Monthly Archives: March 2020

Operation Oysterhood: Day Five

OYSTERHOOD is reclusiveness or solitude, or an overwhelming desire to stay at home.


Erika Viljoen

A day of mixed news.

My own screams woke me up in the middle of the night. Nightmares I don’t remember. I slept again. Woke up early to take out the bin again and wave at the street (no garbage collection yet, the bin is back in). The clouds curdling on the horizon, bees humming like crazy in one of my trees. Away from them, silence.

Coffee. Twitter: the dancing friars ()!, goats, squirrels. We are all trying to survive, not only physically, but especially in our heads. I have two left feet, but I am seriously considering doing a video of myself dancing to that same energising tune. If the friars can do it, so can I! Everything about it would be a challenge, including the video making. But this is the time for reinvention of the self. Maybe.

Reading until my Mom phoned and we had another good, supportive conversation. She is fit and healthy and coping well, but I fear for her. A lot. She has dug up her sewing machine and I have placed an order for two skirts. To be picked up when I see her again. Soon, I hope.

Die vyfde mevrou Brink

Then the great literary news of today: the cover of the Afrikaans translation of my memoir has been finalised. A dream come true. This book could have never felt complete without an Afrikaans translation, and the fact that it was done by my dear, dear friend Erika and will be published by my wonderful publishers, Protea Book House, is sheer perfection.

Grant Wood_American GothicThe cover photograph is by Philip de Vos (among his many amazing achievements is the translation of The Gruffalo into Afrikaans: Die Goorgomgaai – one of the BEST WORDS EVER). The cover image has always reminded me of a very famous painting… Yeah, that one! Can’t help it. The photograph in which André and I look like two poor, but very happy, orphans is one of my favourite ones of all the ones that were ever taken of the two of us, and I am infinitely grateful that it finally found its proper place. The cover design and typography is by Hanli Deysel and this is the fourth book we have worked on together. May there be many more.

After the delightful news, there was only one thing to be done… Toilet cleaning. My eyes hurt after a lot of reading, so I decided to focus on the house today, starting with the bathroom and bedroom. All the cats assisted diligently by staying away from all the hard work…


Can you blame them? But strangely enough, they were very eager to share in my lunch treat today…


After lunch, I was waiting for a Skype chat with my brother, when another of those chain mails popped into my inbox, asking you to send a poem or something to the first person on the list and then do other things with the second name on the list and involve twenty of your friends and and and. I know these are meant well (or are they?), but I just can’t right now. Especially since I hardly know the person who sent the email and they did not even include a poem for me, just the instructions. When I complained about it on Twitter (sorry!), a poet from London responded with similar feelings. So in a way, the chain mail did something good in the end. I connected with someone who has given me enormous poetic pleasure by publishing the book London Undercurrents. And the exchange reminded me of this beautiful quote from the book, so fitting for our times:


Began to sew. Began to write. The pull of community.


A year ago my Mom bought me a 1kg-Lindt chocolate bunny for Easter. When I visited her shortly afterwards, the bunny looked threatening, especially to my fully packed suitcase. With a heavy heart, I had to leave the bunny behind. At Christmas time, when I visited again, we thought that we might manage to eat the bunny, but there was simply too much other food (Polish Christmas in Austria and my Mom CANNOT cook for just a few, she always cooks for an army). Eventually, my brother brought the bunny to Cape Town when he was visiting this February. The bunny did not survive the journey in its original form and was finally butchered. Talking to Krystian on Skype today after lunch, I was munching away on the remaining pieces (it looked like the bum) and still laughing.

These are the before and after photographs:

As you can see, my Mom does not do small measures. But boy! am I glad to have around 0,5kg bunny chocolate left right now. Especially just before Easter. My Mom had the right idea, she just got the year wrong.

After all that chocolate, it was time for another garden loop walk. This time, I marked each loop counterclockwise with a glass pebble and then clockwise again (I only have twenty-seven glass pebbles). Half an hour, fifty-four loops.

Then I listened to story-time on CapeTalk at 15:50 (absolutely delightful!) and sat in the sun with Mozart, continuing with A Poor Season for Whales.

