Monthly Archives: March 2019

Review: The Snow Sleeper by Marlene van Niekerk

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The Afrikaans poet and fiction writer Marlene van Niekerk is best known for her ground-breaking novels, Triomf and Agaat. She has many accolades to her name, including being a finalist for the 2015 Man Booker International Award when it still recognised the entire oeuvre of an author, not just an individual title. Van Niekerk’s The Snow Sleeper, at last translated into English, is the kind of book that could have been a worthy winner entirely on its own terms. Locally, the original did receive the prestigious University of Johannesburg Prize for Best Creative Writing in Afrikaans in 2010.

The four interlinked stories which form The Snow Sleeper – “The Swan Whisperer”, “The Percussionist”, “The Friend”, and the titular story – took my breath away. During an inaugural lecture a professor recalls an exasperating relationship – mostly epistolary and one-sided – with a creative writing student who challenges her ideas about creativity and mentorship. At the end of “The Swan Whisperer”, the professor questions her own work within the South African context in ways previously unimaginable: “god only knows who is writing in me.”

Van Niekerk quotes Orhan Pamuk for the epigraph of her book: “A writer is someone who spends years patiently trying to discover the second being inside him.” That the professor giving the inaugural lecture shares a name with the author of The Snow Sleeper is telling.

In “The Percussionist”, an antiquarian clockmaker specialising in grandfather clocks speaks at the funeral of his writer friend. “He wanted to be remembered for his books, he always said, because nobody would be able to make any sense of his life,” the clockmaker tells the people gathered at the occasion. In his eulogy, he captures the process of observed reality transmuting into fiction, with longing at the very core of the seemingly unfathomable process.

Van Niekerk’s dead writer is the author of the stories which we recognise by their titles as her own. The self-reflective The Snow Sleeper acknowledges the incredible power of storytelling, and its various pitfalls. While any artistic act can be seen as death-defying, in the end loss is inescapable. There is also no shying away from the predatory nature of any creative endeavour. In one of the narratives, a researcher interviewing homeless people for a field study records a story that throws a light at the precarious relationship between an artist and their – often oblivious, sometimes reluctant, and occasionally manipulative – subjects. In one of the most poignant moments of the book the vagrant asks: “What can I do in the end but avenge myself? On behalf of all the wretches who’ve sat as models through the ages so that narcissists on state subsidy can excrete artworks?”

And while undoubtedly also “seducing with false images”, The Snow Sleeper is a brilliant meditation on the eternally intriguing nature of art, life, and the individual whose humanity breathes soul and beauty into it all.

The Snow Sleeper

by Marlene van Niekerk

Human & Rousseau, 2019

Review first published in the Cape Times on 15 March 2019.

Review: House of Glass by Susan Fletcher

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Image: Virago

Clara Waterfield, the heroine of Susan Fletcher’s latest hauntingly beautiful novel, House of Glass, has a rare disease that makes her bones extremely brittle and confines her to a life of protected seclusion. Her mother and step-father provide as much safety, education and entertainment as they can while the curious girl grows up under their loving care. The unique upbringing makes Clara socially awkward but also unusually bold and unspoken once she is allowed to venture out into the world as a young woman.

The novel is set in England shortly before the outbreak of the First World War. Through the library that her step-father builds up for her, Clara has access to a wide range of scientific knowledge, and despite her isolation, she is well versed in the political and social developments of the day. News of women marching for their rights and the looming war reach and fascinate her. She finds her way to Kew Gardens where she becomes a keen assistant to a botanist and gardener, and unwittingly learns a trade that leads to an exciting offer of setting up a glass house on an estate in Gloucestershire.

Struggling to deal with the grief following the loss of her mother, Clara decides to travel to Shadowbrook to establish a botanical paradise for its owner. From the moment she arrives, she encounters strange occurrences which the staff and the elusive master of the house veil in secrets and silence. Undeterred, Clara embarks on a journey of discovery that will challenge all her beliefs about the world and her own life.

