Monthly Archives: August 2018

Review: Space Inhabited by Echoes by Karen Jennings

Space Inhabited by EchoesAuthors like Margaret Atwood, Nadine Gordimer or Jeanette Winterson impress with their literary chameleon natures. Their craft is writing. Their tools – an empty page, words, punctuation – might seem simple. But they astound with the versatility of their use. Their talents and imaginations do not fear rules or boundaries. They bend forms to accommodate the multifaceted observations and ideas that come alive through their creativity. They are no cookie cutters. Whether it is poetry or prose, fiction or non-fiction, literary or genre, these writers rise to the challenge of versatility and deliver excellence.

The South African author Karen Jennings, who is currently based in Brazil, is only at the beginning of her career as a wordsmith, but it is showing all the signs that she is destined for the kind of greatness the writers mentioned above have achieved in the course of their lives. Not even forty, Jennings has already published a novel, Finding Soutbek (2012), which was shortlisted for the prestigious Etisalat Prize for Literature. It was followed in 2014 by Away from the Dead, a short story collection, and two years later by a profoundly touching autobiographical work – part memoir, part novel – Travels with My Father.

Jennings’s short stories won the Africa Region prize in the Commonwealth Short Story Competition and the Maskew Miller Longman Award. They have been featured in publications around the world, along with her poetry. A few of these poems have now found a home in Jennings’s elegant debut collection with the evocative title Space Inhabited by Echoes.

Inspired by the varied transitions in the author’s personal life, the poems included in the volume trace the impact of change on the young woman’s trajectory. The book is divided into four parts, each of which focuses on a different aspect of the lived private transformations, whether experienced in relationships, or through migration across continents and the following adaptation and integration into a new country, or through the people who accompany Jennings on her path.

Readers familiar with Travels with My Father will remember that Jennings fell in love with a Brazilian scientist working in Cape Town soon after her father died of cancer. The couple were married and Jennings decided to relocate to Brazil to be with her husband when he received a job offer in his home country. In the poems of the first two parts of Space Inhabited by Echoes, Jennings records the process of falling in and out of love, its insecurity and longing, and the heat of desire. The collection opens with the sensual poem set at the height of summer, January: “By nightfall we had removed / our clothes, slipped / into a pool thick as breath, / no longer able to distinguish / between ourselves and the water.” Eventually, the lovers emerge and break apart: “And in that separation / was held the memory of tomorrow; a rehearsal for the heat to come.”

Jennings is a storyteller. She chooses her images and the narrative links with care. In Morning Alone, one of the lovers is still fast asleep behind a closed door, the other waiting: “But for me there is no day until you / wake, despite the fading light, the hours few.” The two lines are perfect examples of how Jennings captures the fragile tenderness of a relationship. The poems are intimate and deeply personal, but like all good poetry they hold universal truths. In a piece like A Study, Jennings tells the story of life’s evolution on our planet only to juxtapose it with what it would mean not to be able to experience yearning and heartbreak, the loss that we all feel when a loved one has left our warm embrace.

She writes about the end of a relationship with equal insight, how sometimes disillusionment takes over and promises spoken with conviction no longer apply, “Just words from a chill summer / as sodden as the boat bottom / in which we rowed and rowed, / our eyes on our watches, and the land.” Or consider the exquisite lines from the poem Phonecall which lend the entire collection its title: “How strange to find / after years of love that / what remains between / us is only // space inhabited by echoes / and the people we / once were.”

An echo is quieter than the original sound it follows. And poetry has that ability to distil and deliver the most essential of impressions travelling through the space of memory. In the third and fourth part of the book, Jennings concentrates on the move to another country and the attempt to find belonging. The flat the newlyweds rent is on the seventeenth floor. With its merciless heat and foreign ways, the city around feels constantly unfamiliar. In her dreams, Jennings is haunted by her previous home in the Cape and struggles to adjust to her new reality in We Came to Stay: “I didn’t do as well / as expected. / Not with change, / the shared house, / a new language.”

To navigate the “dark river” of depression and alienation which follows is extremely tough, not only as an individual but as a couple. In Let Me Go, Jennings speaks of “my failure to come home.” And in Survival, we find “a genus of fish, / compelled to adapt / by exile, stark isolation / and rarity of food // is able, by pushing / aside its gills / and relocating its heart, to swallow its victims / whole.” Sometimes that is what it takes to make a living in a hostile environment.