I haven’t noticed before my cuddle with Mozart that my poor pomegranate tree, which has never given me more than one fruit a year, has done it again. We have one small pomegranate!


I cleaned the kitchen before cooking dinner, another simple pasta affair.

Emails, a bit of admin, blog writing, and now time to sleep. Not to scream.

The day has also brought news of two fights, one for justice, one against illness. Both have begun quite a while ago and will continue for a long time to come. Both have to be won, but the strength and courage needed are gigantic. At a time like ours, even bigger. In my own non-religious way, I pray that The Good and Kind prevail.

A poor season for gentle dreaming, and yet: Good night!

Be kind to yourself. Be kind to others. Stay at home.

Operation Oysterhood: Day Four

OYSTERHOOD is reclusiveness or solitude, or an overwhelming desire to stay at home.



No dreams, but an early wake-up to more worrying news. Maybe I should not be watching eNCA first thing in the morning, yet I am even more concerned if I don’t…

But no time to wallow in worry on a Monday morning. The bin had to be put out (it hasn’t been collected though; I just brought it back in), the stoep plants had to be watered, the orchids always get their weekly bath on a Monday, and it was time to do some laundry. Coffee first, of course. Taking the bin out, I waved up and down the empty street and smiled at Devil’s Peak, all glorious in the morning light. My first twenty seconds outside the property since Thursday. It felt amazing.


I spent the rest of the morning reading in bed and then had a shower and washed my hair. All energised and clean, I sat down to my computer to write two book reviews. In the meantime, I made lunch and hung up laundry. Once the writing was fished I continued with reading in the sun. Today, I did not feel like moving a lot, but the sunbathing was soul-restoring. Apart from showering, there is not much that I can do without the assistance of at least one cat in this house (and even the shower is not always a place they stay away from – today I sprayed the shower cubicle with mould buster and there is something in the spray that makes Salieri go cuckoo; it’s hard to explain, but I think she would be embarrassed to have videos of her reaction to the substance posted on the internet … if mould buster was prohibited during the lockdown, Salieri would have a problem!).

While I was reading on a blanket in the garden, Glinka came for a scratch behind her ear and then settled in my shade for company.

We are really enjoying the latest Michiel Heyns, A Poor Season for Whales. I was supposed to interview Michiel at his book launch tomorrow at the Book Lounge, but… it is A Poor Season for Book Launches, too.

I adore Michiel’s writing and I am so pleased that I was asked to do the interview. I hope it will still happen. One day. It will be a pleasure to at least write about the book if I have the opportunity. When Michiel and I were regular reviewers for the Sunday Independent, I used to read his book reviews every week with awe and I am still hoping that, one day when I grow up, I can write like that.

After all this literary laziness, it was time for emails and updates and more work and dinner. Today’s meals were all simple, but I did make an extra effort with the potato salad which includes a secret ingredient tip given to me by my very dear friend Erika (her Family: Kobus, Roland and Mika – my Family – mean the world to me). The tip was passed on to Erika, as all worthwhile tips are, from her mother.

All in all, a calmer and more successful day than yesterday, but my cheeks are sore again and, even though I had hoped to skype with my cousin in Poland, I need to get into bed and just relax.

After dinner, we all got in front of the TV to watch the President speak. I am Polish by birth, Austrian by citizenship (and the Austrian consulate has been in touch with me to make sure that I was all right, which was very comforting in all kind of ways, but…) and, for the past fifteen years, I have been South African by heart, and when I watched Cyril Ramaphosa address the nation tonight, I felt that he was my President, too. Because South Africa is my home.

“I have no doubt whatsoever that we will overcome.” President Cyril Ramaphosa on 30 March 2020 in his address to the nation

Be kind to yourself. Be kind to others. Stay at home.

Operation Oysterhood: Day Three

OYSTERHOOD is reclusiveness or solitude, or an overwhelming desire to stay at home.


Keith Tamkei's illustration for Toni's Touch

The woman in the white dress by Keith Tamkei. More about her in a second.

