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Book Review – The Fifth Mrs Brink

bookruse

Karina M. Szczurek

The Fifth Mrs Brink is a memoir of grief, love, life and loss.

Karina Szczurek’s story begins with diary entries immediately after the death of her husband André P Brink. The grief is raw, taking its toll on her physically and emotionally. The memoir is a searingly honest account of life before André, during her marriage and after his death.

The love which they shared is something many of us dream of. I would not have guessed that André had such a soft and caring side. His immediate search for Rudolf the Bear in the wee hours of the morning brought tears to my eyes. His caring for Karina during bouts of pain, a testament to a love that ran deep.

They also shared a passion for tennis, rugby and chocolate, which is a running theme throughout the memoir (as are the trio Mozart, Salieri and Glinka!)…

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Review: Killing Karoline by Sara-Jayne King

Killing Karoline“What happens when the baby they buried comes back?” The question is asked on the cover of Sara-Jayne King’s stunning memoir, Killing Karoline. The story King relates is simultaneously heart-breaking and inspiring. A child is conceived during an illicit relationship in apartheid South Africa. Named Karoline, she is “born with a large, black question mark over my head”. Her biological parents – a white woman and a black man – are forbidden by law and custom to be together. Her official parents – both white – decide to hide the mother’s “indiscretion” with her black lover and smuggle her to the UK under false medical pretences. They proceed to give her up for adoption and return to South Africa, lying to all concerned that Karoline had died.

The image on the cover of King’s book – of the young Karoline, renamed Sarah Jane by her adoptive parents – spreading her arms in joy, as if to embrace the universe with her gorgeous smile – says everything about this incredibly resilient person, who refused to be killed by the “deception and denial” of the people who brought her into this world and the inhuman system that governed their decisions and fears.

Sarah Jane is adopted by a couple who were unable to have biological children. Earlier they also adopted a boy, Adam. No other book on adoption I have read made the complicated dynamics involved in this kind of family structure as tangible to me as King’s memoir. She confesses what it means to be a “consolation prize” to her adoptive mother: “Not just enough, but that our becoming her kids was actually sufficient to eradicate, or at least usurp her own disappointment at not being able to have her own biological children.” Feelings of insecurity persist. They are complicated by her parents’ inadequate handling of a vital side of their adopted children’s reality: “And so while we knew we were loved, my parents’ ignorance and inability to acknowledge our skin colour as being crucial to our identities ultimately led to both Adam and I navigating, in isolation and confusion, a painful and self-destructive path to make sense of who we were as individuals and in the world at large.” For Adam, the journey ends in tragedy.

When the ground beneath your feet keeps shifting, it is impossibly hard to keep stable, to know who you are. King is constantly faced with the necessity of reframing her beliefs. It can be something as obvious as finding out that when you are born in August in South Africa, you are not a summer baby. Or it can be as soul-crushing as your biological mother’s refusal to give you the answers you crave. Adoption, King writes, “creates gaps of assumption, false imaginings and, ultimately, disappointments.” It confronts King with the fact that for her biological mother “saving face held greater importance…than hearing me say my first word, or watching as I gingerly took my first step.”

She clings desperately to things that give her comfort like her childhood blanket. To escape reality, she flees into books, her “first addiction”; then others follow. She struggles to maintain a healthy relationship with food, drinks excessively, tries other substances and starts self-harming. Feeling inadequate and ashamed, she becomes a “people pleaser”. She enters toxic relationships. Around her families fall apart. Her adoptive parents separate. As she finds out while trying to trace her biological parents, the woman who gave birth to her goes on to have another child. Establishing contact with her siblings and her and their extended families proves to be extremely difficult, as one can imagine. But there are moments of joy. If anything, King’s story proves the adage that friends are the family we choose.

King is honest and extremely generous about sharing her experience of adoption, loss and addiction. It is humbling to follow her life as it unfolds through the stories she chooses to tell. She is not sentimental, which could have easily been the case. Above all, she narrates a story of great courage in standing up for oneself. Exceptionally talented, she completes her university studies, begins working, and when everything goes haywire, she is brave enough to accept the help she needs to recover. This comes with challenges of its own, but seeking treatment brings her back to the country of her birth where she eventually settles and where she finally claims for herself the name she’d always wanted to be known by: Sara-Jayne.

