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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.

Review: Soweto, Under the Apricot Tree by Niq Mhlongo

Soweto Under the Apricot TreeNiq Mhlongo is one of my favourite South African storytellers. He is the author of three novels (Dog Eat Dog, After Tears, Way Back Home) which have been reprinted several times and translated into other languages like French and Spanish. Mhlongo is also well known for his short stories. His debut collection, Affluenza, gave readers a fascinating insight into contemporary South Africa. In those stories, Mhlongo tackled such wide-ranging issues as suicide and farm murders, exposing our prejudices and inability to communicate. He writes about the crucial nexus between race, gender and class and has a wicked sense of humour, often making you laugh while you squirm with discomfort.

Soweto, Under the Apricot Tree is Mhlongo’s second collection of short stories which takes us on a similar journey as the one before. The topics are as diverse, but the execution even more sophisticated. Mhlongo is one of those writers who go from strength to strength with every book. “If the apricot trees of Soweto could talk, what stories would they tell?” The question on the book’s back cover invites us to ponder. Stories are the easiest way of travelling to anywhere in the world, and Soweto, Under the Apricot Tree takes us into the heart of the famous township of Johannesburg. Unfortunately, in the fourteen years I have lived in South Africa, I have not had an opportunity to visit Soweto yet apart from when experiencing it through the eyes of some of its greatest storytellers. And having read everything else Mhlongo has written, I felt I was in good hands while embarking on this particular literary trip.

The short story is considered a tough genre to write, and an even tougher one to sell. As a writer, you have to make the limited space count. Mhlongo knows exactly how to lure you in and make you want to know more. Consider these opening lines for a few of the stories: “The bizarre address you gave me some ten years ago is still stuck in my memory.” Or: “Oupa Eastwood has reported the same incident more than ten times at different police stations.” Or: “Sitting next to the coffin were five men dressed in black suits.” And then you find out that the bizarre address referred to is in a cemetery. The incident Oupa Eastwood reports is of seeing “people attempting to commit suicide at the big hole near his home in Riverlea.” And despite the sombre occasion mentioned in the last of the three quotes above, you cannot help but smile soon after when you come across the following inverted reference to a popular classic: “the Dobsonville people had to deal with the fact that the marriage and the three funerals were happening on the same day.”

Mhlongo knows how to keep his readers hooked and guessing. As to the selling of his fiction, he doesn’t only wait for the publishers and booksellers to do their job. He is known for going from place to place and offering his books to interested readers from the boot of his car. And for those lucky ones to encounter him on his path, I bet he throws in a tale or two into the bargain.

The eleven short stories in Soweto, Under the Apricot Tree are at times heart-wrenching, but the overwhelming impression they leave behind is one of satisfaction and delight in the art of the telling.

In the collection’s titular story a family gathers under an apricot tree on the day they unveil a tombstone for one of their relatives who passed away the previous year. Food is served and drink loosens some tongues. Secrets kept for many years spill out in the hours which follow.

At the centre of “My Father’s Eyes” is also a secret which leads a woman on a quest to search for her absent father: “Mokete was convinced it was my fault that our daughter was born with cerebral palsy. He insisted that I find my father and appease my ancestors with traditional sacrifices to make things right.”

In “Curiosity Killed the Cat”, two neighbouring families and cultures clash over the drowning of Bonaparte, a cat. Following the cat’s funeral, the Phalas family finds it difficult to connect to their grieving neighbours, the Moerdyks: “None of the cards came from the Phalas. They could not mourn. For them, and for Ousie Maria, a cat was just another animal. It could not be equated to a human being. In fact, to most Africans a cat is a symbol of witchcraft and bad luck.” But Ousie Maria has a different worry concerning the dead cat and as the conflict escalates, she has to face her own believes and guilt concerning the animal’s drowning.

