Category Archives: What I’ve Written

Review: South African Writing in Transition, edited by Rita Barnard and Andrew van der Vlies

South African Writing in TransitionIt has been a while since I’ve read, edited or contributed to an anthology of theoretical essays on South African literature. But, occasionally, I still have academic longings; therefore, I approached South African Writing in Transition, edited by Rita Barnard and Andrew van der Vlies, with great anticipation, and found the collection most engrossing. The individual contributions focus on a fascinating and relevant selection of primary sources, mostly novels and short stories, reaching as far back as Sol Plaatje’s Mhudi (1930) and incorporating contemporary texts into the diverse readings of the South African literary canon. The work of other South African literary greats – Njabulo S Ndebele, Zakes Mda, Mongane Wally Serote, Nadine Gordimer, Marlene van Niekerk and Ivan Vladislavić among them – is discussed along with an array of new, equally exciting voices, exposing striking continuities and departures.

By its very nature, theoretical writing takes time to compose and publish. South African Writing in Transition is the result of several international conferences which took place between 2012 and 2017 in South Africa and overseas. Most contributors are not based locally, which perhaps limits the scope of the inquiry as a whole, but the collection testifies to South African literature’s continuous appeal to international scholars. Also, the anthology’s topics are pertinent to our present in highly productive and sometimes uncanny ways. As Barnard writes in the introduction to the book: “[I]t is now time to consider the many loops and twists, the stasis and acceleration, the paralysis and hope of postapartheid experience.” We find ourselves in an unprecedented global reality in which the interest in world literature, its contributions and theories, will become more significant than ever, and understanding the South African experience, past and present, socio-historical and literary, as part of it could be of notable value.

Continue reading: LitNet

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

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

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

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

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

Ken Follett

Macmillan, 2019

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

Review: The Book of Gifts by Craig Higginson

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

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

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

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

The Book of Gifts

Craig Higginson

Picador Africa, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

To the Volcano, and Other Stories

Elleke Boehmer

Myriad Editions, 2019

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

Review: Adamastor City by Jaco Adriaanse

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

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

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

The Metronome: Adamastor City

Jaco Adriaanse

Burnt Toast Books

2020

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

Review: Letters Home by Jolyon Nuttall

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

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

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

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

Letters Home

Jolyon Nuttall

Staging Post, 2019

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

Review: Missing Person by Sarah Lotz

Missing PersonMissing Person, the latest thriller from the author of The Three, Day Four and The White Road, Sarah Lotz, was my companion on a recent overseas flight and kept me so entertained that I hardly noticed the long hours flying by.

Lotz is one of those versatile storytellers whose imagination knows no bounds. She addresses themes that are topical, but is never predictable or didactic and is not afraid to push the boundaries of genres. Despite part one opening “in a cemetery on a damp October evening”, unlike her previous three novels, Missing Person does not include the supernatural. Instead, it ventures into a space that is just as inscrutable: the internet.

An online platform specialising in identifying victims of unresolved crimes in the States goes on a mission to find the person behind the corpse knows as the Boy in the Dress, suspected to be Teddy Ryan. Unbeknownst to them, the group of hobby detectives involved are joined in their search by the killer responsible for the young man’s death. They are also assisted by Teddy’s nephew, Shaun, who’d been made to believe by his family that his uncle had died in a car accident years ago in Ireland. Determined to understand what led to Teddy’s demise, Shaun travels from Wales to the States and meets with the amateur sleuths of Missing-linc.com, none of them suspecting that he might be on direct collision course with his uncle’s murderer and that a single wrong gesture can have lethal consequences.

“If he doesn’t approach me, I’ll leave him alone”, the killer remembers first seeing his victim at a bar. The young man approached, sealing his fate. But was he the only one? Is this crime connected to another unsolved case?

The attempt to piece together the puzzle of Teddy’s mysterious disappearance is a way for Shaun of trying to cope with his life after the loss of his mother to cancer. His relationship with the rest of the family is strained. The affair he is having with a married man is burdened by too many lies. It’s hard to trust others when so much of your experience is steeped in deceit. Shaun likes his work at a bookshop, but questions whether there isn’t more to life than that.

Lotz’s other characters – the cyber detectives with their own fascinating stories and motives as well as the people in Shaun’s everyday life – are movingly drawn, believable and thus highly relatable. The murderer’s back story and his present life are chilling in their calculated simplicity. Missing Person is well-paced and, even though you know from almost the start who the killer is, the novel has great twist and turns that I did not see coming. Dialogue is another aspect of the book that Lotz does extremely well. No wonder that the thriller comes with endorsements from the master himself, Stephen King, and our own queen of the genre, Lauren Beukes.

Missing Person

Sarah Lotz

Hodder & Stoughton, 2019

Review first published in the Cape Times, 28 February 2020.

