Category Archives: What I’ve Read

Review: Experiments with Truth – Narrative Non-fiction and the Coming of Democracy in South Africa by Hedley Twidle

Experiments with TruthA seminal step in the right direction

Hedley Twidle’s new book is an academic but highly readable reflection on modern SA that eschews jargon

Nonfiction sells. It’s a well-known fact. No wonder; the need to have our complex, shifting, and often absurd reality “puzzled out” is enormous. It’s impossible to remain unaffected. We also want to understand the past and where we are heading in these times of growing unpredictability. In SA, apart from being a sanity-preserving mechanism, nonfiction literature contributes to the nation-building project. Just think Khwezi by Redi Tlhabi or The President’s Keepers by Jacques Pauw. Texts like these are, says Hedley Twidle, linked by “a sense of narrative and intellectual pressure, a communicative passion or compulsion to make sense of a fractured country” …

Continue reading: Sunday Times

Experiments with Truth: Narrative Non-fiction and the Coming of Democracy in South Africa

by Hedley Twidle

James Currey, 2019

Review: Lacuna by Fiona Snyckers

You are concerned for my sake, which I appreciate,Lacuna

you think you understand, but finally you don’t. Because you can’t. 

— Lucy Lurie in JM Coetzee’s Disgrace

 

Reluctance. That is what I felt approaching Fiona Snyckers’s latest novel, Lacuna. Only after the third attempt did I manage to get beyond the second sentence of the first chapter: “My vagina is a lacuna that my attackers filled with their penises.” I eventually continued when asked to review the novel. And boy, am I glad that I did!

Lacuna is the story of Lucy Lurie, a fictional woman who shares a name with one of the main characters in Disgrace (published exactly two decades ago in 1999). It is a feminist “reply”, for want of a better word, to JM Coetzee’s most famous — or infamous (depending on one’s reading) — novel.

Why my reluctance to read Lacuna? It’s complicated. But let me try to explain…

Continue reading: LitNet

Review: The Dragon Lady by Louisa Treger

The Dragon LadySouth African-born Louisa Treger used to work as a classical violinist before she turned to literature, first gaining a PhD in English at University College London and then trying her hand at creative writing. Her academic research focused on early 20th-century women writing and eventually resulted in her first novel, The Lodger, which told the story of Dorothy Richardson, a British author and journalist who was one of the earliest modernist novelists and, in her heyday, was considered among the greats of the era, but was subsequently neglected by readers and critics alike.

Remaining within the realm of the historical novel, Treger went on to write her latest offering, The Dragon Lady. Blending fact and fiction, the novel chronicles the remarkable life of Lady Virginia Courtauld, or Ginie, most famous for her – at the time considered outrageous – tattoo of a dragon on her leg.

The novel opens with the shooting of its protagonist on La Rochelle, the Courtaulds’ Rhodesian estate, in the 1950s: “At that instant, a loud noise splintered the air… Her body tensed and convulsed, her limbs sprawled gracelessly, blood spilled onto the ground. For a few moments, there was an unearthly stillness.”

Narrated from various perspectives, The Dragon Lady takes us back and forth in time and place to record the events and achievements in Ginie’s extraordinary life story. Unconventional, daring and visionary, Ginie was a woman way ahead of her time. We follow her life from Italy at the beginning of the previous century, via England and Scotland of the 20s to 40s, to Rhodesia at a time of great social and political upheavals. It might be Treger’s musical training that allows her to capture all these setting in a language that is so evocative, it enables readers to experience them as if they had been there themselves. And because some of the places the Courtaulds built or restored in their time still exist today, you might find yourself longing to visit their Eltham Palace in south-east London or La Rochelle in the Imbeza Valley in present-day Zimbabwe.

Lady Virginia Courtauld fascinates in her own right. She was a divorcée and a foreigner when she met and married Sir Stephen Lewis Courtauld, upsetting London society’s ‘delicate’ sensitivities. When they relocated to Africa, Ginie’s and her husband’s progressive views did not endear them to their white neighbours, dead-set on maintaining their privilege in a segregated society.