Opinions and expectations collide on board of a flight to the UK in “Turbulence” when a young black scholar has to endure the ramblings of an elderly white lady relocating to her family in Australia: “I’m glad to see young black people like you studying”, she tells him. “You know, South Africa is going to the dogs because we’re led by uneducated people. That’s why I’m leaving.” Their journey takes an unforeseen turn which makes you look at their lives anew.

In “Nailed”, MEC Mgobhozi and one of his mistresses experience the shock of their lives when the woman’s husband comes home to find them together and decides to deal with the adulterers in his own way. Another romance ends badly in “Private Dancer Saudade”. “My heart has been broken before, but you are the first and the last person to break my life”, the narrator explains in a letter to her lover.

Like anywhere else, life under the apricot tree moves on in a dizzying speed and is often stranger than fiction. Niq Mhlongo brings the people and the places of Soweto to life. Between the funerals and the marriages, there are high hopes, devastating betrayals, and unexpected twists and turns as the streets of Soweto captivate on every page.

Soweto, Under the Apricot Tree

by Niq Mhlongo

Kwela, 2018

Review first published in the Cape Times, 15 June 2018.

Review: Taming Toxic People – The science of identifying and dealing with psychopaths at work or at home by David Gillespie

Taming Toxic PeopleWe all know about them. They are often quite (in)famous. Most of us have encountered them in our personal lives or at work. Some of us are their victims. And no matter what you call them, once you have had to deal with one, you will never forget it. They go by many names: psychopaths, toxic people, malignant narcissists or master manipulators. All charm and seduction when you first meet them, whether socially or professionally, and then…! By the time they are done with you, nothing is the same any longer. To any human being with empathy, these people never make sense in the long run: their lies, manipulations, subterfuges, risk-taking, and constant deflection of blame and responsibility will have you tied up in knots. They live by different rules, and they always go for the kill. They are human parasites, unable to feel, emphasise or care for others. They are just brilliant at pretending that they can when it suits their own agendas.

Taming Toxic People: The science of identifying and dealing with psychopaths at work or at home by Australian author David Gillespie is a guide on how to manage the psychopaths in our lives. Gillespie bases his analysis on available research, personal experience and observations, as well as stories of psychopaths and their victims. Most of the victims prefer to remain anonymous. It is frightening to read in the author’s acknowledgements that psychopaths “frequently ruin lives so thoroughly and are so likely to seek revenge for any slight, be it real or perceived, that even people who have not seen them for decades still crave anonymity.”

It is hard to admit to yourself that you might be or had been ensnared in the toxic power games of such an individual, but it helps to understand that you stand no chance against such ruthlessness if you are vulnerable and unprepared. Gillespie opens his book with comparing an encounter with a psychopath to that of an encounter with a tiger: “He will use every faculty millions of years of adaptation have given him, to determine whether you are trouble, or lunch. You cannot reason with him, you cannot threaten him, you cannot plead for mercy. Your only chance of survival is to convince him that you are more trouble than you are worth.” Taming Toxic People teaches you how not to be devoured.

One of the first signs of being in the territory of such a predator is bewilderment. Psychopaths “behave in bizarre and often unpredictable ways. And as soon as we are entangled with them, we spend more time worrying about how to deal with them than we do running our own lives.” The harm and distress they are causing in the process may take a long time to recover from, sometimes the rest of your life. Some damage is irreparable. And, as Gillespie points out, nowadays we are living in a reality that encourages psychopathic behaviour and allows people with such traits to flourish. The 21st century seems to be the perfect habitat for psychopaths. It is essential for anyone who has empathy to know how to survive in such dangerous environments that are spreading worldwide. If you have any doubt, watch the news on any channel or go onto social media: “We are no longer a community; we are individuals who happen to live in the same place. The result is we no longer trust in authority because it is not earned through a life of unimpeachable honesty. We no longer trust in experts because they are often for sale to the highest bidder. We no longer trust the media because it chases clicks rather than the truth. Instead, we invest our faith in anyone who tells us they have simple answers to our problems and who looks and talks like us. It is a perfect set-up for any psychopath.”

