Review: Zero K by Don DeLillo

zero-k

I would have bought Don DeLillo’s latest novel, Zero K, just for the exquisite, elegant cover. However, the nostalgia I feel for the author of the book ever since I read his stunning White Noise (1985) at university was its strongest selling point.

The essence of the title, the slick prose, the reduction of plot to bare essentials, the narrative’s minimalist beauty are all reflected in the cover design. You get what you see. The story is seemingly simple: billionaire Ross Lockhart invests in Convergence, a futuristic secret place somewhere in Asia where people are allowed to die on their own terms. They are kept in a state of stasis with the hope of being reawakened at a distant point in time when whatever ailed them can be overcome.

Artis, Lockhart’s second wife, is terminally ill and has decided to undergo the procedure. Ross asks Jeff, his only son from his first marriage to Madeline, to witness the transition. Deeply in love with Artis, in a moment of longing and desperation, Ross chooses to join his spouse, but then other considerations complicate the decision. Artis herself reveals a wish which throws Jeff off balance.

Jeff remembers his mother and her torturous death from cancer after Ross had left the family when the boy was still growing up. The relationship with his father is distant and troubled. Jeff’s entire adult life is a counter reaction to his father’s abandonment and ambitions. Now in his early thirties, Jeff is simultaneously confronted with the past they share and the future his father imagines.

In Convergence their fears and desires collide. The compound’s artistic design is a stark reminder of all that is sublime and evil in the world. The one does not seem to be able to exist without the other. It is a space of contemplation and a certain type of finality which offers the beyond so many dream of. But in what kind of world would we really be prepared to face eternity? Surely not the deteriorating, plagued, violent planet of our own making, the one we currently so carelessly refer to as home. The ancient question persists: “What’s the point of living if we don’t die at the end of it?” Is a surrender in which we gain instead of relinquish control and power worthwhile?

Zero K – the title derives from “a unit of temperature called absolute zero” – is a powerful meditation on life, the current state of global affairs and our uncertain future. The only thing I could fault it for is the weary sterility of the emotions it stirs, but then again: it reflects much of what we have come to accept about our fragile world: “I knew what I was feeling, a sympathy bled white by disappointment.” Only a few of us notice one of those moments “never to be thought of except when it’s in the process of unfolding.” And it will be our novelists and artists who will keep reminding us what is at stake.

Zero K

by Don DeLillo

Picador, 2016

First published in the Cape Times, 6 January 2017.

Review: Midwinter by Fiona Melrose

midwinterIn an act of idiotic drunken bravery, two friends, Tom and Vale, steal a boat in a storm. The consequences for both of them are enormous. The incident lays bare a past supressed for a decade and a future which is just as heavy to carry. The laden, rain-drenched darkness of the night of the theft sets the tone for this atmospheric narrative. Fiona Melrose’s stunning debut novel Midwinter tells the story of loss, the way it breaks you down and the effort it takes to put together the shattered pieces.

Melrose was born in Johannesburg and is now – after years of living abroad – once again based in the city of her birth where she is working on her next novel. She completed an MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck, University of London, and spent a lot of time in Suffolk where Midwinter is partly set. Told from the alternating perspectives of Vale and his father Landyn, the book recounts two seminal episodes of their lives: the period on their farm in Suffolk after the boys’ boat theft and the time Landyn spent with his family living and farming in Kabwe, Zambia, ten years earlier.

From the beginning we are aware that something horrendous happened to Vale’s mother during their sojourn in Zambia. The relationship between Vale and his father is troubled by guilt and blame. Much has been left unspoken, and when it surfaces between them, rage and violence erupt: “You can set the dark aside for just so long before it comes after you and rolls you back under its weeds and rocks.” Both of them are suffocating in the silence between them. As it spreads to Vale’s other relationships, it threatens to destroy all that is still worth living for.

Landyn holds on to the sightings of a fox in their neighbourhood – “fine, sharp as a whip, keen-eyed and sleek.” The beautiful animal embodies for him his late wife. He also cares for his sickly dog Pup. The attempts of the father and son to reach out to each other, to find comfort and healing, often go astray, but relentlessly they continue trying: “We just stood there in the wet air looking at each other with all that hurt between us. The whole morning held its breath.” Perhaps when nothing else is left, love will prevail after all?