Towards the end of Space Inhabited by Echoes, Jennings turns to the important figures in her life to face the weight of inheritance and family secrets, and brings a sense of closure to a process of becoming. As an author, Jennings is already delivering on the huge promise of her early successes. Words sparkle in her hands. Readers of her work can expect to be enlightened in all possible ways.

Space Inhabited by Echoes

by Karen Jennings

Holland Park Press, 2018

An edited version of this review was first published in the Cape Times on 10 August 2018.

Review: The Ecstasy of Brush Strokes by Rachel Haze

The Ecstasy of Brush StrokesRachel Haze is the author of a local erotic novel which teasingly proclaims on its back cover that “there are far more than fifty shades.” The reference will be clear to most readers, even if you have never succumbed to the lure of E.L. James’s über-bestselling creations. I have never had the dubious pleasure of reading the books, but in general I have absolutely nothing against erotic fiction of any kind, and I have delighted in a few local titles of the genre in recent years. The anthology of short stories, Adults Only, edited by Joanne Hichens, or the Girl Walks Into series by Helena S. Paige come to mind. However, the book that still haunts me is Donvé Lee’s fierce and exquisitely written An Intimate War. It captivated me because it felt authentic and was touchingly erotic.

On the front cover, Rachel Haze’s The Ecstasy of Brush Strokes promises the following: “Sexy. Intelligent. Erotic.” And it comes with an intriguing mystery surrounding its author. Her publisher, Melinda Ferguson, said in a radio interview that the person behind the pseudonym is a well-known South African writer who prefers to remain anonymous so as not to tarnish her respectable literary reputation. The heroine of her novel, The Ecstasy of Brush Strokes, has no such qualms, and no hesitations to share any of her secrets, erotic or otherwise, with the reader.

Alex is in her late thirties, once divorced, but in a stable relationship with Mark. Yet she continues obsessing about her university lover Nicholas with whom she had a turbulent affair. When the old flame suddenly reappears in her life, visiting from Canada in Cape Town on his way to a conference, Alex’s seemingly steady existence is turned upside down. She decides to rent an old house in a remote place in the Karoo and to return to her early passion for painting. She wants to capture desire on canvas. To help her with the project, she hires a former lover and a local heartthrob to be her nude models.

The narrative oscillates between the present in the sleepy dorpie where Alex is frustrated with her artistic efforts and where the erotic tension between the models rises with the Karoo heat, and Alex’s memories of her student days with Nicholas in Grahamstown and her attempts to forget him in the aftermath of their explosive breakup. And all the while Mark is waiting for her to rediscover herself and Nicholas is only a sext message away.

Haze explores different shades of sexuality with confidence. But occasionally she lost me when summarising large chunks of Alex’s backstory. Specifically, a few of the descriptions of the psychological makeup behind her actions did not ring true. However, The Ecstasy of Brush Strokes holds your attention long enough to make you want to know what happens to Alex in the end and, most importantly, at times it simmers with the kind of eroticism which will appeal to many readers.

The Ecstasy of Brush Strokes

by Rachel Haze

MF Books, 2018

An edited version of this review was first published in the Cape Times on 10 August 2018.

Review: Free Woman – Life, Liberation and Doris Lessing by Lara Feigel

Free Woman“There were too many weddings that summer,” writes Lara Feigel in the opening line of her brilliant and daring Free Woman: Life, Liberation and Doris Lessing. At the end of the first paragraph she promises herself that she “would work out why I minded it all so much”.

The resulting quest is a tour de force of biography writing and self-discovery. Literary scholars are often drawn to topics that are of interest and consequence for their own lives. Yet, even if that spark of private recognition is openly acknowledged, it is seldom explored in the official research.

The inclusion of intimate, personal reflections by the author when writing a biography of someone else is usually frowned upon. And it can be risqué. To do so anyway is heroic.

Feigel is a Reader in Modern Literature and Culture at King’s College London. In her most recent books, The Love-charm of Bombs and The Bitter Taste of Victory, she traced the public and private lives of writers and intellectuals during and after World War 2.

Published to great critical acclaim, they established Feigel as a cultural historian and literary critic of note. Both books are focused on the intersection of life and literature in history.

