Review: Joe Country by Mick Herron

Joe CountryThere aren’t really many among the cast of characters in Mick Herron’s Jackson Lamb spy thriller series that you would want as a friend. On the whole, they are a bunch of losers. It’s almost always certain that they’ll either let themselves or their colleagues down. Yet, you can’t help but follow their (mis)fortunes with feverish anticipation.

Judging by Herron’s previous books, he has never been reluctant to kill off one of Lamb’s slow horses, as the Regent Park’s spy rejects are called. So when it says on the cover of Herron’s latest that “they’re heading into joe country” but “they’re not all coming home”, and the first chapter ends with two people being dead and Slough House needing “some new slow horses”, you suddenly begin picking favourites and calculating who you could bear to lose as a character. And so, it was with a sense of heavy foreboding that I started reading Joe Country. Until the very end the tension was nerve-wracking.

“Lamb had been given Slough House, and had been squatting here since, a grim overlord to the Service’s washouts”. The latest addition to his stable is Lech Wicinski. Officially, he has committed an unforgivable crime, and since he can’t prove otherwise, his life turns to hell. Meanwhile, the wife of one of the previously killed slow horses reaches out to Louisa Guy for help in finding her missing adolescent son. What at first looks like a straightforward runaway tale turns sinister when an old enemy shows up and once again threatens to spill slow horse blood.

With his wicked humour and masterful suspense build-up, Herron has once again given us an irresistible thriller. Just when you think he can’t get better, he does and makes you care about his Slough House misfits more than you ever bargained for.

Joe Country

by Mick Herron

John Murray, 2019

Review first appeared in the Cape Times on 26 July 2019.

Review: The Troubled Times of Magrieta Prinsloo by Ingrid Winterbach

The Troubled Times of Magrieta PrinslooOpening an Ingrid Winterbach novel fills me with excitement every single time. She is one of my favourite contemporary Afrikaans writers and I am immensely grateful that her work is available in English.

Expect the unexpected is the slogan that runs through my head whenever I am reading Winterbach’s exhilarating and wise narratives. The latest, The Troubled Times of Magrieta Prinsloo, was no exception. From the first page to the very end, the novel astounds. How about this for an opening sentence: “Magrieta Prinsloo, daughter of the biology teacher, tall, firm of calf and buttock, dark hair, right eye inclined to wander slightly outwards when she’s overworked, doctor of zoology, head of laboratory with twelve people under her, in early January, after a run-up of several months, gradually grinds to a halt.” Who could possibly resist reading on?

Magrieta is in trouble. Whether it is her depression or the wrong medication prescribed by her doctor or the unease she is feeling in her marriage, it all becomes too much to bear and, one day, after a spectacular blow-up with her boss, she quits her job at the university. There is no ready excuse and there doesn’t seem to be a way back for her, so she begins working for the Bureau for Continuing Education. Her new boss is peculiar, to say the least, and runs the bureau like “an espionage outfit”, assigning more and more work to his associates while solving Sudoku games all day long in his office. Eventually, he disappears mysteriously, and Magrieta and her colleague Isabel have to pick up the pieces at the bureau.

A man is murdered on a beach at Jameson Bay where Magrieta saw a beached humpback whale. On one of her walks, she encounters a woman who has pitched up a tent in the vineyards behind Magrieta’s house in Stellenbosch. She has no idea what any of this means, but she continues with her work and, after a bad spell in the relationship, Magrieta realises that she does not want to lose her husband. In several public toilets she finds strange whale graffiti drawings that she interprets to be signs left behind for her to find, but why? “You’re lucky…that the universe communicates with you like this behind toilet doors”, Isabel tells her.

Then, one day, while she is searching for clues of her boss’s whereabouts, Magrieta sees a baleen whale leap out of the sea and is transformed by the experience.

Winterbach has a knack for creating the most unusual characters and inventing odd loops for them to jump through, and yet it all seems uncannily familiar in the end. It is impossible not to care for them and not to keep on reading.

A novel about change and the essentials that make our lives fulfilling, The Troubled Times of Magrieta Prinsloo reads beautifully in Michiel Heyns’s translation.

The Troubled Times of Magrieta Prinsloo

by Ingrid Winterbach

translated by Michiel Heyns

Human & Rousseau, 2019

An edited version of this review was published in the Cape Times on 26 July 2019.

Review: The Drop by Mick Herron

The DropThe sixth Jackson Lamb thriller, Joe Country by Mick Herron, is hitting our bookshelves. The Drop is a novella in the series that only a few months ago introduced a new character into the cast of Regent Park’s drop-outs whiling away the time as “slow horses” in Slough House, where Jackson Lamb rules supreme. Whereas most of them arrive on Lamb’s doorstep after a major screw up in the field, the new addition ends up in the dubious care of the obnoxious Cold War spy through a set of weird coincidences. His fate is sealed after Solomon Dortmund, an old spook, observes an envelope changing hands in a way that stirs all the retired spy’s hard-wired intuitions into action.

“A drop, in spook parlance, is the passing on of secret information. It’s also what happens just before you hit the ground”, the novella’s blurb tells us. What it does not give away is that sometimes it is information which is planted without your awareness that can have the direst consequences for your future. Slough House is a dead end for most.

Before you turn to Joe Country, treat yourself to The Drop, a slim gem that you can devour in one sitting. Herron is the best thing to happen to the spy thriller genre since Graham Greene. Each book in the series can be read independently, but once you start on any of them, you will want to read them all. Characters, plots, crisp writing and especially the humour are irresistible; I’m totally hooked.

The Drop

by Mick Herron

John Murray, 2018

Review first appeared in the Cape Times on 19 July 2019.

Review: Talk of the Town by Fred Khumalo

Talk-of-the-Town“Now, there are storytellers, and there are Storytellers”, the narrator of Water No Get Enemy, one of Fred Khumalo’s stories collected in Talk of the Town, tells us about Guz-Magesh, a larger than life character who features in two of the pieces: “His well of tales is bottomless.” He has that in common with his creator. Khumalo is the author of four novels. His short stories have been considered for prestigious awards and featured in several magazines and anthologies. Talk of the Town is his debut collection.

The titular story of the volume is told from the perspective of a child who witnesses how his enterprising and hard-working mother sets their family apart by not having the furniture she buys repossessed by creditors. When her luck changes, the mother relies on her unsuspecting children to protect her from the fate of most of their neighbours.

Khumalo’s range of settings and characters is versatile. He moves between the apartheid past to the present, and between several countries. Water Get No Enemy and The Invisibles are set in present-day Yeoville, but the former moves back in time to the Liberation Army camps in Angola.

The stories of This Bus Is Not Full! and Learning to Love take place in the US, where two South African men end up living, but not entirely fitting in. The longest story in the collection is set in neighbouring Zimbabwe and has the feel of an abandoned novel in the making.

Reading Khumalo’s stories, one’s imagination and sense of political correctness can be both challenged to their limits, and it is to his credit that he can make us curious and care about even the least likable characters. At the same time, his stories can be poignant and excruciatingly funny. That is what keeps one returning for more.

Talk of the Town

by Fred Khumalo

Kwela, 2019

Review first published in the Cape Times on 19 July 2019.

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.