First there was an alarming sound in the middle of the night, like something crashing or breaking. It woke me up; I grabbed my phone and the panic button and proceeded slowly around the house to investigate. Nothing. Silence. I did not dare go outside. I have had two break-ins in the last five years; I don’t think that I need to explain more. Returning to bed, I thought: not now, please. Sleep came back eventually, but I was happy to open my eyes again. Especially since I knew that something was about to happen that hasn’t happened in quite a few years. I am the (co)editor of four short-story anthologies, and back in the day, I used to write my own stories that diverse literary magazines and story collections deemed good enough to publish, but I haven’t written one in just about forever (I am scared to look at the exact date). So, when the call came from the Sunday Times – write us a story about how the coronavirus pandemic will play out – I wasn’t entirely sure whether I still had in me. But it came, almost immediately, first as a feeling, then as an image, and it flowed from there like magic. The story, “Toni’s Touch”, was published today, and the first thing I looked up online in the morning was whether there was a link I could share with readers. It was amazing to see it and to know that it would be available in print, too:

“TONI’S TOUCH” by Karina M. Szczurek

I absolutely love Keith Tamkei’s illustration for the story. He just got it, everything that was important for me to convey poured into one image. If you would like to see more of his work, here is a link to his Instagram handle: @ktamkei

The Lifestyle section of the Sunday Times featured a few more stories by excellent SA writers such as Nozizwe Cynthia Jele, Fiona Melrose, Mark Winkler and Fred Khumalo, among others. Stories by the latter two were included in Water: New Short Fiction from Africa (the SSDA anthology of 2015 I co-edited with Nick Mulgrew) and I had the enormous pleasure of working with them on their pieces back then.

It was tempting to rush out and get the printed copy of the newspaper, but I knew that it would not be a responsible thing to do, especially since I had all the essential food items that I need for the moment. But my love has a paper copy of the real thing and sent me pictures.

On a high from knowing that a story of mine was once again in print, I indulged in Glinka’s “Occupy Karina” mission of the morning. I did not have the heart to remove her and just continued lying still while she purred softly on my chest, nightly anxieties dissipating as the sun came up.


But then the calls form the kitchen grew louder. “Karina… Karina… Karina!” I can never say no to coffee in the morning, so Glinka had to move and coffee had to be had.

Luckily, there was water in the coffee machine from the day before, because there was hardly any coming from the taps… We have had some water supply problems in the area for a while, and the drought has taught us all a thing or two, so I did have almost two full buckets of grey water ready for the loo and I immediately harvested the last of the water in the pipes to keep me going until restoration of services.

I have known how to live on very little water since the days my family spent in refugee camps between 1987 and 1989, when early on we were accommodated in a place where we did not have running water for several months. When my Mom phoned this morning (all excited about us being at least on the same time line, if not on the same continent again) and I told her about the water shortage, we had quite a long chat about the “good old refugee days”. I then proceeded to my sponge bath in a bowl of water and returned to bed to read. I decided that my hair could do without a wash for at least another day or two. It’s not like I was going anywhere…

I had to do justice to my new quarantine name, Lazy Chevre, and had breakfast in bed.


My Italian friend, Michela, and I did not manage to speak last night, because I faded away before she was ready, so we had a date for Skype coffee at 11am. I even got dressed and tied my dirt hair into a bun. But then, in the middle of our conversation, I was suddenly overcome by hormonal waves of nauseating coldness. They always come out of the blue, always in the last few days before I am supposed to menstruate, and I know that when they appear, I have about a minute to two to get to safety, because what follows is indescribable pain which leads into fainting oblivion in many cases. I did not coin the word ‘monstrual’ for nothing. Michela has known me since university days, so I did not have to explain much. We ended the call, I got on all fours (safer that way in case I faint), crawled to where the painkillers were, took them, and crawled to the safety of my bed, grabbing my phone on the way. I called my partner to tell him what was happening and to ask him to phone me in twenty to thirty minutes to check up on me. That is the time the painkillers need to kick in. Salieri also knows me, so she was on my cramping belly in a flash, purring love and care until the spasms and the chills and the nausea all passed. The phone rang. I was okay. But then I thought of all the people going crazy being locked up with their families right now and I once again understood how lucky they were after all, how rough the loneliness of living alone in such moments as today was: I could have fainted earlier, I could have hit my head during the fall, I could have never woken up again. These attacks don’t happen every month, but when they do, I am always in danger. The last one was quite a while ago at an amazing lunch party that my dear friend Helen Moffett hosted in Noordhoek. She also knew what to do to keep me safe.

