Friends Neha, Devon, Shejal, Janine and Kumari live in the Indian suburb of Lenasia and spend a lot of time together. It is the early 90s, just before the first democratic election in South Africa. The country is preparing for change when the teenagers witness a terrible crime on one of their outings in the township. Their sense of belonging and identity is shaken as they embark on the rough path to adulthood after this lethal incident. Alongside them, South Africa is also trying to come into its own. This is the premise of Nedine Moonsamy’s beautifully crafted debut novel, The Unfamous Five. Although clearly echoing Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five novel series, Moonsamy makes this story completely local and her own.
The Unfamous Five is narrated from the perspective of all five friends at different stages of their lives from June 1993 to April 2003. The individual stories are told in affecting vignettes that reveal the multi-facetted connections between the friends, their families and other people who come to share their lives with them as time progresses.
“As she lives through the moment she already knows that she will remember it for the rest of her life”, it is revealed about Janine at one point in the book, as the account continues: “She records it in her mind as one of those moments. Those moments when reality bursts open like a volcano and spits hot lava across one’s front lawn.” It is the perfect description of how the novel records the essential stages of the group’s journey as individual young adults and as a whole.
It took me a few pages to get into the intense rhythms of the narration, but once I did, I could not put The Unfamous Five down, curious of how these lives would develop and whether the relationships depicted would survive their many permutations and challenges. All five stories are compelling, but I was particularly moved by Janine’s.
Through these characters, Moonsamy brings the transition alive in a way that is truly tangible, never shying away from the most difficult aspect of the period, exposing the devastating consequences of racism, homophobia and intolerance of any kind: “This is how they choose to spend their time, undressing each other until they stand there, naked and raw, clinging together as they desperately search in one another for a new truth about themselves.” The observation is made during an argument about the past and the New South Africa. It is the private and the personal that becomes political here as in the best of fiction addressing these concerns through this specific place and time in history.
“This is the adventure of life, he [Devon] thinks, travelling through each other’s lives, each other’s weeks.” Moonsamy offers us a generous insight into what the adventure of life entailed for the unfamous – but fascinating – five of her novel.
Modjaji Books, 2019
Review first published in the Cape Times on 15 November 2019.