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.


IMG_4363Oudrif. Oudrif. Oudrif. A spell. A promise. We kept repeating the word to each other with longing, desperate to get away from the perils of our everyday. Our cosy straw bale cottage in Oudrif was waiting at the end of a longwinded dirt road leading to the banks of the now silent Doring River. The drought has taken its toll despite the fact that we arrived just after unusually heavy rainfalls. Leopards and aardvarks still roam in this landscape and the veld smells of earth and honey and quiet content. The light is kind here, the peace absolute. No cell phone reception, no worries. Our hosts, Jeanine and Bill, welcomed us with cider, beer and smiles. And stories. Their knowledge about the area is spectacular. Their environmental consciousness something to aspire to. And their love for animals is heart-warming. They are fantastic hosts and chefs, infusing every dish with creativity and generosity.

IMG_4360Oudrif. Oudrif. Oudrif. In Polish, we speak of such secluded spots as the places where the Devil says good night. But Oudrif is paradise on earth, day and night. Solar-powered angel lights guide you through the darkness before the stars light up the night. The place is totally independent of the municipal electricity and water grids. Any negative environmental impact is kept to a minimum.

Every day after breakfast, there is the possibility of a walk. Whether to see the rock art recorded in this landscape, or the Chandelier Lily in full bloom, or a flock of Speckled Mousebirds, the hikes restore one’s soul to oneself. (The ginormous scorpion which crossed my path – my first ever encounter – late one night shall be mentioned only in brackets.) The rocks of the area speak of pre-historic times; each layer holds a different story. We were surrounded by ancient secrets. The rock art reminds of our deep need to engage with visions and reality, to create understanding and capture beauty. A collection of heart-shaped stones of all sizes decorates the central dining area of Oudrif – I left mine behind among them. Books are everywhere, making readers feel at home.

IMG_4348All around is rooibos country, every breath infused with the typical, soothing scent of the tea bush. But it was a mug of freshly brewed coffee on the stoep of our cottage that got us going every morning. In the afternoons, dry heat lured us back to bed and the setting sun invited for a swim in the rock pools of the Doring still full of balmy waters. The laziness of those tipsy hours of sleep, lounging about and playing cribbage… And the full moon dinner stories in the company of fascinating, like-minded, isolation-seeking guests from around the world… Let us return soon and sink into the loving arms of happily exhausted days at Oudrif. Oudrif. Oudrif.




Review: Navigate by Karin Schimke

Navigate-by-Karin-SchimkeAnyone who has read Karin Schimke’s Bare & Breaking, for which she won the prestigious Ingrid Jonker Award in 2014, will be delighted to know that her second collection of poems is now available from Modjaji Books. Navigate is sublime. Schimke’s poems steer between memory and loss, beauty and hurt, while forging a path to understanding, joy, holding on.

The poem Smoking remembers the house that was “my aunt’s speck of planet”. The woman’s existence continues beyond her life in the poet’s fragile words: “This is how dead people live on: / smiling in a shaft of memory / with smoke wreathing their heads. / A herald of hindsight.”

The volume opens with an image of “my father” removing a splinter from his daughter’s foot, the process full of kindness: “However / long it took, however sore / it was, losing the splinter / was always a loss.”

The mood swiftly changes in the following poem where the memory is of impatience and boredom on the part of the observer who is in a workshop, where “The day had whined and hammered too long.” Violence follows: “You grabbed me by the hair.” The impression is that the people involved are the same as in the previous poem, the father and his daughter. And that the immigrant of the next poems is the father, whose sense of orientation has been overthrown by migration, “When the stars are upturned” and “The immigrant belongs to nothing but his hands.” The same loving hands which can attend to a stuck splinter, repair what is broken, or offer the daughter safety as she learns to swim, can simultaneously cause pain.

The collection returns to the image of feet and hands in Superstition, where the roles are reserved as the poetic I is the one offering comfort to the you of the poem who is lying helpless in a hospital bed, machines keeping the body alive. The feet are “uninvaded territory. They’re / useless to these intricate calibrations. / But your feet are useful to me. / I can hold them and imagine / I’m steering you back here.” The confrontation with death and frailty of a loved one continues in the following poems, Do you remember the time when so many people we knew were dying? and Cleaning the wound.