“I just want someone to see me”, she writes. Sara-Jayne refuses to disappear. She gradually surfaces into acceptance and acknowledgement. She realises that it is her biological mother’s loss for not wanting to know her. It is our gain that she allows her readers to see her extraordinary strength and beauty.

King is now based in Cape Town and shares her life with another adoptee, her dog Siza. She is a journalist and broadcaster, hosting her own show on CapeTalk.

Killing Karoline is not just a powerful story which could have been told in almost any fashion to thrive, it is a well-crafted text which testifies to the love of literature and the remarkable skill of this emerging creative writer.

Killing Karoline

by Sara-Jayne King

MFBooks, 2017

Review first appeared in the Cape Times on 15 September 2017.

A Conversation with Frankie Murrey

Sarafina Magazine

Frankie Murrey worked in the book trade for a number of years before becoming the Festival Coordinator of Open Book Festival, which runs from September 6th until the 10th right in the heart of Cape Town. In addition to working on the core festival programme, she works closely with others on CocreatePoetica, Comics Fest and the Youth Fest. She is the facilitator of the Mentoring Programme and the Open Book School Library Project. In 2015, she was awarded the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

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Die vyfde en laaste mevrou Brink

MaanKind

Waarom vind ‘n mens sekere mense se lewensverhale meer aangrypend as ander?

Vir solank ek kan onthou, was André P Brink die hoogste op my lys van gunstelingskrywers. Toe Nicolette saam met Die Ambassadeur oorsee gerinkink het, was ek maar self ‘n blote kind en het glad nie Ingrid Jonker in verband gebring met die karakter Nicolette nie. Waarom sou ek? Dis tog ‘n verhaal wat stelselmatig oor die dekades bekend geword het aan ons gewone lesers. In elkeen van sy boeke wat daar altyd iets universeel aan sy vroulike hoofkarakter, in so ‘n mate dat ek my eenmaal lank gelede vererg het en gedink het Brink kyk eensydig na vroue, dat hy ‘n illusie najaag en dat hy nooit die ideale vrou of vrouekarakter sou kry nie. Dit het eers later aan die lig gekom dat die vrouekarakters geskoei was op die beeld wat hy van Ingrid Jonker in…

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Review: Falling Creatures by Katherine Stansfield

Falling CreaturesThe British author Katherine Stansfield has a mesmerising novel (The Visitor, 2013) and an exquisite poetry collection (Playing House, 2014) to her name. Falling Creatures is her second novel. Set on the Bodmin Moor in Cornwall where Stansfield grew up, it tells the story of an actual murder which occurred in 1844. A young woman’s throat was slashed; a man who lived on the same farm as her was hanged for her brutal murder. A memorial commemorating the gruesome event still stands on the spot where the woman died and continues to haunt locals and visitors alike. The records of the real story are inconclusive as to what might have truly happened. But where the historian’s hands are tied, a novelist can step in and imagine a plausible scenario. This is precisely what Stansfield did for Charlotte Dymond and Matthew Weeks of Penhale Farm.

The story begins with a chance encounter between the narrator, whom we eventually get to know by the name of Shilly, and Charlotte. After her mother’s death, Shilly is left by her father at the All Drunkard pub where she and Charlotte are hired by the widow Mrs Peter to help on her farm. A special bond develops between the two young women when Charlotte gifts Shilly “blood-heat” on the day they meet. She gathers the body heat of a horse in her hands to warm Shilly with. From that moment on, it is clear that Charlotte has mysterious talents and communes with powers the other inhabitants of Penhale Farm and the surroundings are weary of, but Shilly also finds enthralling.

Charlotte’s beauty and skills cast spells over the people who cross paths with her. Mrs Peter’s son John and farmhand Matthew are drawn by her magnetism, as is Shilly. She feels very protective of her new friend, who reads nature and human deeds for signs and predicts that “terrible things will happen”. When Charlotte is found dead on the moor soon after her arrival at Penhale Farm and Matthew is apprehended as a suspect for her murder, a charismatic stranger arrives on the scene to investigate the horrific deed and requests Shilly’s assistance in his quest. The devastated Shilly obliges, but also has her own demons to confront as the tantalising story unfolds: “I had loved her, though she was cruel, though she was sly. She was my girl, and after all, anyone who claimed to have no badness in them was shown to be bad by the lie. She and I were just as the rest of the world – creatures falling, creatures failing.”