Free Woman follows in their footsteps, but this time Feigel herself becomes one of the book’s subjects. While exploring Lessing’s work and dedication to, in the words of one of her famous characters, “living as fully as I can”, Feigel searches for what the “right to live fully” would entail in her own life and writing.

“It seemed that Lessing was a writer to discover in your 30s; a writer who wrote about the lives of grown-up women with an honesty and fullness I had not found in any novelist before or since.”

We are mysteries, even to ourselves, and not many have had the ability to penetrate the silences shrouding our lives. In 1931, Virginia Woolf spoke about not having solved the problem of articulating “the truth about my own experience as a body… I doubt that any woman has solved it yet.”

Feigel’s attempt to do just that is fascinating. Facing her own sense of claustrophobia, frustration and lack of fulfilment as a woman, sexual being, wife and mother, Feigel seeks to understand what it means to be a truly “free woman” – most importantly, one “who is also happy”…

Continue reading: Free Woman: Life, Liberation and Doris Lessing a tour de force of biography writing and self-discovery, writes Karina M. Szczurek

Review first published in the Sunday Times.

Review: A Fractured Land by Melissa A. Volker

cofDivorced and penniless, Lexi Taylor returns to Graaff Reinet with the tail between her legs. Only a little while ago, her future looked all glamour and romance when she left her hometown to pursue professional opportunities in the hospitality industry and married the guy of her dreams. But now, her crooked ex-husband is on the run, and she is left behind to deal with his enormous debts. When her friend Paul offers her to be his singing partner at the local pub and old Marika asks for her help to open a guest house on Apricot Farm, Lexi thinks that she is back on track of regaining some control over her life. But nothing is as it seems in the sleepy Graaff Reinet, and both Paul and Marika have hidden agendas which will challenge Lexi in unexpected ways.

The town has a much bigger issue to deal with: Terebro, a big American oil company, was granted permits to explore the area for shale gas. The locals are divided as to the risks and profits fracking might bring to the community and their land. Carter O’Brien is sent to investigate the possibilities: “He looked like he’d walked from the United States to Graaff Reinet, but Lexi was optimistic that he would clean up well.” To say he is received in the Karoo with suspicion and hostility is a gross understatement. But Lexi tries to keep an open mind and, against the wishes of the other townsfolk, offers him a place to stay on Apricot Farm. Carter arrives with his own personal and professional baggage, but Lexi soon realises that she does not only want to give him a chance to do his job, but is danger of losing her heart to him, too. When someone starts firing bullets at them both, they have to fight for their lives and a future they both feel is within reach, but it will take all their courage and determination to see whether they can make it work.

Melissa A. Volker’s debut romance novel, A Fractured Land, is a declaration of love for passion, adventure and the beauty of the South African landscape. Born in Port Elizabeth to an American mother and a South African father, Volker now lives in Cape Town and divides her time between writing and surfing, often combining both by blogging and penning magazine articles about her experience as a stand-up paddler. Anyone following Volker on social media or reading her blog will also discover her deep commitment to preserving and celebrating our natural environment. And unsurprisingly, A Fractured Land combines sizzling romance with environmental awareness. Volker’s second romance novel with an eco-conscious theme has already been accepted for publication and will appear later this year. If her first is anything to go by, we are all in for another treat. As her feisty heroine affirms: “Love or hate fracking, concluded Lexi, at last things were interesting in her quiet corner of the desert.”

A Fractured Land

by Melissa A. Volker

Literary Wanderlust, 2018

Review first published in the Cape Times on 6 July 2018.

Review: The GoldDiggers by Sue Nyathi

cofWhen they board the “gleaming white Toyota Quantum with black-tinted windows pulled into a vacant parking space opposite Max’s Garage” in Bulawayo, the characters in Sue Nyathi’s second novel, The GoldDiggers (unusual spelling intended), know that they are embarking on a precarious trip. But none of them is truly prepared for the rough ride which lies ahead. Before they even leave the parking lot, Melusi, the driver and owner of the vehicle, is ready to throw out the young Shona couple at the back because they insist on conversing in their mother tongue. As a Ndebele, Melusi “had been raised to hate them…but his desire for their money surpassed his intolerance. All the passengers in his car were going to be ferried across the border illegally.”