Gillespie divides Taming Toxic People into four parts: “The Theory”, “The Everyday Psychopath”, “Managing Psychopaths” and “The Psychopath in Society”. He writes accessibly and has a good sense of humour (comic relief is most welcome in between the scary bits). Each part is comprehensive and offers extremely valuable advice. The author goes into the history of psychopathy and the terminology associated with the condition. He lists a few key tests for identifying psychopaths and explains the science behind them. He gives some more or less obvious examples from history (the Mother Theresa story was a shocker, I must admit) and our contemporary world (for example, the most obvious one – the US president). What is empathy and how it helped us evolve is discussed in detail. The chapters on how to manage the psychopath in different spheres of our lives are fascinating – reading them could potentially save your life, or at least spare you a lot of unpleasantness.

If you are lucky, you will never encounter a psychopath in your life, but the chances are that you already have or will at some stage. It will frighten or perplex you, or both. And sometimes there will be a high price to pay. Taming Toxic People will make you re-examine your life and relationships. It will make many confusing situations – whether in the past or the present – seem suddenly clear. It might not be too late to do something about them. Gillespie is very confident that the “taming” is possible and the methods he proposes are doable, even if they sometimes mean completely walking away.

What I found most inspiring about Gillespie’s book is his solution to the broader issue of how our societal structures which have kept us safe in the past have been eroded and are letting us down. He proposes a way of living our private lives and directing our professional conduct in such a way that psychopaths cannot thrive among us. It is a path based on transparency and accountability, and orientated towards communal rather than individual goals. It is truly worth thinking about and aspiring to.

Taming Toxic People: The science of identifying and dealing with psychopaths at work or at home

by David Gillespie

Macmillan, 2017

Review first published in the Cape Times on 8 June 2018.

Review: Tsk-Tsk – The story of a child at large by Suzan Hackley

Susan Hackney. Photo.Ian CarbuttIt is painful to think and write about Suzan Hackney’s courageous memoir, Tsk-Tsk: The story of a child at large, around Mother’s Day when many of us celebrate our fabulous mothers or are cherished as such by our kids. The relationship between a child and a mother is not always one of joy, and Hackney’s story is mostly one of unimaginable heartbreak. She was given up for adoption as a baby by her biological parents. Still in the hospital, the moment she found herself in the arms of the woman who was to become her mother, she started screaming her lungs out. The scream was a foreboding. Her memoir reads like a reckoning with that primal anguish she experienced as an infant and the torment which followed. It is also a story of survival in the face of impossible odds, and of laying ghosts to rest.

“I was made in Coffee Bay. Right there on the beach, in the sand. To this day I despise coffee and adore the sea in equal measures”, Hackney begins her life story. Most of it will be characterised by the tension between loving and hating which she captures in these first few sentences. Her adoptive parents call her Susan – which she insists on changing to Suzan as an act of self-reclamation later on – and take her home to Pietermaritzburg, were everything is “extremely civilised here, and structured, organised, pristine, well-modulated, painfully polite and prim. This clashes somehow with my wild tantrums as it does with my poo-smearing pastime… Not even my dad is impressed with these early display of artistic genius and none of this is helping my mother’s nervous condition.”

What is described by the family as her mother’s “nervous condition” results in horrifying abuse. Instead of experiencing tenderness and care as a child, Suzan is constantly exposed to her mother’s rage. And from the moment she can, she fights back. Her father attempts to mitigate the torture, but one does not have to be a psychologist to understand how power dynamics in dysfunctional families go horribly wrong. Everyone suffers. The only stable source of kindness and love little Suzan experiences is her older brother Jonathan, who is also adopted. She smiles for the first time when she sees him: “Jonathan becomes my favourite person in the whole world and he happily takes on this role, as he does everything, in his caring, little boy’s stride.” But Jonathan is also only a child who is as much ensnared in the toxicity of the family relationships as everyone else involved, and there is only so much that can be endured. When their mother actually gives birth to a third child, the fault lines intensify.