The amazing thing is that when it passes, it is as if nothing had happened. Within half an hour, I just return to normality. But today was different. I felt more vulnerable than usual. And I still felt cold. I made a simple salad for lunch and went to read in the garden in the sun. Mozart came to cuddle. When it was no longer wise to sit in direct sunlight, I moved inside. But the cold in my bones persisted and a gentler version of the cramps returned. I think it’s the residues of shock. Don’t know. I longed for a hot-water bottle, but my old one had a leak and I haven’t replaced it yet, so I returned to a method I’d been taught by a flight attendant, although she’d used a plastic bottle and I used a nice wine bottle and filled it with hot water.


I read until it was time to skype with my other friend in Vienna, Charlotte, who has visited me a few times in Cape Town and promised to do it again as soon as possible, because we haven’t been to Cape Point together yet and it’s on her Cape Town bucket list.

Dinner was a simple soup. I am having a glass of red wine as I write.


It’s still early, but I long for bed. When I am anxious and stressed, I have a terrible habit of sucking on my cheeks from the inside. Sometimes it’s so bad that they hurt like hell at the end of a day. It’s one of these days, so I know I need to take care of myself. May there be no strange sounds in the night (I think it might have been the geyser when the water went out), may my dreams be of foreign places in the light and may tomorrow be easier.

Please be kind to yourself. Be kind to others. Stay at home.

PS I have running water again.

Operation Oysterhood: Day Two

OYSTERHOOD is reclusiveness or solitude, or an overwhelming desire to stay at home.



My “Pratley Putty Standard Setting” went on a mission to the moon. According to the package. I have no reason to doubt it, because my pool is no longer leaking. I feel like Tom Hanks in Castaway.


“I have fixed the leaking pool!”

But before this wonderful discovery, I woke up quite early and, not being able to open my eyes properly, I lay around for a while, listened to the 6am news on eNCA, and fell asleep again. And slept until way past 8.30am, which doesn’t happen often. Salieri was not amused. She is used to earlier breakfast times. During that short morning sleep, I had terrible dreams in which I was screaming at people in a long queue outside of a supermarket not abiding by the rules of social distancing: “You are going to infect us all and we are all going to die!” I don’t ever scream in reality, so this was just as unusual as the long sleep, and perhaps just as necessary.

Coffee. I am predictable that way.

But then: a walk in the garden, in my night-time finery, bathrobe and witch’s hat. As one does. That was when I discovered that my pool was okay again.


The cats were surprised to see a witch in the garden, but they are beginning to understand that it will take a lot to preserve our sanity in these days.

Apart from the wild feline life, some lovely things were spotted in my wild garden. The hibiscus growing on Anya’s (Mozart’s sister) grave is blooming again. As is the lemon tree.

And when I say my garden is wild, I mean wild.

Back to bed and reading. Until just after noon. My eyes have started hurting from all the reading, so I decided to execute an idea I had just before the lockdown, garden loop walking: out the door onto my stoep, down four steps, towards the property’s entrance gate, left, up four steps, back to the stoep, continue on the stoep and start all over again. I knew that I would swim eventually, so I did not bother to get dressed properly, put on my swimming/sunbathing outfit and walking shoes only, and off I went, marking each loop with a leaf found in the garden. About thirty minutes in total.

On my walk, I heard birds and discovered a nest in my garden I did not know existed. There were bees. And – Sally, don’t look now, if you are reading this – the spiders are back. They seem to return in full force every few years. There was also a big rat in the small palm tree, showing the Szczurek (= ‘little rat’ in Polish) that she was not alone!

Lunch was chicken soup leftovers. I hate wasting food in the best of times, but doing it now would be obscene. I shudder to imagine how much food from the reckless stockpiling will end up in the bins…

Despite being an orchid whisperer, I don’t have green fingers. My Mom has, but not me. But I decided to try to plant and nurture two things during this time, something for the cats and for me (catnip & coriander).