Stansfield’s take on the historic events of 1844 is as bewitching as her protagonist. If you are a fan of historical fiction, Falling Creatures has all the ingredients that will keep you hooked. Stansfield weaves together a fascinating plot, charismatic characters – real and imagined – and atmospheric prose to delight the aesthete. The sequel to Falling Creatures, The Magpie Tree, is to be published early next year, and it will be eagerly awaited.

Falling Creatures

by Katherine Stansfield

Allison & Busby, 2017

Review first published in the Cape Times, 18 August 2017.

Review: Firepool by Hedley Twidle

FirepoolIn the Afterword of At Risk: Writing On and Over the Edge of South Africa, a collection of personal narratives edited by Liz McGregor and Sarah Nuttall, Njabulo S. Ndebele writes about the book taking “us closer to the notion of ‘making public spaces intimate’ by infusing into the public domain, not gossip, but genuine, reflective, if sometimes agonised, personal testimony. Self-exposure of this kind is harder than the act of unmasking others. It allows for the public sharing of vulnerabilities as the basis for the restoration of public trust (against public hypocrisy) and makes possible a world of new, interpersonal solidarities that extend into broader, more affirming social solidarities.”

Narratives of this kind are not only fascinating but, in a world of lethal lies, increasingly essential. Hedley Twidle’s excellent Firepool allows the form to shine. The book contains nine essays on topics as diverse as skin, democracy, literature, Mandela, Verwoerd’s assassin, music, nuclear power, racism, the N2, universities and that swimming pool. Here is an incisive mind at work, writing about relevant issues, but not from a purely intellectual perspective of a distant observer, but from within the personal experience. The “vulnerabilities” Ndebele mentions in the above quote are on full display and allow for a deeply intimate engagement with each text – for the writer and, crucially, for the reader.

When Twidle says “I want to write about skin”, you would be forgiven in the present climate to expect that he will be writing about race. And in a sense he does, but not in any obvious way. Twidle recalls his school years and the intricacies of power one face as a young adult. He talks about transformation (from childhood to adolescence and then adulthood, but also in socio-political terms) and “troubled skin”, skin suffering from the most horrifying acne: “These registers of experience are revolting, and seldom written about – or, at least, were very hard to find in print during the pre-Google era.” There is a reason why Twidle goes where only Google does not fear to tread, why he is probing “the limit zones of disgust: political disgust, but also the intimate and democratic rankness of bodily disgust – in the belief that such an investigation might be a prelude to true metamorphosis, acceptance, love.”

“Twenty-Seven Years” is a tribute and a meditation on the remarkable life of musician Moses Taiwa Molelekwa. He was a child prodigy who died much too young at the age of twenty-seven, but who was not afraid “to risk being naive, and to begin at the beginning.” Twidle records his own music history with the awareness that “the challenge for all writing about anything that moves us, is to carry within the writing a memory of that initial ignorance, of the silence before the music started.” He structures the essay in narrative loops which manage to create that sense of innocence, eschewing the usual “scholarly mode” of linear developments and imitating an improvisation, as if on a musical theme.

In “Getting Past Coetzee” we are referred to the hermit crab of the book’s wonderful, but initially mysterious, cover (the illustration makes perfect sense once you reach the last page). I doubt there are any students of English literature anywhere in the world who have not come across JM Coetzee. Twidle is a great admirer, but not an uncritical one. Contrary to his literary hero, he acknowledges a South Africa that is a “generous one, where things are thrashed out in dialogue with others, rather than selves.”

The essays which gripped me the most were “A Useless Life”, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at the N2” and “Nuclear Summer”. The former two tackle unusual topics: Demitrios Tsafendas and the N2. The latter reverts to an all familiar consideration, but with refreshing urgency: nuclear energy.

Tsafendas is the man who murdered Verwoerd, but his existence has been nearly erased from public consciousness. He later testified he had acted “on instructions from a tapeworm inside his gut.” Twidle recounts his story in vivid details and reclaims it for “our national narrative”, showing what consequences suppression of truth and diverse definitions of and approaches to madness can have. It is an intriguing story if there ever was one. In “Thirteen Ways of Looking at the N2”, Twidle takes us on a walk along the N2 from the city centre to the airport – “a space where we are all in it together (though not, of course, all in the same way).”