The sequence of the poems tells a compelling story. It is clear that the internal compass needed to “navigate” is as upset as the external one. Home is a mere suspicion (The existence of home) and belonging must be questioned, specifically in our socio-historical context which requires extreme sensitivity: “Belonging is as delicate as a machine: / one foreign speck of dust makes each part / question itself. You must keep the system clean.” In a note to The Shasta daisy’s native range, we learn that the flower “grows from seed like a classic perennial. But once established, it is permanent and never invasive.” The immigrant father “loved those Shastas”. They demanded “little” of him, “how compliant they were. How / attractive their simple perennial solace.”

The garden is full of Shasta daisies, other plants and fertile memories, but the next poem, Hybrids, classifies: “You never planted your bones here… You grew hybrid languages and hybrid children. / Unlike God, you were not pleased.”

The poet is a creator, too. Time flows; change is inevitable. In the four poems which make up Praxis – four steps to understanding change, Schimke captures the nature of transformation which acknowledges the part-futility and part-uncertainty of the process. The final result cannot be asserted with confidence. The word “maybe” – in parenthesis – precedes the final stanza of the quartet in which the woman who was once a little girl is watching out in anticipation: “for the forgiveness / that comes before an apology / or to marvel that she was grown / and was seldom afraid now.”

Doubt enters the equation. The seven poems – or “songs of self-censorship” – of Taped beak are heart-wrenching, especially in the context of the poem which follows them, The things they do not tell you, when “Unspeakable things were happening not far away” and were impossible to process at the time by an eight-year-old “you”. The poem Then why establishes the purpose of trying to carve out a space for creativity among binary codes: “we make, / that’s all. the pen / the brush the drill / the wood the tool / the trowel, your hand –” and when the pain of it all is questioned, the answer is simple: “it hurts, i said. / here, she said, / pouring ink / into my palm. // it’s medicine.”

Eventually, a sense of calm descends on the collection when the poetic I speaks of simple, ordinary, but emotionally charged, experiences: independence in January swim (“I own this body as though / I am its first citizen.”), erotic fulfilment in Truffler (“I, the earth and hot, / swell of my fruiting bodies / for the hog’s horny snuffling.”), or watching a film about the life of John Keats in the poem by the same title, Bright star (“i wept for everything / and all of it: the sun, the wind, and our / infinitesimal belligerent important / little love.”)

Life is a journey, they say. It’s easy to get lost, especially in treacherous or dreamlike territories far away from everything familiar. “I will have to eat stars to be guided back”, says the first line of When I finally get to Bhutan, the penultimate poem of Navigate. But, it is the simple gestures of tenderness that return us to the safety and belonging of home, as Schimke reminds us in The first time we went for a walk. The beach walk along a metaphorical “cosmological crack” ends on a “wooden deck / where a wind rustled and you dusted / sea sand from between my toes. / My feet were at home in your lap.”


by Karin Schimke

Modjaji Books, 2018

Review first published in the Cape Times on 23 March 2018.

Review: Mine by Sally Partridge

MineAt first glance, it looks like a typical boy meets girl story. However, Sally Partridge’s latest novel, Mine, is so much more. The book’s stunning cover illustration by Astrid Blumer introduces us to Kayla and Finlay (or Fin), the protagonists of the novel: we don’t see their faces, but we know that Kayla’s hair is in part strikingly blue, Fin is wearing a hoodie with a thunderbolt on his back. They are sitting on bench. One of them must have arrived to the meeting on a skateboard. Someone carved their initials into the back of the bench. Next to “K+F” is a broken heart. A squirrel watches on.