Vale’s friend Tom comes from a different type of dysfunctional family. When his mother goes off with another man, his father in unable to deal with the abandonment in any other way than by turning to stupefying drinking. Tom is neglected and lonely when Vale and his family take him under their wings, but when they emigrate to farm in Zambia he is left behind to fend for himself for a while until their return. And then, during the storm, he is severely injured and his future looks even bleaker than ever before.

Between the crushing heat of Kabwe and the merciless cold of Suffolk, Melrose evokes the landscapes and seasons of her settings with succinct prose: “Sitting in the motor with Vale hissing and biting next to me, I could feel all the dust and grit rolling up over the deserts from Kabwe. It was as if from the moment I read about the place for the first time, the two places could never be separated again. I’d struck my boy and now we were all in this great sucking bog. Tom was in it with us. There was nowhere to go with all that. Nowhere at all.”

Midwinter is the story of broken people, whether they are broken by colonialism, war, grief, or cowardice. Melrose is very subtle with her critique of current global socio-political affairs – her focus is definitely on the intimate, personal spaces in and between us, but the war in Iraq and the trauma of colonial exploitation lurk between the pages of Midwinter and lend the novel powerful gravitas. It is because none of it is in any way laboured, it is one of the strongest aspects of the book.

fiona-melroseThe author should also be commended for doing what much too often writers shy away from: writing entirely from a (gender) perspective which is not their own. At no time in the novel did I ever feel that I was not in the heads and hearts of a young man and his ageing father. Melrose uses first-person narrators for both to great effect: “For ten years I’d shirked the memories. I always felt them scratching at the darker corners of my mind, still feral; but sitting on a tree stump in the gathering dark, all of it – the space, the fear, the sorrow – all seemed to find me again.”

The title refers to Vale’s and Landyn’s family name, but also to temporal and spatial thresholds as well as the emotional landscape the two men have to cross. Melrose’s rendering of what awaits them beyond is heart-wrenching and beautiful as it will ring true to anyone who has suffered unbearable loss.

You can judge this book by its exquisite cover which attracted me to it in the first place. Midwinter is lyrical and intriguing in its gorgeous starkness.

Midwinter

by Fiona Melrose

Corsair, 2016

An edited version of this review was first published in the Cape Times, 6 January 2017.

 

Sunshine in my pocket

Every New Year’s Eve local time at midnight, I tune in to my favourite radio station in Austria to hear the live ringing of the St. Stephen’s Cathedral bells in Vienna. Afterwards, they always play Strauss’s “The Blue Danube” waltz, and then usually a pop song of note. This year that song was Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling”. I’d never heard it before, but it was catchy enough to remember. When I looked it up, listened to it properly, watched the video, and read the lyrics, I could not stop dancing to it, and realised that it is the perfect song to start this year with.

Last year … should be best forgotten, at least most of it, especially the first half (ugh!). Personally all I can think of is: I survived. Fortunately more intact than I thought possible. And here I am, ready for 2017! All positive energy and smiles, or as Timberlake sings, with “that sunshine in my pocket”.

A whole sun of sunlight in my heart’s pocket, in fact.

New Year’s resolutions? Ah, you know, the usual: write a few books, win the lottery, travel the world.

In all honesty, I hardly have any plans. It’s the year I turn 40. I will publish two books. All monumental stuff, but it feels like my life should be: I am getting older. I write. I publish. I am embracing it all with great joy. What is different about this year is my involvement with PEN South Africa. I have been co-opted as a board member and will be promoting activities celebrating our inspiring literary heritage and contemporary writing.

For a while now, I have also been dreaming of founding an independent publishing house, a home to exquisite writing. This year might see its birth.

There will be literary salons, book festivals, trips – local and overseas – and lots of tennis to watch (Rafa is back!). I am looking forward to the publication of Koleka Putuma’s Collective Amnesia, Antjie Krog’s Lady Anne: A Chronicle in Verse, SSDA’s next anthology of short stories Migrations: New Short Fiction from Africa (edited by Efemia Chela, Bongani Kona and Helen Moffett), Katherine Stansfield’s Falling Creatures, Melissa Volker’s A Fractured Land, and Sarah Lotz’s next novel in which a Polish character features … I was told she gets to have some great mountaineering adventures … Or was it sex? Both, I hope. As long as she reaches the summit.

karinaI have no doubt this will be a brilliant year for books; many more exciting titles await.