“Nuclear Summer” exposes a peril that is common to us all and is a stark reminder that silence is “indefensible” in cases of life and death. No matter how tired we might feel because of the endless debates about nuclear power, Twidle returns us to basic truths: the anti-democratic nature of nuclear power and the fatal failure of our imaginations in connection to the environmental impact this form of energy production has. We know “that knowledge and authoritarianism can go very well together; that facts now live alongside alternative facts, that truths can coexist perfectly happily with lies.” And because we know, there is no excuse for silence.

The essays in Firepool are an intellectual and emotional feat, calling for understanding as well as compassion. The need for both cannot be underestimated.

Firepool: Experiences in an Abnormal World

by Hedley Twidle

Kwela, 2017

Review first published in the Cape Times, 18 August 2017.

Book review: The Fifth Mrs Brink

The Fifth Mrs Brink is the memoir of writer and academic Karina Szczurek, the fifth wife of author Andre P Brink.

The book describes their romance and happy marriage, but it also offers a portrait of the woman behind the title. Karina writes that to know her, you must visit the places close to her heart, and in this book she shares some of the moments that have defined her.

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The Fifth Mrs Brink

Tiah Marie Beautement

35080452.jpg– Fiction is the most dangerous place in the world; that’s where truth lives. –

– There is no peace in fear for a loved one. No place to hide in the face of death. I read and wrote through the nights, stared into darkness. –

– Water tells my story. –

– Languages come to me. There is no other way of describing it. After an initial intimidating few months of frustration, they seep into me. It is a process I can think of only as osmosis. The moment I find myself surrounded by a language, it enters through my mind’s pores into my consciousness. I think, dream and live it. –

– Memoir is as close to a recollected truth as I dare to come, and there is no one to protect me. It is selective, structured, but no less sensitive. –

– It moves in with you…

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Review: The Twinkling of an Eye – A mother’s journey by Sue Brown

TwinklingHow do you cope with the death of your child? How do you capture the ungraspable in words? I can hardly imagine either, but reading Sue Brown’s account of the life and death of her son Craig, I felt that every single word she put down on the page was an act of heroism.

The Twinkling of an Eye chronicles the years that Craig’s family shared with the boy, focusing on the last months of his life when he was diagnosed with a brain tumour which eventually caused his death just after his thirteenth birthday in 2011. With this book, Craig’s mother faces the events of this excruciatingly painful time with unflinching honesty. She pays tribute to a life cut short, but lived passionately, and admits: “I have found myself recalling times in my personal life – and career as a physiotherapist – of which I am not proud.”

Each chapter of The Twinkling of an Eye is preceded by an epigraph from different works of literature. The one which struck me is a quote from Tolkien’s The Hobbit: “It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.” Indeed, but none of us is ready for the moment the “beast” moves into our vicinity.

When Craig’s health began deteriorating, all the worrying symptoms could be easily explained by non-life-threatening conditions. Most alarming was the boy’s changing personality. When school friends started to complain about his uncharacteristically bullying behaviour, the family was worried that they had a “delinquent teenager in the making” on their hands. Distressed about her son’s – and her own – lack of empathy in the situation at the time, Brown writes: “Later I will ache at my son’s confusion and hurt, and my total lack of understanding as his mother.”

The first brain scans reveal the real reason for all of Craig’s strange symptoms. The wish is to “buttress the horror from spilling into what could be the last day of pretend normality.” The reality of the situation begins to sink in as the doctor “mentions two possible names, both of which my own brain stubbornly refuses to register. It hears, clings to, only the ‘hopefully benign’ bit at the end.” An operation is inevitable. Another follows. Craig and his family battle and endure, but their world becomes completely unrecognisable to them all. Everything changes and there is no way back “to a time when I could worry within safe limits, or resume the life that we knew.” There is hope and despair, agony and fury, desolation and exhaustion, frustration and bravery. And the moment when Craig says out loud, “I think I am dying.”

Understandably, Brown is confronted with a spiritual challenge: “My faith is thin ice that might crack beneath the weight of my fear for my child”, she confesses, but finds a way to carry on. A friend suggests that Craig and the family “did not deserve this”, but Brown wonders whether anyone ever does.