Growing up, Suzan and her mother clash over everything: “Right from that first fateful encounter in the hospital, this mother and I are sworn enemies and no matter how hard I try to change it or how much I don’t want it to be like this between us, I’m incapable of doing anything about it. I love her with all my childish heart even though I am still small enough to fear her. Sometimes I also hate her.” The psychological and physical violence the little girl encounters is narrated in a seemingly casual and controlled way which makes it all the more shocking, and powerful. Cutting down to the bones of the story and revealing them in their most vulnerable nakedness, Hackney relates what happened but mostly refrains from commenting on the situation as an adult.

This is Hackney’s first book and, because of its intimate and deeply personal nature, probably the most difficult she will ever have to write on all kinds of levels if she pursues this career, and so the consummate skill she already shows in Tsk-Tsk is highly admirable.

Hackney continues her story until she is in her late teens. “I really am a dreadful child”, she writes about the internalised suffering, “I am defiant and cheeky, I speak way too loud, I shout at the slightest thing. I have wild and violent temper tantrums for apparently no reason at all and I can keep screaming for hours and hours… I’m smacked. I make fires, sometimes inside the house and sometimes in the garden.” At times, the book reads like a continuation of that screaming and setting things alight. The sorrow becomes otherwise too great to hold.

It gets worse; the accumulated misery persistently seeks a way out. As a thirteen year old Suzan is sent to a reformatory, the first of many, and eventually declared a ward of the state. A different kind of battle for survival begins for her. And it is not one she fights only on her own behalf; on her path, she encounters others she feels she needs to protect. And those who cannot be saved: “Kim also has to keep a suicide watch on Kerry 24/7. From very early childhood, Kerry’s father beat and raped her. When she was twelve, she fell pregnant and gave birth to a dying baby boy with no brain; Kerry’s intention is to kill herself, to be with her baby again.”

Suzan repeatedly runs away, living rough and getting involved with people who definitely do not have her best interests at heart. No matter where she turns, violence is lurking and pounces without mercy. The places where she is supposed to be kept safe turn out to be the most lethal. Hackney exposes how horribly the systems – our homes and the state – that are supposed to protect the most vulnerable members of society fail. There were moments when it was difficult for me to continue reading, and Hackney lived through it all.

Tsk-Tsk will make you seethe with anger, and it will make you cry. It is the kind of book that scars one’s soul, but should be read anyway. No child should be allowed to ever suffer like this.

Review first published in the Cape Times, 25 May 2018.

Review: When Time Runs Out by Elina Hirvonen

when-time-runs-outThe Finnish writer and documentary filmmaker, Elina Hirvonen, was one of the international guests attending the Open Book Festival last year in September. During the festival, she spoke about her novel, When I Forgot, originally published in Finnish in 2005. Two years later, it was translated into English and followed by Farthest from Death in 2010. Hirvonen’s third novel, When Time Runs Out (2015), was published to great critical acclaim in Finland. The English translation became available soon after Hirvonen’s visit in South Africa and is as relevant to our contemporary reality as it was at the time of its inception. Wherever we are in the world, news of mass shooting reach us on a regular basis and the intensely polarised opinions about the motivations, circumstances and the consequences of such actions continue to dominate global discussions.

Hirvonen’s fictional take on such horrendous acts is deeply insightful. The book was written and published in the aftermath of the Norwegian Anders Behring Breivik committing the horrific attacks in Oslo and on the island of Utøya in which 77 people died. There is a time-shifting reference to the event in the book: “Almost twenty years ago a Norwegian man killed dozens of young people on an island where they had gathered to talk about politics.” Hirvonen sets her story in Finland, in downtown Helsinki. Aslak, a young man, climbs to the roof of a building, aims his weapon at two unsuspecting women below, and fires: “They may be mother and daughter, he thinks, as he sets the rifle down for a moment, shaking his arms and taking a deep breath as if after a long dive. Then he raises the rifle again and takes aim at the woman, who is holding her hat as she runs for safety.” Within moments other passers-by become his victims.