Treger depicts the vast socio-historical changes taking place at the centre of Ginie’s life with exceptional skill, weaving them into the intimate love story of the Courtauld couple. Throughout the narrative, she also keeps us guessing as to the origins of the mysterious dragon tattoo and the identity of the person who fired the gun at the beginning of the story. Immaculately researched and told with passion, The Dragon Lady enchants and intrigues long after the last page has been turned.

The Dragon Lady

by Louisa Treger

Bloomsbury Caravel, 2019

An edited version of this review was published in the Cape Times on 28 June 2019.

Review: Like Family – Domestic Workers in South African History and Literature by Ena Jansen

Like FamilyThe relationship between domestic workers and their employers in South Africa has a complex and deeply troubled history. Yet, it lies at the heart of many local homes, whichever side of this relationship you find yourself on: as job creator or taker. The connection between the two defines everyday life for millions of South Africans. For foreigners, it is often unfathomable. Thus, I found Ena Jansen’s study of the subject, Like Family: Domestic Workers in South African History and Literature, extremely illuminating.

Having grown up in a Polish working-class family, I was taught to do all domestic work myself. Also, there was a time in my life when I cleaned other people’s houses to make money, but the transactions with my employers – cash for services rendered – did not involve much socio-historical baggage. Despite, or maybe because of, these experiences, after first moving to Cape Town, I found it incredibly difficult to adjust to having staff in the home I shared for a decade with my late husband. I now live alone and have returned to taking care of my home and garden on my own, finding it easier to negotiate. But I understand that my situation is exceptional within the context of South African history; I only know one other middle-class household where a domestic worker is not employed to clean up after the family.

My personal recollections and observations might seem irrelevant as such, but they point to the greatest achievement of Jansen’s book: no matter what else, Like Family will make you re-examine your position in this historically fraught set-up. Jansen herself recalls the women who took care of her and her family throughout their lives and invites her readers to reflect on their own situations through the prisms of South African history and literature.

First published in Afrikaans in 2015, Like Family has been updated and now includes references to more recent publications. By tracing the relationship between families and the people they either forced or employed to do their domestic work from mid-17th century to the present, Jansen unearths the origins of what the narrator of Barbara Fölscher’s short story “Kinders grootmaak is nie pap en melk nie” (Raising children is not simply a matter of porridge and milk, 2002) calls “a wound in my house”. It is a striking image, and most apt to illustrate the dynamics of violence, uncertainty and suffering that characterise the relationship and its background.

Rooted in slavery, the ties between domestic workers and their employers have undergone many changes in South Africa and resulted in a “peculiar, often contradictory form of duty and dependence”. Jansen sees the relationship as defining in comprehending race, class and gender relations in South Africa. Like Family is not a comfortable read, but its insights have the potential to change lives.

Like Family: Domestic Workers in South African History and Literature

Ena Jansen

Wits UP, 2019

Review first published in the Cape Times on 21 June 2019.

Review: Zikr by Saaleha Idrees Bamjee

saaleha-idrees-bamjee-zikrZikr is the debut poetry collection of the writer and photographer Saaleha Idrees Bamjee. Once opened, it is not a book you will want to close again easily, unless for a moment of silence to contemplate the beauty of what you have just read before you return eagerly for more.

In interviews, Bamjee talks about how the poems grew out of a deep sense of longing and loss, most poignantly expressed in poems like After a Miscarriage, or My World Today with the opening sentence “No babies yet”, or We Are Building Your House which ends with the lines “I have cleared a space in my mind, child / in my waking hours, and in my heart. / We are framing your memories, and waiting.”

Infertility, death, devotion and what it means to be an independent woman in a world of traditions are the major themes of this delicately woven volume. Its fabric is durable enough to hold the heaviest of struggles. One of my favourite pieces in Zikr is the prose poem Women on Beaches which includes the lines “The first bathing suit was a wooden house wheeled into the sea. They used to sew weights into hemlines. Drowning was a kind of modesty.”