This is not an easy read. It is impossible to witness the soul-crushing experiences Brown describes with dry eyes. Just as it is impossible to remain untouched by the acts of tenderness and kindness she remembers. Many people do not know how to react to the news which becomes more terrifying with nearly every visit to the doctor, but those who find a soothing word or gesture at the right time become invaluable. Brown is “surprised at the comfort that the presence of all these people, with all the love they hold for Craig and for us, brings” and feels “gently held”.

No matter how many books are written, how much wisdom gathered in them, there are no manuals on how to deal with these most intimate and personal losses in life. Each path is individual, even if many of us recognise the occasional signpost along the way. Nothing can prepare you before you embark on this journey. But books written by others who had suffered loss bring relief to Brown in her hour of need and she finds her own writing “profoundly healing”. I can imagine that readers will recognise many of their own truths in her book.

Craig was a boy full of energy, ideas, dreams and ambitions. Those who knew him felt that he was destined for a special life. Nobody could have predicted that he would have to face the most outrageous odds: “A one-in-a-billion, sick kind of fame so unlike the types he had fancied for himself. Still, I have the sense that walking this unchosen path with his courage and humour has perhaps been the greatest achievement imaginable.”

The Twinkling of an Eye ends with a deeply moving tribute to Craig by his older sister Meg. She writes about the “Craig-shaped hole by which our family feels different.” That hole can never be filled, but through the book Craig’s memory will not only be kept alive by those who knew and loved him, but also by the many readers who will allow the boy’s recorded effervescence and bravery to settle in their hearts.

The Twinkling of an Eye: A mother’s journey

by Sue Brown

Human & Rousseau, 2017

First published in the Cape Times on 28 July 2017.

Sue-Brown invite

Review: Thungachi by Francine Simon

ThungachiA cup of tea contains many stories. There is one on the intriguing cover of Francine Simon’s debut poetry collection, Thungachi. Simon hails from Durban where she was born into an Indian Catholic family, a heritage that infuses her poems about myths, family, language and religion.

The collection opens with “Naming Places” in which the poet recalls the distant past, the time “they came on the boats”, and explains that “since we don’t know / my father’s family / we are the last of the Simons. // Nothing left for his daughters / but to be girls.” But like the biblical Adam, Simon is claiming and naming her domain, as poet and woman. Deeply embedded in the culture of her community, the poetic persona of poems like “Tamil Familiars” evokes her grandmother’s and mother’s superstitions only to ignore them: the curry-leaf tree which is supposed to die when picked from at “that time of the month” is standing as strong as the “I” of the poem who eats straight out of a pot even if it might bring rain to her wedding day: “I never give a thought / to my wedding.” (In a note on the poem, Simon comments that it is most likely to rain in Durban that day anyway.)

“I”, with only a dash to follow, also emerges at the end of the poem “Rati”, in which the mythical story is retold as a background against which to define oneself. In “Tea”, the ways of serving tea at home are described in detail: “Tea is my job. I know it well.” But once again the “I” sets herself apart from her family’s traditions: “I take tea but never drink it. / You can always find a cold cup / and know it’s me.”

In “Gathering”, there is a sense of the past being put to rest: “All are broken clocks / and candle stumps. / Dust, watching / in a settlement.” These images contrast with the exuberance of “Nanni-ma”, which opens with the lines “I think of sex and only / sex since he / became my neighbour” and ends with “in my doorway at night / asking to eat from / my chilli tree.” Or the devotion of “Vetala-pachisi”: “and when you lit that candle / it was hard enough to ask so instead you burned // Hail Marys into your hands.”

Simon is not afraid to push the boundaries of poetic forms. She experiments with abandon and takes the reader into unfamiliar territories. In this respect, not all of the poems in Thungachi were my cup of tea, but they fascinate and force one to engage with more care, refining one’s palate. The Notes at the end of Thungachi are a wonderfully inventive part of the collection and should not be skipped. They add texture and spice to the poems they comment on. And thus the ending of “Little House” encapsulates Simon’s deft, purifying touch: “Nothing here, / only dust // on our words in want of a wiping hand.”

Thungachi

by Francine Simon

uHlanga, 2017

Review first published in the Cape Times, 21 July 2017.