I wish you all lots of health, and if not a sun, then at least a ray of sunlight in your pocket.

Let us dance.

Let’s not stop The Feeling.

Review: Losing the Plot by Leon de Kock

losing-the-plot-coverLosing the Plot might seem like a book for academics and students of literature only, but I am certain it will appeal to anyone with an interest in contemporary South African writing. Leon de Kock – academic, translator, poet and novelist – has been a defining presence on the local literary stage for many years. In his latest book, he concentrates on a specific aspect of postapartheid writing: how it “pivots around a continuing problematised notion of transition”. He reads the literary output of the last two decades in the light of the “initial wave of optimism, evident in the early phase of the upbeat transitional ferment,” and the disillusionment which followed.

Desperately, we are all trying to make sense of the reality around us, and most of it is too much to handle. De Kock points out that “the boundaries between right and wrong have blurred”. Readers turn to writers and intellectuals for guidance on how to deal with the confounding state of our lives. We are confronted with such staggering levels of pathological behaviour in the country (and beyond) that it is difficult to know where to search for meaning, and some sense of safety. It is no wonder that “the quest to uncover what’s going on in an obscured public sphere became a consuming obsession for many writers.”

In the seven incisive chapters of Losing the Plot, de Kock outlines general trends in postapartheid writing and focuses on a variety of its proponents such as genre fiction, life writing and creative nonfiction, but not exclusively. He returns to earlier seminal texts such as Zakes Mda’s Ways of Dying or Antjie Krog’s Country of My Skull and shines a light on more recent ones which are bound to become classics such as Imraan Coovadia’s Tales of the Metric System, Lauren Beukes’s Zoo City, or Jonny Steinberg’s A Man of Good Hope.

Crime writing “may have come to stand in for what used to be seen as political or engaged fiction,” de Kock suggests. Let down by institutions and society, we crave to see justice at work, even if it is only in fiction. Through crime thrillers we identify the good guys and point fingers at evil. This begs the question of how much of what literature is doing post-1994 is actually new? De Kock also considers our haunting past and how the “reality hunger” of the twenty-first century impacts present-day South Africa. He does not shy away from hashtags and the complex issues leading up to their prevalence. The most illuminating section in the book is on the Marikana massacre. There is no denying the woundedness we grapple with, the challenges we are facing as individuals and a society.

What shines through in Losing the Plot, however, is the restorative capacity of storytelling, especially the possibility of the “restitution of dignity via the power of narrative”. One should never underestimate either. The key to both is compassion, nourished by our imaginations. Not all is lost, yet.

 

Review first published in the Cape Times, 30 December 2016.

Review: Incredible Journey – Stories that Move You, edited by Joanne Hichens

incredible-journey“Every nation needs its awkward truth-tellers”, Sindiwe Magona quotes Ben Okri in the foreword to Incredible Journey: Stories that Move You, the latest in the Short.Sharp.Stories Awards anthologies, edited by a champion of the South African short story and founder of the project, Joanne Hichens. Magona makes two succinct points about the collection: it shows “the country’s rich diversity that, perhaps, is found only here and nowhere else”, and, it allows the reader “to better understand intimate secrets, dreams, yearnings, fears and the wounding that walks our streets, all too often looking as normal as you please.”

Produced in conjunction with the National Arts Festival, the anthology includes twenty stories, the longlisted and winning entries of the Short.Sharp.Stories Awards, and is the third of its kind, after Bloody Satisfied and Adults Only. Hichens understands “that there are many stories to tell, from entirely different perspectives, sensibilities and cultures; we are hardly a one-dimensional society, nor would we want to be” and aims to be “inclusive and representational”. The project succeeds on all these fronts. The book includes diverse voices and many striking stories – it will offer something for most people, whatever your reading preferences might be.

The winning story, “Train 124” by Andrew Salomon, features an uncanny first-person narrator on his way to a doctor’s appointment. His reading and interpretation of the world around him are scary, to say the least. During the train ride, Salomon manages to create a sense of tension and claustrophobia despite the fact that his character is on the move. Original, crisp writing completes the winning package.

