early scene:

“‘It’s reverse Freudian,’ Lee said. ‘You’re on the couch and you are analyzing me.’
I said nothing.
He flexed his fingers. ‘Naturally I’m going to start, like all good writers, by…checking my email!’”

There are numerous smileys in the margins of my copy of the book. I have scribbled, underlined, single and double, all over.

Martin and his subject emerge from Reacher Said Nothing as two people who are really passionate about what they are doing, are prepared to work their fingers to the bone in pursuit of their visions, and know how to have fun while doing it: “I live in a permanent daydream. I get paid to daydream narratives”, Child says.

It pleased me no end to discover that they both eat cheese and marmalade sandwiches. And to read about “the grape in the fridge”.

Lee Child’s relationship to his fictional hero is highly interesting. Anyone who has non-existent people – I am hesitant to write – living in their heads, knows what it’s like. Creation is a thrill. All of us, readers and writers alike, are junkies.

My final verdict on Reacher Said Nothing? Allow me to quote:

“‘Outstanding,’ said Lee. He pointed out that it was one of Reacher’s favorite words.”

Completely unrelated to me, the name ‘Karina’ is mentioned in Reacher Said Nothing. It made me smile. A Karina is rumoured to appear in Andy Martin’s next book, Reacher Said Something, but that’s another story about writing about writing about writing… Another daydream.
Karina in Reacher Said Nothing
In Make Me, Reacher is concussed. “He’s rambling on about books. A bit like you,” Child says to Martin when writing the scene.

And I am about to headbutt a dragon, and live happily ever after.

To be continued…