That was done after lunch and before swimming, sunbathing, more reading, drinking beer, being forgiving towards my neighbours still hammering away on one side and playing DJ on another. When silence returned, I fell asleep. It might have been the lovely combination of sun and the beer too.


It was finally time for some work. Not much, just some. Earlier in the day, Richard de Nooy challenged us to disclose our quarantine nicknames.

Quarantine nickname

I am not Lazy Chevre for nothing.


I bought the chevre at the Peregrine Farm Stall at the beginning of March. It reminded me of the Elgin Valley and how much I have come to love that place, its people and its wines and all good things, in the last three years.

At dusk, the light was so gorgeous and it was so perfectly wind-still, the longing to go out for a walk around the Rondebosch Common was overwhelming, but the Common, the Mountain, the Sea – they are patient creatures and they will be waiting in all their glory for when it is safe for all of us to go out there and be again. It is just a few weeks. Today, I was also flooded by memories of the refugee camp in Traiskirchen, where we were placed under quarantine in 1987, when my family sought asylum in Austria. A different time, a different world. And yet…

Dinner was a simple affair. Pasta, a glass of Jordan’s “The Long Fuse”, a gift from my love for the lockdown.


I hope to meet on Skype with an Italian friend living in Vienna before sleep tonight. I recently reviewed an academic book of essays in which one of the contributors quoted her and it made me smile. A small world. Smaller than ever perhaps. And yet, it is still all out there, surviving, waiting for a gentler return.

Be kind to yourself. Be kind to others. Stay at home.

Review: Notre-Dame – A Short History of the Meaning of Cathedrals by Ken Follett

Notre-Dame“Something priceless was dying in front of our eyes. The feeling was bewildering, as if the earth was shaking”, writes Ken Follett about watching the Notre-Dame Cathedral burning on 15 April last year. Not an expert on cathedrals, but known across the world for his The Pillars of the Earth, a novel about the construction of a cathedral for which he did an enormous amount of research, he became the media’s go-to person for commentary about the Notre-Dame fire and, together with his French publisher, decided to write Notre-Dame: A Short History of the Meaning of Cathedrals to support the reconstruction efforts of the architectural treasure after the catastrophe. All the royalties generated by the book go to the charity La Fondation du Patrimoine.

Follett’s brief account of Notre-Dame’s eight-centuries-long existence is informative and touching. “Notre-Dame had always seemed eternal, and the medieval builders certainly thought it would last until the Judgement Day; but suddenly we saw that it could be destroyed”, he writes in the opening pages of the book. The history of this popular site of pilgrimage is astounding. “How did such majestic beauty arise out of the violence and filth of the Middle Ages?” Follett asks and illuminates the cathedral’s many wonders. It was built before standardised measurements, modern mathematics, efficient tools, and with hardly any safety regulations. Women and foreigners played vital roles in the construction – it was an international effort of note. And literature – novels like Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris (1831) – spread the building’s fame across the world. In 1944, it was the backdrop of a “masterpiece of political theatre” as General de Gaulle ended a victory march at the cathedral.

The slim, beautifully produced book conveys Follett’s passion for the subject matter and explains why so many of us wept when we saw Our Lady of Paris burning.

Notre-Dame: A Short History of the Meaning of Cathedrals

Ken Follett

Macmillan, 2019

Review first published in the Cape Times on 27 March 2020.

Operation Oysterhood: Day One

OYSTERHOOD is reclusiveness or solitude, or an overwhelming desire to stay at home.



I wanted to remember them, because it felt like a good omen that my dreams were about something positive, but after I had surfaced properly into the morning, they were all gone, leaving behind a vague feeling of warmth and uncertainty.

My cats were there, all real and demanding. They like having their human permanently at home and have decided to smoke the peace pipe to allow me to enjoy their company together at the same time. They only do that when they know they are needed, when loss and anxiousness are in the air.