The title of the book refers to “the remembrance of God” and some of the most powerful poems in the collection capture moments of exquisite spirituality: “My hands / are not big enough / to grasp prayer, / my tongue not loose enough / to utter them” (I, the Divine).

With Zikr, Bamjee establishes herself as a poet of grace, allowing readers to find solace and strength in her words: “I won’t pack sand around your heart. I will fill your mouth with zephyrs. / I will leave a bomb in your hand and quietly close the door.”

Zikr

by Saaleha Idrees Bamjee

uHlanga, 2018

Review first published in the Cape Times on 14 June 2019.

Saaleha Idrees Bamjee with Nick Mulgrew

Saaleha Idrees Bamjee with her publisher Nick Mulgrew at EB Cavendish

Review: London Undercurrents – The Hidden Histories of London’s Unsung Heroines, North and South of The River by Joolz Sparkes and Hilaire

London UndercurrentsThe Thames runs through it. North and south of the famous river lie the “hidden histories” of mostly forgotten women. London Undercurrents brings them vividly back into our literary consciousness in this remarkable collection, written and compiled by two of the city’s female poets. Joolz Sparkes and Hilaire researched the past of these two geographical spaces located around the natural aquatic divide and retrieved from its archives the voices of women who have occupied them throughout the ages: “Woke up to find / I’d lived here half my life. / Felt the pull of community. / Began to dig. Began to sow.”

From Catherine Boucher, who upon marrying William Blake learned “to sign my own proud name”, or a young pupil who remembers being taught by Mary Wollstonecraft – “this woman who drove us towards / betterment in spite of ourselves” at the end of the 18th century – to a mother whose heart “still leaps / when police sirens call” and she remembers her son, a victim of gang violence in the 1960s, the poems in London Undercurrents capture the lives of women from diverse backgrounds, all sharing a city away from its usual spotlights.

Reading, we witness a street seller enticing passers-by to buy her cheese in 1575, discover what it must have been like for a fourteen-year-old to become an apprentice laundress in the 1890s, or we march along concert goers on their way to see the Sex Pistols in 1977 and are told to “take a good look”: “We’re pretty in black, / mother, daughter, sister, Punk.” What emerges through these evocative and accessible poems is a unique urban chronicle that is a joy to engage with.

London Undercurrents: The Hidden Histories of London’s Unsung Heroines, North and South of The River

by Joolz Sparkes and Hilaire

Holland Park Press, 2019

Review first appeared in the Cape Times on 7 June 2019.

Review: The Messiah’s Dream Machine by Jennifer Friedman

The-Messiah's-Dream-MachineFollowing her critically acclaimed debut memoir, Queen of the Free State, Jennifer Friedman returns with a sequel that takes us back to the moment when she was leaving the Free State for boarding school and continues her story into adulthood. The Messiah’s Dream Machine is spread over many more years and settings than the first book, and thus is perhaps more disjointed in its retelling of anecdotes from the chronicles of Friedman’s rather eccentric family. However, like its literary sibling, it focuses not only on a life full of adventure and discovery, but also on the darker sides of adolescence and of growing into the often unexpected roles fate has in store for us.

After recording the trials and tribulations of boarding school in Cape Town, Friedman depicts her married life in Johannesburg and her family’s emigration, first to Israel and eventually to Australia, where she still lives and traverses the skies in her Grumman Tiger plane. But no matter how far she goes, the Free State continues calling her back to the places “transformed beyond recognition, and the ghosts who’ve drifted unchallenged through the years”, and it is Friedman’s narrative that, like amber, encloses these stories into time capsules which will endure in the imaginations of her readers.

“Never is a long, long time … I’ll never send you away, said Ma. I’ll never leave you, Al says now,” Friedman writes and shares with us how to survive broken promises. With her vivid prose and a knack for dialogue, she delivers an array of odd characters that many of us will recognise from our own circles of family and friends. The Messiah’s Dream Machine also features disgusting meatballs, bloody springbok hunts, mice plagues, floods, a tornado, a few funerals and a wedding. “Nostalgia with teeth”, according to Mike Nicol.

