Monthly Archives: March 2016

Review: Stations – Stories by Nick Mulgrew

StationsIt’s difficult to believe that this is only Nick Mulgrew’s debut collection of stories. Stations reads like the work of a seasoned writer. Here is someone with acuity and a perfectly pitched voice. Not surprisingly, his writing is already highly acclaimed.

As the title suggest, the individual pieces in the book take their cue from the Stations of the Cross, in which Jesus’s last steps before crucifixion are commemorated. The dialogue between the structural skeleton of the book and each tale is striking. “Athlone Towers”, the volume’s first story, or “stop on a slow road to purgatory” as the spine of the book professes, uses the powerful image of the demolition of the famous Capetonian landmark to portray the demise of a relationship. At the same time it echoes Jesus’s condemnation to death. In the fourth “stop” of the book, “Ponta do Ouro”, a young man accompanies his mother on a fraught Christmas holiday to Mozambique. His parents are in the middle of a divorce. The corresponding station reflects Jesus’s encounter with his own mother shortly before his death. In “Restaurant”, a hopeful entrepreneur has to close down her restaurant. Her suffering mirrors Jesus’s death on the cross. In all of the stories, the devotional references are very subtle but enrich the reading substantially.

The way the stories engage with their religious context reminded me of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Decalogue, the Polish director’s ten films based on the Ten Commandments. What captures the reader’s imagination is the way the teachings are translated into a modern, often secular, narrative that we can all relate to.

Mulgrew’s characters are in transit, on the verge of a discovery or transformation. His stories are set around South Africa and beyond, even in the afterlife. The titular story takes us on a trip through the purgatory, which is reimagined as an alternative version of the Cape Peninsula: “Everything was familiar, but not familiar enough to be comforting… My heart dropped. This place had a geography that had to be relearned.” It is one of the most profound readings of the tensions and dilemmas of present-day Mother City. “Mr Dias”, “Posman”, or “Die Biblioteek vir Blindes”, also grapple with contemporary issues such as racism, affirmative action, or intolerance, but are more preachy and a slightly less successful.

The stories which spoke to me best were of intimate nature, focusing on topics close to the heart: rites of passage, grief, revenge, sexuality, or relationships between siblings, lovers and strangers. It is in these spaces that Mulgrew connects with the reader most poignantly, describing what might otherwise go unnoticed: “You lean to kiss me between the back of my ear and the top of my neck; in that place that doesn’t have a name.”

Mulgrew and I co-edited a book of African short stories. Watching him as an editor was a fascinating experience. His fine-tuned sensitivity and attention to detail are exceptional. He is also a fine poet, a true language practitioner. These talents reverberate in the arresting prose of Stations.

Stations: Stories

by Nick Mulgrew

David Philip, 2016

Review first published in the Cape Times on 18 March 2016.

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Review: Mongrel – Essays by William Dicey

Mongrel EssaysThere is nothing quite as satisfying as an excellent personal essay, and William Dicey’s Mongrel contains six gems of the genre. Dicey has been on my literary radar for a while now. In the past decade, whenever I found myself admiring a beautifully designed local book, Dicey’s name would often feature on the copyright page. His first book, Borderline (2004), a travel memoir about canoeing on the Orange River, is one of those titles readers remember fondly whenever mentioned, but apparently, it is out of print. Fortunately, I found a copy in our library. I have been meaning to read it for years, and Mongrel has finally made me realise that I need to succumb to the longing.

The essay collection opens with four epigraphs which already warn us that what lies ahead will not be as clear-cut as one might assume.

Allow me to quote a few snippets:

– “Fiction, nonfiction – the two are bleeding into each other all the time …” (Geoff Dyer).

– “The writer getting in the way of the story is the story, is the best story, is the only story” (David Shields).

And my favourite:

– “[T]he strays of literature have tended towards the ill-defined plot of the essay” (Hugh Walker).

The tone of the essays ranges from intimate through personal, playful, or analytical, to simply bizarre. The latter becomes immediately obvious when you consider the title of the first piece in the collection, “Miss Meat Festival”, and its first sentence: “Hannes Rheeder, I love you like a fish parcel.”

Dicey and his friend Justin are travelling north to the Hantam Meat Festival in Calvinia, an “annual celebration of mutton and lamb”…

Continue reading: LitNet

Review: Reacher Said Nothing – Lee Child and the Making of Make Me by Andy Martin

Reacher Said NothingMany of my friends will know this story: last year, after my husband died, reading became one of my grief’s casualties. For weeks, I struggled to open a book. That changed when I turned to Lee Child’s Killing Floor. It was just the right kind of light but intelligent and thrilling entertainment that I needed to get hooked on reading again. In the following nine months, I read all other nineteen novels in the Jack Reacher series, and many others.

Having become such a passionate fan, I was excited to find out about Reacher Said Nothing: Lee Child and the Making of Make Me. The author, the Cambridge academic Andy Martin, asked Child whether he could shadow him during his writing of Make Me, the twentieth and latest Reacher novel. He was keen to observe and record Child’s creative process as it happened, proposing “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 agreed to the literary adventure.

Reacher Said Nothing not only takes us behind the scenes of Make Me’s genesis, but Child’s entire career. It goes back to 1994 and the day when Child bought the paper and pencil with which he wrote Killing Floor, the first in the bestselling series. He now writes on a computer, eating quite a lot of junk food and drinking ridiculous amounts of coffee. With Martin there, literally on the couch behind him, Child attempts to verbalise what happens when a writer picks up a pen, or keyboard, 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 (each Reacher is about 100 000 or more words long), and when you are lucky, a good story to tell. Millions of devoted fans across the world can testify that Child knows how to pick them.