Jewish Literary Festival 2020

12 March 2020: PLEASE NOTE THAT THIS EVENT HAS BEEN POSTPONED DUE TO CONCERNS ABOUT THE SPREAD OF COVID-19.

JLF 2020

This is the third edition of the bi-annual Jewish Literary Festival, a one-day event for lovers of literature and Jewish life. It takes place at Cape Town’s Gardens Community Centre, home to the iconic Jacob Gitlin Library, SA Jewish Museum and Cape Town Holocaust Centre. Between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. on Sunday, 15 March 2020, readers can engage with more than 70 wordsmiths, poets, journalists, filmmakers and educators over more than 40 sessions. The presenters all have some Jewish connection, are engaged with subjects of Jewish interest or have a way with words and, with multiple sessions running simultaneously throughout the day, the organisers offer genres that cover fiction, sport, food, memoir, politics, journalism, the arts and more – a wide choice to suit all tastes. It is a literary feast of note. Don’t miss it! Tickets sell out quickly, so do not hesitate to book yours here: Quicket.

I wrote about the first JLF for LitNet. During the second JLF, I had the pleasure of interviewing one of my favourite authors, Lyndall Gordon. Both times, I loved the atmosphere of the event so much that I am delighted I can be part of the third edition of the festival.

I am chairing two sessions:

10:00AM, ISRAEL ABRAHAMS 2

Writing Jewish characters — when you’re not Jewish: Where angels fear to tread…
Helen Moffett, Qarnita Loxton and Dawn Garisch talk to Karina Szczurek.

12:10PM, OLD SHUL

“Feverish: A memoir”: Author Gigi Fenster had an unusual proposal for a PhD — she would induce a fever in herself in an effort to experience fevered dreams. The result inspired her second book, Feverish, which she discusses with fellow author Karina Szczurek.

This memoir is a fascinating discovery and I am infinitely grateful to the JLF organisers for asking me to interview Gigi Fenster at the festival. I can’t wait to meet her in person and to talk to her about memoir writing, creativity, migration and all other feverish endeavours that drive and inspire us.

For the rest, I will be attending other events throughout the day. One is spoiled for choice at the JLF. The programme is a basket of literary treats. Get your ticket and enjoy! See you there…

JLF_programme_2020

Review: Stillicide by Cynan Jones

StillicideIn his writing, Cynan Jones showcases the full potential of the short forms of prose – the novella and the short story. I have been a fan for years. The economy of his prose and the uncanny insight he offers into the human condition are a rare gift. Stillicide, his latest book, is a collection of short fictions which originated as a BBC Radio 4 series. The pieces are interlinked and centre around the theme of water, as the title suggests. “Stillicide” is defined as “a continual dropping of water” or “a right or duty relating to the collection of water from or onto adjacent land.”

Highly topical not only for drought-stricken South Africa, but globally, the stories of Stillicide are set in an imagined, but not too-distant future where water is a highly priced commodity. The cityscape is familiar as the Thames still runs through it, but the iceberg transports to the city signal a new threatening reality. The characters of Stillicide attempt to carve out a meaningful existence in this hostile world.

A man with nothing left to lose is tasked with the security of the titular “water train” of the opening story. A neglected woman discovers hope within herself and nature. Two boys walk through a desolate landscape with a dog. An elderly couple are about to lose their house to rising sea levels, but they remain like limpets, “they barely move more than half a metre from their home scar all their lives”. The discovery of a rare insect has the potential to stop a development that half a million people are marching against with little hope. “The belligerent will of a thing to exist”, the need for a voice to be kept alive cannot be underestimated. Both find refuge in the stunning stories of Stillicide.

Stillicide

Cynan Jones

Granta, 2019

Review first published in the Cape Times on 24 January 2020.

Review: The Gospel According to Lazarus by Richard Zimler

The Gospel According to LazarusIn his novels, Richard Zimler, who is best known for The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, has been chronicling Jewish history throughout the ages and from all corners of the world for many years. His latest offering is an unusual, deeply touching retelling of the gospel. At its centre, Zimler places Lazarus and allows him to tell the story in a long letter to his grandson: “Picture me endeavouring to tell you matters that will never be able to fit easily or comfortably on a roll of papyrus.”

Lazarus, a widower and a father of two, lives with his sisters and is a tile maker commissioned to design symbolic mosaics for affluent citizens of Galilee. He is friends with the man whom most readers will know as Jesus of Nazareth. It is this relationship that leads Lazarus into danger and tests his faith as well as the people closest to him.

The Gospel According to Lazarus goes back and forth in time, but focuses on the days following Lazarus’s return from the dead. Zimler’s daring recreation of this tale from Lazarus’s perspective is a truly remarkable feat of the imagination and of empathy. The experience is described with sublime sensitivity, as is the unshakable friendship that binds the two main characters of the story. “I have found that most men and women huddle behind their own heartwalls and only rarely peek outside. We spend thirty, forty, fifty years or more not seeing one another”, Lazarus tells his grandson. “But he looked and saw.”

Whether we are believers or not, through Zimler’s fearless storytelling, we are reminded that there are “profound and hidden things in our world” and that fiction, not unlike faith, can bring us closer to understanding our own humanity and the stories that have sustained it for millennia.

The Gospel According to Lazarus

Richard Zimler

Peter Owen Publishers, 2019

Review first published in the Cape Times on 24 January 2020.