‘Be kind to yourself’ is the wisest advice I have ever been given. It is my intention for the duration of the lockdown, twenty-one days or longer, whatever is necessary to do my bit in this battle, to be kind to myself. I am staying at home. No routines, because they don’t work for me. Just being, breathing, seeing what is possible, and doing my best. I move between two beds. One is in front of the TV – contrary to most sane advice, the TV helps me fall asleep and it makes me feel safe that it keeps watching me through the night. I never finish an episode of anything before I fall asleep, so I usually catch up during the day if I am interested in who did it. This morning, I finished watching a pre-recorded episode of “Coroner” (the Universal Channel is the only channel I watch regularly, apart from SuperSport channels, and now news from around the world).

Coffee. Beautiful sunrise illuminating the side of the Mountain I can see from my garden. Simple breakfast. Coffee. Then, Refilwe Moloto on CapeTalk in tears just before the 9am news, reporting on the first two Covid-19 deaths in South Africa, here in the Western Cape. (Later, it was reported that one of the women was not Covid-19 positive, but she died at the age of 28, which is a tragedy in itself.)

I know people are dying everywhere, every day, of a multitude of causes. But there is something so simple, silent and sinister about this threat that one cannot help feeling terrified. I am terrified.

For the rest of the morning, I returned to my usual bed to finish proofreading a collection of struggle poetry by ANC women that will be published later this year by uHlanga. My electric blanket was on, Salieri was by my side, the coffee was good. The poetry was fierce and inspiring. An archival treasure of note.

Apart from the virus, the thing that dominates my thoughts is my privilege. The roof over my head, the wild garden, the stunning view of the Mountain, my pool (even though it has been leaking because of cracks on one side). I am doing what I possibly can to assist others during this unprecedented crisis, but it all feels insignificant in comparison to all the personal blessings I can count in my own life right now, even in this very difficult situation when I feel lost and scared. I have survived a severe case of pneumonia in my teens. I remember the nights when I couldn’t breathe and in my thoughts begged to be released from the agony. It was the only time I gave up my will to live. And yet, I don’t fear so much for myself as for what I could possibly inflict on others if I am careless…

I have been watching the pandemic unfold and have known before it was officially announced here in South Africa that we would end up on this spot. It seemed unavoidable. I bought my non-perishable supplies (no toilet paper though! – what I had from before will last a long time) very calmly almost three weeks ago and they will keep me and my Furry Ones going for a while.

The next few days are also predictable. I don’t dare attempt to look further into the future, because I know that if we don’t take this lockdown seriously, our actions might result in carnage. There is very little I can do, but I can stay at home.

Twitter has been a source of information and support. I have some really great people on my timeline and I count quite a few of them as friends, even if we barely know each other, or not at all, outside the platform. But I also worry about online predators for whom this crisis must feel like paradise: all these people openly signalling distress, all stuck at home, vulnerable and ready to be taken advantage of. It’s a topic for another day. Soon.

The funniest thing I saw online today were the Standup Paddleboard Witches during their annual event in Portland, US:

Standup Paddleboard Witches

(Image: Sam Bugarsky)


When I finally finished the poetry proofreading just after 1pm, inspired by the Standup Paddleboard Witches, I put on my witch’s hat in order to attempt to fix the cracks in my pool. The water started leaking noticeably a few days ago, so there was no time to ask the pool people to assist me, but I had once accidentally bought some putty meant for this purpose and I decided to try my luck with it. We will know by tomorrow how successful I have been.

Chicken soup for lunch (obviously!), quite a literary dish, because my recipe combines the recipes of Rahla Xenopoulos and Sally Partridge who both participated in the ‘Fatten Up Karina’ campaign a few years back when I lost too much weight after André’s death.

I was supposed to interview Rahla’s sister, Gigi Fenster, at the postponed Jewish Literary Festival about her excellent memoir, Feverish. At the time of reading, I did not know that Rahla and Gigi were sisters, but was delighted to find out afterwards. Gigi wrote about the period of her life when she thought of inducing a fever in herself for creative purposes. It is a fascinating account about the reasons behind this idea and about what happened with the experiment. I hope that I will still be able to do this interview. If not, I promise to write about the book one day.

Apart from me and the Furry Ones, there are only six other living creatures (officially, not counting the uninvited visitors creeping and crawling around) in the house: five orchids and a kombucha. I prepared a new batch of kombucha today and fertilised parts of my garden with the overflow scoby (a gift from Jacqui L’Ange).