The couple Melusi hates are siblings who “shared a womb” and are now – after the suspicious, violent death of their father – hoping to join their mother who had abandoned them when they were small. The other passengers are a woman from the rural area with her little son, a man in his late twenties, and a young girl travelling alone: “An old woman had dropped her off earlier. How she had cried when the matronly woman had turned to leave. If anything he has been annoyed by her noisy lamentations. Children were the worst cargo to carry.” And cargo, not human beings, they all are to Melusi, who can only think of himself and the rewards his passengers might bring him.

On this particular trip Melusi is accompanied by his latest girlfriend, Lindani, and his friend and co-driver, Givemore who brings along a teenage girl, Thulisiwe, and announces: “She’s coming with us…You think you’re the only one who can pull a hot chick?” He is as selfish and ruthless as Melusi, but he is needed to bring the illegal “cargo” across the border on foot while his partner drives the car through the official crossing: “Givemore prided himself on the fact that he had a lower mortality rate for his goods than most. The last thing they wanted was to ‘lose’ cargo because essentially that meant no payment.”

In Gwanda, they stop to refuel and pick up one more passenger, Malume, a middle-aged man who had just lost his job with a cement company. The twins Chamu and Chenai are leaving behind years of abuse and hoping for a new start. The young man Dumisani, well-educated and recently released from a high-profile job, is also dreaming of an opportunity to rebuilt his successful life and provide anew for his family. Gugulethu, the little, weeping girl, is on her way to be reunited with her mother – a woman she cannot recall, having been brought up by her grandmother. Portia and her son want to find Vusani, who years earlier had left the family to seek a fortune in South Africa. Lindani is escaping a life of prostitution and horror.

Their destination is Johannesburg, the City of Gold, “the promised land; supposedly flowing with milk, honey and other countless opportunities.” All over the world, countless dreams of a “promised land” turn to nightmares and in the case of Melusi’s passengers the nightmares are particularly horrific. Some of them don’t even make it across the border. At the end of this novel, one could even perhaps argue that drowning while crossing the Limpopo River might be a better way to go than being taken as hostage by vicious bandits or facing the horrors Johannesburg has to offer for its “gold-diggers”. The city where “the gold is paved with streets”, as somebody once referred to it in the South African Airlines inflight magazine, is not exactly waiting with open arms for its undocumented visitors. “But whatever you wanted to call her”, writes Nyathi, “Johannesburg was undeniably one of Africa’s economic powerhouses and it is for this reason that she was able to lure people from all over the continent. All of them were gold-diggers seeking fame or fortune. Or both.”

Nyathi, herself born and raised in Bulawayo, is merciless in exposing the kind of circumstances illegal immigrants encounter on the border to South Africa and then in Joburg. She takes her characters to places of unimaginable hardship: “There is nothing for mahala here.” And even if some of them seem to strike it lucky and are allowed to work hard and achieve their goals, somewhere in the shadows of the city, their pasts are lurking and are ready to pounce, rendering them permanently vulnerable.

Thulisiwe’s and Malume’s fates are sealed well before their time. When Gugulethu’s mother does not turn up to claim her upon arrival in Joburg, Melusi decides to take the girl’s lot into his own conscienceless hands. Portia is shocked to reconnect with her husband and has to make some drastic decisions to survive. The twins find it very difficult to find a way into their mother’s life. Briefly, Chenai sees the light at the end of the tunnel, but success comes at a high price. Her brother’s destiny is equally disastrous. Living with distant relatives, one day, Dumisani ends up in a compromising position that nearly costs him his life. Lindani thinks she has struck gold, but it quickly turns to dust.

“No one man could experience Johannesburg in the same way.” The stories Nyathi tells about the city from the perspective of her characters’ lives are heart-wrenching and do not provide a comfortable read. But The GoldDiggers, though fiction, is relentless at capturing these essential tales of what our reality is like at its harshest, what dark deeds we are capable of, how there are some things no one can survive and thrive beyond. Nyathi does not preach for a second, but she exposes how much remains to be done to regain a sense of dignity among us and the people who seek refuge in our society. The GoldDiggers is tough to take, but it makes for a remarkable read and Nyathi is a writer to watch.

The GoldDiggers

by Sue Nyathi

Macmillan, 2018

An edited version of this review was first published in the Cape Times on 6 July 2018.