Fletcher’s mesmerising prose lures you in and holds you captive until the unexpected resolution of the mystery at the centre of this thought-provoking Gothic tale. You can judge House of Glass by its exquisite cover.

House of Glass

by Susan Fletcher

Virago, 2018

Review first published in the Cape Times on 15 March 2019.

Review: ID – New Short Fiction from Africa, edited by Helen Moffett, Nebila Abdulmelik and Otieno Owino

ID Selfie

Helen’s ID selfie

We often open books to read stories about characters we can identify with. It is a search for sympathy and understanding. Picking up a book which actually reflects your own image back at you, however, is rather rare. But this is exactly what the latest Short Story Day Africa (SSDA) anthology, ID: New Short Fiction from Africa, does. The book’s cover is partly a mirror in which you can see fragments of your face.

Focusing on the theme of identity – whether we interpret ‘ID’ as short for one’s ‘identity document’ which can official represent you, or as one’s ‘subconscious’ in Freudian terms – the stories in this book are about “who we are” and “who we choose to be” on the African continent and in the world. The collection features the winning entries of the SSDA Prize and twenty other stories by writers from across the African continent.

The story which took the $800 top prize, All Our Lives by Tochukwu Emmanuel Okafor, sweeps us along as we follow the trials and tribulations of a group of young men drifting in and out of Nigerian cities. Sew My Mouth by Cherrie Kandie is a touching exploration of the challenges a lesbian couple experiences in urban Nairobi. In Per Annum, a stunning piece of speculative fiction, the Johannesburg-based writer Mpho Phalwane tells the story of a group of young people fighting a corrupt government to keep their memories alive. The entire anthology challenges us to know our diverse selves.

ID: New Short Fiction from Africa

Edited by Helen Moffett, Nebila Abdulmelik & Otieno Owino

Short Story Day Africa, 2018

Review first published in the Cape Times on 8 March 2019.

Longlist of the SSDA Prize for short fiction announced

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The 2018 Short Story Day Africa longlist:

  • ‘The Satans Inside My Jimmy’ by Harriet Anena (Uganda)
  • ‘The Jollof Cook-off’ by Nkiacha Atemnkeng (Cameroon)
  • ‘The Last Resident’ by Jayne Bauling (South Africa)
  • ‘Mr Thompson’ by Noel Cheruto (Kenya)
  • ‘The Layover’ by Anna Degenaar (South Africa)
  • ‘A Miracle In Valhalla’ by Nnamdi Fred (Nigeria)
  • ‘Of Birds and Bees’ by Davina Kawuma (Uganda)
  • ‘Maintenance Check’ by Alinafe Malonje (Malawi)
  • ‘Why Don’t You Live in the North?’ by Wamuwi Mbao (South Africa)
  • ‘Slow Road to the Winburg Hotel’ by Paul Morris (South Africa)
  • ‘The Snore Monitor’ by Chido Muchemwa (Zimbabwe)
  • ‘Outside Riad Dahab’ by Chourouq Nasri (Morocco)
  • ‘Broken English’ by Adorah Nworah (Nigeria)
  • ‘Queens’ Children’s Little Feet’ by Godwin Oghenero Estella (Nigeria)
  • ‘Door of No Return’ by Natasha Omokhodion-Banda (Zambia)
  • ‘An Abundance of Lies’ by Faith Oneya (Kenya)
  • ‘The Match’ by Troy Onyango (Kenya)
  • ‘Supping at the Fountain of Lethe’ by Bryony Rheam (Zimbabwe)
  • ‘Happy City Hotel’ by Adam El Shalakany (Egypt)
  • ‘The Space(s) Between Us’ by Lester Walbrugh (South Africa)
  • ‘Shithole’ by Michael Yee (South Africa)

Congratulations to all Writers!

Dear Readers, You are in for a treat! For more info about the prize see: Short Story Day Africa. To read more about the longlist, head over to the Joburg Review of Books.