The Messiah’s Dream Machine

by Jennifer Friedman

Tafelberg, 2019

Review first appeared in the Cape Times on 12 April 2019.

Review: Placeless People – Writing, Rights, and Refugees by Lyndsey Stonebridge

btrThroughout the ages, humans have been migrating across the globe; it is ingrained in our nature. Depending on time, place, and reason, these individual or mass movements of people have been welcomed or deplored by others. But being a refugee has never been easy. When you are forced to leave your home country and seek refuge elsewhere, whatever initiated the journey is usually only half of the ordeal you are facing – the uncertainty on the other side can be as daunting, if not more so.

Timely, succinct, and deeply moving, Lyndsey Stonebridge’s Placeless People: Writing, Rights, and Refugees throws a light on a topic that is constantly in the news and, whether we like it or not, often on our doorsteps.

Having spent quite some time in refugee camps as a child, I am aware far too intimately what it means not to have a country to belong to and a people to call your own. I thought that I knew what there was to be known about this topic, but Stonebridge’s research and take on placelessness and its consequences on the lives of millions of people scattered around the world today exposed my own ignorance and made me reconsider many long-standing beliefs.

The crisis we are confronting in the twenty-first century is, as Stonebridge shows, “in reality not a refugee crisis, but a crisis of moral and political citizenship”. Going back in time and examining creative responses to placelessness, as well as the legal and socio-historical frameworks which shaped the concept, Stonebridge delivers an unsettling account of who we are.

Placeless People is a powerful call to arms against “today’s toxic mess of bile bureaucracy, bad faith politics, and ethno-nationalist posturing.” It is an invitation to rethink what it means to be human in today’s shifting landscapes of uncertainty.

Placeless People: Writing, Rights, and Refugees

by Lyndsey Stonebridge

Oxford UP, 2018

Review first published in the Cape Times on 29 March 2019.

Review: Secret Keeper by Kerry Hammerton

Secret KeeperSecret Keeper
Kerry Hammerton
Modjaji, 2018

To read the entire review, click here: LitNet

[…]

The keeper of the titular poem tends to secrets as others tend to bees. Like the insects, the secrets always return, “hairy bodies crammed into my mouth” wanting to escape (“The secret keeper”).

The last part of this captivating book, not unlike life itself, consists of poems of loss and grief. Here, too, there is a before and after, and once again it is impossible to imagine how “to get to the other side” (“This year”) when a loved one, the father, dies. The mourning child states: “I am better at my other life,/ where no-one is dead,/ where sadness doesn’t press/ its cold weight into my sternum/ creep along my clavicle, breathe into my spine” (“My other life”).

In Secret keeper, Hammerton manages to capture the essentials of most adult lives – love, loss, loneliness, anxiety, ageing and death – and leaves us pondering our own mortality, and that deep longing not to feel our insignificance “at night” when we are all alone under the “black sky, stars,/ the milky way”.

[…]

To read the entire review, click here: LitNet

Book launch: The Messiah’s Dream Machine by Jennifer Friedman

Messiah-invitation-Book-Lounge

Jennifer Friedman was born and raised in the Orange Free State in South Africa. She studied at the University of Cape Town, and her Afrikaans poetry has been published in various academic journals such as Tydskrif vir LetterkundeWetenskap en KunsStandpunte and Buurman, as well as Rooi Rose. She emigrated with her husband and children in 1992 to Sydney, Australia, where she got her pilot’s licence. After her husband’s death in 1997, Friedman bought her own Grumman Tiger plane and she flies to the small outback towns and stations around Australia, often just for a lunch date and wherever the sun is shining. She now lives on the Central Coast of New South Wales with her partner.

Queen_of_the_Free_State The-Messiah's-Dream-Machine

The Messiah’s Dream Machine is Friedman’s second memoir, after Queen of the Free State (2017).

On 4 April 2019, I will be in conversation with the author at the launch of this wonderful book. I look forward to seeing you all at the Book Lounge!