Two short stories from the collection were shortlisted for the prestigious Caine Prize: Bongani Kona’s superb “At Your Requiem”, and Lidudumalingani’s Short.Sharp.Stories Awards runner-up, “Memories We Lost”, which eventually won the Caine Prize. These two young voices hold so much promise that one can only watch and wonder as their talents unfold.

The other runner-up in the collection is the remarkable “The Infant Odysseus” in which Bridget Pitt tells the story of a woman who spots a baby crawling in a busy street of Johannesburg and decides to abandon her husband in their car to rescue the child. The encounter triggers a chain of emotions which lead her to make life-changing decisions.

Authors interpreted the theme of the competition in myriad ways. The most obvious take, a physical journey from point A to B, has been emphasised only in a few of the stories. The others concentrate on an internal transitioning from one state of being to another. Some combine both to great effect. The subtitle of the anthology says it all: “stories that move you.” The most incredible journeys happen inside:

“I’m sitting by the jacaranda tree where the story of your life ends. I can’t rewind time and bring you back. What happened between us – between you, Aunt Julia and me – at the house on St. Patrick’s Road, burned through our lives like mountain fire in a high wind. There’s nothing left. Everything is ravaged.” (Bongani Kona, “At Your Requiem”)

In Sean Mayne’s “The Pyramid of Light”, two conscripts get more than they ever bargained for when hitchhiking home on a pass. Homophobia and a search for personal purpose are the subject of Tebello Mzamo’s poignant “My Room”. Máire Fisher exposes tense family dynamics in “Space”, in which a small boy dreams of the stars as he clandestinely watches the night sky through his father’s telescope.

It is fascinating to see how different genres feed into the mix of the anthology. Dan Maré in “Watermeid” or Chantelle Gray van Heerden in “Voodoo Karma” do not shy away from fable and magic realist elements in their stories. In “The Island”, Megan Ross reimagines an initiation ritual for young women along the lines of the kind which Xhosa boys undergo to become men. Merle Grace examines a myth surrounding people with albinism in “Disappeared”. And Stephen Symons writes about a Cape Town of the not too distant future in his speculative story “Red Dust”.

A personal favourite in the collection is Tiffany Kagure Mugo’s “Return Unknown”. It centres on a heavy trunk the narrator’s grandmother brings with her into the house when her family decides it is time for her to move in with them in her old age. The story ends with the warmth of the trunk to the narrator’s touch, and one’s heart.

Publisher’s choice went to Bobby Jordan’s “Shortcut” which recounts a man’s tumultuous trip on the Bedford Road between Johannesburg and Grahamstown late at night. The story has a magnificent ending, and since it is the last one in the anthology, it leaves the reader deeply satisfied.

Coven by S.A. Partridge

1-covenA spider scuttled across the dusty window.

Carmelita watched it curiously. The webs that clung to the panes were brown with age. It must have crawled out the floorboards. She looked down at the floor and caught a swift movement in the corner.

Old houses held so much life, she thought.

Through the window she could just make out the overgrown bushes and trees shaking in the seasonal Cape winds.

2-coven

She hated summer. She didn’t mind the wind too much. She loved the wildness of it. It was the unforgiving heat she hated, that made even sitting still uncomfortable. And there was always a burning in the air. Fires were an inevitability in Cape Town. It made her nervous, but that was a natural anxiety for a witch. There would always be someone wanting to see you burnt. Even for simply existing.

She looked up at the sound of laughter and caught an unfamiliar phrase in German. Marta was Skyping with one of her European friends again. The thought made Carmelita long for tall, cool forests and frozen oceans. Marta had visited almost every country in the world for her work and had friends in every one. Carmelita would never understand why her friend had abandoned the iced gingerbread houses of Vienna and settled in the sweltering, windy South African city instead. Carmelita was only ever happy when it rained, or when it was cold.

Marta’s laughter rang loud and clear from the other room. It was easy to be Marta’s friend. She was an old soul who had devoted her life to studying alchemical texts and world magic. An Academical. Carmelita was a Wildling. Their magical natures couldn’t be more different, but their friendship met somewhere in the middle.

Marta’s old Victorian home was an oasis from the heat. The wooden floorboards and high stone ceilings created a cool sanctuary. Carmelita loved it there. All old houses held on to their history like words stored in books. As a Wildling she felt it deeply. The house spoke to her through its creaks and cracks. It whispered to her in the way Marta’s books whispered to her. Raw magic was all around her.