Andy Martin also has a great story to tell. Reacher Said Nothing 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.

“He would have been good around the campfire, Lee – he would definitely make you forget about the wolves or the saber-tooth”, Martin writes. But it’s not only the engrossing plot. One of the things that immediately struck me about Child’s writing is a captivating attention to stylistic details such as 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.

Martin also accompanies Child to literary events, signings and interviews. He speaks to his fans. They spend a lot of leisure time together, watching football or meeting friends for dinner. 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 analysing me.’ I said nothing. He flexed his fingers. ‘Naturally I’m going to start, like all good writers, by…checking my email!’”

Martin and his subject surface 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. Reading the book one is inspired, but also reminded that writing is laborious.

Child’s relationship with his fictional character Jack Reacher is most intriguing, and strangely comforting. Anyone who has non-existent people occupying their heads knows what it’s like. Fiction is a thrill, and all of us, readers and writers alike, are junkies. Together with Martin, Child attempts to unravel the two-decade-old mystery behind his character’s worldwide appeal to men and women alike.

It wouldn’t surprise me if Reacher Said Nothing sparked a craze among authors wanting to have a meta-book written about the creation of their own novels in real time as they emerge on the page. It might become a genre in its own right, but Martin’s and Child’s example will be hard to equal or top.

Reacher Said Nothing: Lee Child and the Making of Make Me

by Andy Martin

Bantam Press, 2015

Review first published in the Cape Times on 11 March 2016.

Book review: I’m Travelling Alone by Samuel Bjørk

TravellingAloneDespite my irredeemable addiction to Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series, I do not often turn to thrillers or crime fiction for entertainment. But Night School, the next Reacher adventure, is coming out only in September, and since the nights are getting longer, it is nice to have a few good stand-ins in the meantime. Locally, I really enjoyed the recently published Sweet Paradise by Joanne Hichens: tight plotting, great writing, a scary villainess, and a heroine with balls. It surprised me, and that is a quality I truly appreciate in genre fiction.

I remember picking up Henning Mankell’s The Man from Beijing and realising how it would end just after a hundred pages. For the rest of the book, I had hoped the author would astonish me, but he didn’t. That kind of disappointment is not easily forgiven. But Scandinavian crime and thriller authors have been making huge waves on the international literary scene in the last decade or so. I devoured Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy and like millions of readers around the world could not get enough of its intriguing main characters, Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist.

It seems that there is a new kid on the Scandinavian crime block, Samuel Bjørk (pen name of the Norwegian writer and musician Frode Sander Øien). His I’m Travelling Alone is making international headlines, reaching the prestigious German magazine Der Spiegel’s number one bestselling spot and selling TV series rights to ITV. It comes with a quote on the cover, warning his compatriot Jo Nesbø to “watch out”. Being unfamiliar with Nesbø’s work, I cannot compare, but judged solely on its own terms, I’m Travelling Alone is a spine-chilling, page-turning novel.

In 2006, a baby disappears from the maternity unit of Ringerike Hospital in Hønefoss in the south of Norway. Half a dozen years later, a six-year-old girl is found dead hanging from a tree. Dressed like a doll with an airline tag which reads “I’m travelling alone” around her neck, the girl is soon believed to be the first victim of a serial killer about to strike again. A race against time begins. Holger Munch is put in charge of finding and bringing the killer to justice. Despite, or precisely because of, being the typical middle-aged, overweight, chain-smoking, sadly divorced, veteran police investigator, Holger is instantly endearing. As is his partner, the deeply disturbed but fascinating, thirty-something Mia Krüger.

In the beginning of the book, Mia is living in complete solitude on an island, drugged and drunk, mourning her beloved sister and awaiting her own death. It takes some persuading from Holger to sway her to postpone her suicide in order to help him solve the case. They both have a troubled past to atone for, and have no clue how it is about to surface to haunt them.

The next girl is found murdered and two more go missing. But then the ruthless killer changes his (or her? the police are uncertain) MO and contacts a journalist writing for a daily, placing him and his editorial team in front of an impossible choice: Who dies next? And when Mia and Holger discover that the next intended victim is someone they both know and care about, the urgency to track down the perpetrator intensifies unbearably. The hunt leads them to a mysterious sect and an old-age home where Holger’s mother lives. What at first seems a dead end reveals itself as a deadly possibility. And the murderer is always a step ahead.

The two investigators, the police squad, and family and friends around them are all well-drawn characters one takes immediate interest in and liking to. They propel the story forward. Additionally, to a certain extent, I’m Travelling Alone felt like armchair travel. I have a very soft spot for Norway, having travelled the country, loved its landscape, read some of its brilliant classics, and made a few Norwegian friends for life. I actually visited some of the places mentioned in the novel, have experienced the weather and tasted the food. Reading all the everyday details of the characters’ lives has brought back many great memories. I couldn’t resist and had some herring again while reading.

I was spellbound almost to the end. However, the last twenty pages let me down. To be honest, I am not sure that I understood how all the puzzle pieces of the story fit together or whether the author managed to tie up all the loose ends, yet it somehow did not matter. I found the ride as far as the last four or five chapters exhilarating and the strangely abrupt ending did not spoil the fun. I sincerely hope that Mia and Holger will return and I look forward to the next Samuel Bjørk crime novel with great anticipation.

Review first published in the Cape Times, 4 March 2016.

I’m Travelling Alone

by Samuel Bjørk

Doubleday, 2016