After some emails and a lot of admin, it was time for a simple dinner and then another wonderful phone call with my Mom. I try not to think about it, but it is very difficult to know that even if I wanted to, I could not rush to her. She lives alone in Austria with her cat Myszka. Whenever I speak to her, Myszka’s brother, Mozart, who lives with me, comes to the phone and wants to cuddle with me. I think he recognises that I am speaking Polish and finds this somehow comforting. He has been blind for more than three years now and, even though he has always been independent, he has become very elusive, spending his time in the garden alone and not wanting to be bothered. Today, he sat on my lap while I spoke to Mom.

It is now time for bed. I am lighting a candle for someone I know who is in distress and needs kind thoughts right now.


May you all be safe tonight and be surrounded by kindness in your lives.

Be kind to yourself. Be kind to others. Stay at home.

Review: The Book of Gifts by Craig Higginson

The Book of GiftsAs readers, we turn to specific authors when we don’t want to be disappointed. The internationally acclaimed writer, Craig Higginson, has become one of these for me. His latest novel, The Book of Gifts, is another gem in his impressive oeuvre. It begins with a family trip to uMhlanga Rocks and radiates from this particular moment into the past and the future, gradually piecing together the puzzle of the intricate – often toxic – relationships that play out during the holiday in KwaZulu-Natal. At the centre of the unfolding story and the complex familial constellation are the two half-sisters, Emma and Jennifer. Emma is a successful sculptor and mother to Julian, at the time of the holiday an eleven-year-old boy who falls in love for the first time with an enthralling, slightly older Clare. Jennifer is a teacher at Julian’s school back in Johannesburg where they all live, and wife to Andrew, a psychologist struggling to find his professional and personal bearing.

“A gift is never a destination in itself,” Andrew tells one of his patients, “but a means to an end – a stepping stone towards somewhere else.” Every chapter of The Book of Gifts is told from the perspective of one of the main characters and contains a mention of a gift that one of them gives to another with diverse intentions and consequences. The gift that stands out throughout is the one of life, whether it is the life a parent gives to their child or the life that an artist gives to their creation. Emma continues asking herself whether she is capable of managing both these callings, as a mother and as a creative person, and experiences guilt that allows a potentially lethal gift, “the poisoned apple”, to threaten her and her son’s well-being.

In a world where everyone has a secret and integrity is torn apart by betrayals, the gift of truth has the biblical potential to set one free, but speaking up takes courage. When Julian ends up in a comma after a mysterious fall, the adults in his life have to dig deep in order to comprehend – and perhaps finally accept – their responsibilities towards the conflicted young man and towards one another. But not all of them are ready for the effort involved.

Higginson explores how an act of creation can also reshape reality in order to reveal or disguise culpability, which adds another fascinating dimension to The Book of Gifts that made me reconsider my own understanding of the relationship between truth and storytelling. This finely layered, mesmerising novel will cement Higginson’s position as one of the most gifted – yes, that word again – writers in South Africa and beyond. His ability to shine a light into the darkest places of the human heart and confronting them with empathy is remarkable: “This is where life begins, he thinks, as he takes another step into the dark.”

The Book of Gifts

Craig Higginson

Picador Africa, 2020

Review first published in the Cape Time on 20 February 2020.

Review: To the Volcano, and Other Stories by Elleke Boehmer

To-the-VolcanoThe internationally acclaimed, Durban-born writer, Elleke Boehmer, has a second short story collection out: To the Volcano, and Other Stories. Set mostly in the southern hemisphere and illuminated by the legendary southern light artists and tourists travel the world to experience, the twelve stories in this collection explore the tenuous and tenacious relationships people have with the South.

Boehmer is also a novelist and a literary scholar; her work across the disciplines is devoted to understanding the complexities involved. The way she presents her observations and insights in fiction is a balm for the soul. The one word that came to mind throughout the reading of To the Volcano was “gentleness”. Not necessarily when it comes to themes touched on in the stories – these are often anything but gentle (trauma, colonialism, illegal migration, ageing, loss, etc.) – but the way they are presented in exquisite, considered prose.