Fin’s alter ego is Thor, hence the thunderbolt: “now there’s someone I can respect”, he tells us. “Strong. Angry. Invincible. The guy can control lightening. They say that when it storms, it’s Thor fighting giants.” The moment Fin steps onto a stage and begins to rap he turns into his hero. At night, he is the star of a popular band, playing to adoring audiences in Cape Town’s clubs. During the day, he is mostly stoned so that he can survive the drudgery of school and the threats lurking at home in Lansdowne. An only child, abandoned by his mother when he was a young boy, Fin is growing up with a violent father who couldn’t care less what happens to his son.

Kayla is the skater. She loves comic books, has a rather unusual penchant for classical music and plays the flute. She comes from a more stable home, but like most teenagers feels that her mother and step-father do not understand her. At school, she has the reputation of a “slut”. “There is no such thing as romance anymore – guys just want one thing”, she says. She feels so lonely and insecure that even this kind of abusive attention she receives seems better to her than none. What she does not recognise and others refuse to see is that she is not only beautiful, but smart, kind and super talented.

Mine alternates between Kayla’s and Fin’s perspectives. We fever along with both of them as they are trying to find a way to each other. The first time Fin sees Kayla, she flits by on her skateboard, her blue hair flashing. She immediately leaves an impression. When he accidently sees her again at a school recital, playing her flute, he is clearly smitten. But the girl who is chasing after Fin warns him of Kayla’s reputation. Their first proper encounter is awkward, yet Fin recognises something in Kayla that is all too familiar to him: “She acted just like I do whenever someone compliments me. I whack it back, retreat into my little cave of self-loathing.” And so, from the start, he senses that he can be truly himself with her.

Falling in love is never easy, especially when you never feel worthy. Or “impossible to love”, as Kayla thinks of herself. Fin’s song lyrics flow from the heart: “Does anyone know me? … I’m nobody, a freak. Never be, ever be, good enough to be the One.”

What do you do when you “feel like all my cracks are showing”? Kayla and Fin decide to give it a try, to open their hearts to each other and break the cycles of self-doubt that repeatedly get them into trouble. Cautiously, love is declared and promises are made. Previous patterns of engaging with others are tested and abandoned for something new, better: “We stand like this in silence. Her face is so close to mine. I want to kiss her more than anything in the world. I can see she expects me to. Wants me to, even. And that’s exactly why I can’t.”

Fin needs to show Kayla that he is not like all the other boys: “She makes me want to believe I can be the good guy for once.” And Kayla desperately tries to be the kind of girl he imagines her to be. She has only ever known disappointment before: “But I can’t help that I want the things other girls have. I mean, why shouldn’t I?” she asks. They are both scared out of their wits, but willing to risk it all. Yet, sometimes the best of intentions cannot stand up to the destructive habits of one’s own past. “Love also stings sometimes… We both know that.”

Partridge is never afraid to tackle the big issues young people have to deal with growing up. And in Mine, she also does not shy away from addressing the horrendous consequences of peer pressure, our need to belong, or the minefield of budding – anything but innocent – sexuality. It is about that first big love: “I’m on such a high from being around him, it’s like I’ve slipped and fallen into his universe and it’s just us and no one else.” It all feels incredibly real, including Cape Town – the other main character of the novel.

In André Brink’s An Instant in the Wind, one of the main characters fears that “love is the beginning of violence and betrayal. Something in oneself or in the other is killed or betrayed”. This fundamental recognition echoed in my mind while I was reading Mine and heading towards its explosive, unpredictable ending. What touched me most about Partridge’s novel is that its emotional truths resonated with the teenager I once was and the woman I am today. I believe that, unlike many young adult novels which are specifically aimed at teenagers, Mine will appeal to anyone who has dared to defy his or her one’s own demons for love. “For the unrequited lovers and broken-hearted”, reads the book’s dedication.

Partridge is an acclaimed novelist and short story writer. Three out of her previous novels published locally were awarded the prestigious M.E.R. Prize for Best Youth Novel. The fifth one appeared only in German translation. She has been recognised by IBBY International for her young adult fiction. Mine is her best work to date.


by Sally Partridge

Human & Rousseau, 2018

An edited version of this review first appeared in the Cape Times on 17 March 2018.