It is one thing when you face an enemy you are aware of. Falling victim to a random act of violence is something none of us can guard against, which makes the possibility so much more frightening. Additionally to the loss of a loved one, the families and friends of mass shooting victims have to deal with this cruel unpredictability. And it is all around us: “In some extraordinary way we have grown used to killing. We have grown used to the feeling of insecurity caused by violence, to the grief which everyone wants to share, to the huddles of candles in the streets and in the school playgrounds, to the hearts and cloying ballads of social media which people try to share after such events. We have learned to deal with death and a daily insecurity, but not with the silence of a killer.”

Hirvonen’s When Time Runs Out looks at that silence and a different kind of suffering involved in such a situation – that of the family of the perpetrator: “When a quiet pupil comes to school with a weapon under his long coat and shoots ten of his classmates, everyone is supposed to think about the victim’s parents. How awful it would be to be one of them… You can talk about fear and anxiety to others because everyone recognises this. Parents who forget to breathe when reading such news because they know that the shooter could be their child bear their horror alone.”

When Time Runs Out is mainly told from the perspectives of Aslak’s mother, Laura, and his older sister, Aava. Their relationships with Aslak are complicated in diverse ways. Laura finds it extremely difficult to find a sense of connection to her son. Aava, who is a doctor working in conflict zones around the globe, has a closer relationship with her brother, but struggles to reach him when it matters the most. The family, including the father, battles to understand the troubled, impenetrable young man growing up among them.

When Time Runs Out is divided in five parts and each is preceded by a fascinating epigraph. The one which opens the novel comes from Susan Sontag’s seminal work, Regarding the Pain of Others: “Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers.” It pinpoints the nearly impossible task of the characters face, given the situation they find themselves in. With the fourth epigraph and what it stands for, Hirvonen adds a complex dimension not only to Aslak’s motives, but his mother’s vocation in the context of their story. The quote comes from a scientific paper by Craig A. Anderson and Matt Delisi: “However, no country will be immune to the violent consequences of global change.”

Laura works for an environmental organisation, specialising in climate politics. When Aslak is younger, he hears her lecture on the topic of climate change. It is a rare moment of sharing between them, but whereas Laura thrives on the passion for her vocation and her professional support of policy change, her son’s solution to the problem is driven by a sickening logic and inspired by a need to belong to something seemingly meaningful, no matter how cruel or misguided.

Hirvonen never excuses any of Aslak’s crimes, but offers us a credible story of what makes a person turn to absolutely senseless violence. What is most impressive about Hirvonen’s novel is that she does not let his family off the hook either. The author never lectures or points careless fingers. She makes the reader stare into the barrel of that rifle with which Aslak is about to shoot innocent people. She shows us what it means to stand there along with his helpless mother when the police come to tell her the news. We witness his sister trying to breathe through the night on the other side of the globe when she intuitively feels that something horrible is unfolding, but is paralysed by her brother’s last messages and the silence which follows.

Hirvonen’s storytelling is a fine act of balance between compassion, responsibility and blame. When Time Runs Out will make you reconsider your assumptions about this terrifying topic.

When Time Runs Out

by Elina Hirvonen

Manilla, 2017

Review first published in the Cape Times on 20 April 2018.

Review: The Wren Hunt by Mary Watson

The Wren Hunt“Not for the first time, I cursed my name… It was the only thing my mother had given me before she ran off with a man from God knows where when I was a few days old”, the narrator of Mary Watson’s The Wren Hunt tells us in the first pages of this beautifully crafted novel. Her name is Wren. The novel opens on Saint Stephen’s Day, or the Day of the Wren, as the public holiday is also known in Ireland. It takes place on 26 December and commemorates the Christian martyr who according to some legends was betrayed to his enemies by a wren. Other tales record an occasion when the presence of Irish soldiers was revealed to the Vikings by a wren on Saint Stephen’s Day, and until about a century ago, boys traditionally hunted wrens on that day, displaying the dead birds and collecting money for celebrations of the occasion. Today, live birds or model wrens still form part of the observance.