A little boy keeps his frail grandmother, who is suffering from dementia, grounded by constructing paper planes for her. A woman on holiday is given a bracelet that feels like a portal to a disquieting reality. Two shelf stackers in a supermarket connect on Valentine’s Day. The widow of a writer continues taking care of his legacy. During a trip to the titular volcano, the lives of a group of university lecturers and students are transformed: “You have lit a fire in my soul,” writes one of them to another, “My love is strong as death, its flashes are flashes of fire.”

Boehmer’s stories “flash fire”. They are about seeing, about interconnectedness and about the shifting of perspectives. By flipping the globe on its axis and placing the South at the centre of our attention, she allows us to look at the world from a vantage point that is unusually regarded as peripheral.

To the Volcano, and Other Stories

Elleke Boehmer

Myriad Editions, 2019

Review first published in the Cape Time on 20 February 2020.

Review: Adamastor City by Jaco Adriaanse

Adamastor-CityAdamastor City is a first in all kinds of fascinating ways: for the author, Jaco Adriaanse, it is a debut novel and the first book in The Metronome Trilogy, and it is the first title for the new, independent publisher on the block, Burnt Toast Books, established this year by Robert Volker, who wants to focus on shorter forms and allow authors more freedom to experiment.

Volker is redefining the publishing threshold in the sense that, as an author, you don’t have to offer him a conventional doorstopper of a manuscript in order to be acknowledged. As a reader, you can expect to be engaged and entertained. In this respect, Adamastor City is an excellent flagship for Burnt Toast Books. Written in the form of a long prose poem that rhymes, it tells the story of a young boy who questions whether there isn’t more to life than his predictable parents have to offer. He asks the universe to intervene and is granted his wish, setting out with his robot on a quest to save the world. Inspired by the Adamastor myth, first recorded by the Portuguese poet Luís de Camões in his epic poem Os Lusíadas (1572) about the mythical character Adamastor, a personification of the Cape of Storms, Adamastor City is set in a futuristic Cape Town that is infused with the stories of the past.

Perhaps a little challenging at first glance, Adriaanse’s sci-fi take on this ancient story is anything but. The quirky plot and the rhythm of the text draw you in and keep you going until the last page is turned. The accompanying illustrations by Luami Calitz are stunning. It might not be everyone’s cup of novel, but for those readers wanting to experience something refreshingly different, it is a literary joyride.

The Metronome: Adamastor City

Jaco Adriaanse

Burnt Toast Books


Review was first published in the Cape Times on 13 March 2020.

Review: Letters Home by Jolyon Nuttall

Letters HomeWe have entered an era when biographers and literary scholars bemoan the fact that most of us have stopped writing letters, the ones composed with a pen on paper, folded into an envelope and posted to be received and perhaps kept under a pillow or in a jacket’s pocket because of the precious content they contain. For centuries, such letters were frequently lifelines to others and bore testimonies to our lives in ways that our modern world, despite all our inventions and our seeming connectedness, is no longer capable of reproducing.

Jolyon Nuttall was a journalist and media manager before retiring and returning to his love of writing. He published Vintage Love, a book of essays about his personal and professional life, in 2018. Last year, before his death of cancer, he compiled Letters Home, a collection of letters he wrote to his family in the early 1960s while he was assigned by a South African newspaper to the foreign correspondent desk in New York. The book also contains essays which contextualise the letters and record the time’s influence on Nuttall’s subsequent life.

Letters Home is dedicated to Misa Ban, a Japanese actress Nuttall met and fell in love with during his stay in New York. The letters tell the story of a young man trying to find his way in the turbulent world of the 1960s, in South Africa and abroad, and experiencing an impossible love, forbidden by the apartheid laws of his home country. The personal essays which follow describe the consequences of the choices Nuttall felt compelled to make as a result of these socio-historical tensions.

Published posthumously, Letters Home is a beautiful homage to the letter as an art form and to the rich life of a man who did not shy away from difficult questions.

Letters Home

Jolyon Nuttall

Staging Post, 2019

Review first published in the Cape Times on 6 March 2020.