In Watson’s novel, which is set in modern-day Ireland and gloriously infused with the folklore and fables of the land, it is her protagonist Wren who is hunted by the boys in the woods around their village, Kilshamble: “In the village, they said that the woods weren’t friendly after sundown. They said bad things lurked in the forest, hidden behind the dank, fallen boughs. The good people of Kilshamble liked nothing more than blood and gore. We were fed gruesome stories with mother’s milk.” Wren does not believe in the stories, “except on those days when the light was violet and the wind blew wild and the forest and fields felt restless.” And she is connected to them in mysterious ways. She is no ordinary girl and knows that the game the boys execute with the hunt is no ordinary play. Wren is a member of one of the ancient draoithe clans of the augurs and the boys belong to the judges – the two “would never be friends”. Caught in the clutches of David, the leader of the hunt, and his evil-meaning accomplices, Wren decides that enough is enough. She feels humiliated and frustrated when David cuts a lock of her hair; she is afraid “what dark magic he might do” with it.

Wren, David and their clans live in a world where magic rules all manner of engagement. After her mother abandons her, Wren is brought up by Smith and Maeve, her remaining family. It is Maeve who “had shown me the old ways, the secret traditions passed down through the generations. Some of them so old they came from the time when draoithe were one, with no division, no hostility. A time when we worked together as the prophets, poets, arbiters and advisers to kings.” But the time of unity is long over and the augurs and the judges are entwined in a battle for control and power.

When Wren’s family hatches a plan to strengthen their weakening position against the judges, Wren begins working as an intern for the Harkness Foundation and Calista Harkness, the owner of the Lucas Archive which contains a precious map of the mystical Daragishka Knot stones: “The stones are our only hope. If we don’t get them, it’s the beginning of the end of us. It happened to the bards, don’t think it won’t happen to us.” Secretly, Wren hopes that her search will also lead her to her lost mother.

As she is still waiting for her talent to reveal itself fully, Wren is flooded by visions and dreams which are difficult to decipher. She sees patterns in random things. It is not impossible that she might be able to see the future, but she is very much aware that the ability might come at a high price, since “pretty much everyone who’d had this talent ended up losing their minds”.

A chance encounter with a stranger at a coffee shop threatens to upturn Wren’s life in a way known to many of us, whether we believe in the magic of this world or not: she loses her heart to a boy with “marble eyes”: “Glancing up, I noticed his eyes. They were deep sludge. Murky eyes that might have been blue but were darkened to grey. Eyes like the sky on a rainy day.” The boy also has a tattoo that Wren recognises from one of her dark visions. She knows it is a warning, perhaps even a warning to back away from her family’s plan, but nothing is certain. And when she realises that the boy she has just met belongs (as has been the case for most great love stories of all times) to the enemy’s camp, she enters a treacherous world of confusion and secrets where she no longer knows whom to trust and whose ideals to follow. Gradually, the signs and her heart begin to point in an entirely different direction to the one initially set out for her by her family.

Watson, who is South African but lives in Ireland, is a highly acclaimed writer of short stories; her “Jungfrau” from the remarkable collection Moss won the prestigious Caine Prize in 2006. She is also the author of a haunting novel, The Cutting Room (2013). The Wren Hunt is her first book for young adults and will form part of a series. Watson’s exquisitely evocative prose and her penchant for distinct stories have been the main features of her oeuvre up to date. The Wren Hunt – with its lyrical, mythical storytelling – is a magical treat and an exceptional addition to the genre. It is a long time since a novel of this kind stole my own literary heart. Its supernatural elements are woven into the quotidian reality in ways that will make you see the world in a different light and awaken a longing for magic and the guiding, restorative power of love.

The Wren Hunt

by Mary Watson

Bloomsbury, 2018

Review first published in the Cape Times, 6 April 2018.