5-coven

She jumped as one of the resident cats sprang through a window. The heavy scarlet drapes were thick with fur.

“Tea or something stronger?” Marta asked as she swept into the room in her long cotton dress. She placed a scented candle down on the coffee table, which flickered in the dust and filled the air with the scent of jasmine.

“It’s too hot for tea,” complained Carmelita, her eyes fixed on the flames. “And honestly, do you really need to ask? How long have we been friends and when have I ever asked for tea?”

“Gin it is,” said Marta happily, moving to an Oak cabinet.

Marta collected glasses and the cabinet contained an assortment of sizes and coloured glass, as well as trinkets she had collected on her travels. She opened the glass doors and took down two crystal glasses with twisted stems, like vines.

Wild glass for a wild thing, thought Carmelita.

3-coven

Marta placed a glass down next to the candle and settled on to a deep purple divan. No sooner had she lifted her feet than a small grey cat leaped up to bury itself in the folds of her skirt. She pulled her long brown plait over her shoulder and twisted it absently.

“Ingrid sends her love, as always,” she said.

Carmelita nodded. She had met the Norwegian witch twice before. Another mad European who loved the sun. The last time she had visited, her skin was splotchy and angry pink and her young daughter had run across the wooden floorboards stark naked.

“It must be wonderfully icy up there,” she said wistfully.

Marta smiled. “Oh yes.”

They drank in silence for a few moments.

“They’re all excited for the Raven’s Feast. The bonfires they make are a true wonder. I hope you get to see it one day.”

Carmelita sighed. “Well at least there’s the Sabbath to look forward to.”

The Witch’s Sabbath traditionally took place on Christmas Eve, or Mōdraniht, as the old Norwegians called it.

They both smiled. Feasts and holy festivals were one thing. Witch’s Sabbaths were quite another.

“Do we know what the moon is doing on that night?” Carmelita asked.

Marta shrugged a slender shoulder. “Does it matter? We’re going to celebrate regardless. And there’s the sacrifice. I’ve been looking forward to it all year.” Her eyes flashed deliciously.

Carmelita grinned. “Then it will be a Blood Moon, surely,” she said.

6-coven

They roared with laughter, causing the cat to dart off in irritation.

 

On the day of the Sabbath, Carmelita spent the morning in her flat’s tiny kitchen preparing lunch for her parents. Roasted pork belly with caramel sauce, crispy roast potatoes, sweet carrots and creamed spinach. While the gravy finished boiling, she laid out chocolates and homemade mince pies. Her parents stayed an hour then left. They weren’t a close family and even after thirty years had no idea their daughter was a witch.

Carmelita’s childhood had been a wild, imaginative time spent in her own head. She preferred the fairies and spirits she believed lived in the overgrown garden and spent long days outside making up stories and climbing trees. The outside was alive. A friend. When she was sad, dry leaves would swirl in the wind around her feet to make her laugh and bright orange Black-Eyed-Susan’s would make a comforting bed to lie in while she watched the sky.

She suspected her imaginings were true when the house began to send her secret messages. Her doll would suddenly move for no reason, and mould would appear in her room alone – in large clumps that mushroomed from the carpet.

Wildlings were creatures of nature. If one lived in a place for too long, the garden would begin reclaiming the house. Birds would move into the roof and weeds would claim the rest.

Carmelita could predict the future in a puddle of rain, and read the past in a moss-covered tree trunk.
After her parents left, she texted her boyfriend to see how his own family lunch was going. They had recently started dating, and while he found her moods challenging, he loved her weird nature. Most people thought of her as a non-conformist, but in reality she preferred the invisible world to the real one.

She lifted her feet up onto the couch, already starting to sprout mould at the edges and noticed the row of Starlings on her washing line. She wouldn’t mind them so much if only they left her herb garden alone.

Benjamin was looking forward to seeing her. It was going to be their first Christmas together and they were planning on spending the day picnicking at Kirstenbosch Gardens. She had an extra batch of mince pies ready, and the leftover pork was going to make delicious sandwiches.

She sealed off with a kiss and a promise to say goodnight before she went to bed. She had a big night ahead of her and didn’t want to be distracted by her phone. Long strips of cloud were extending across the afternoon sky. It meant the cold was coming back. A good omen, she thought.

 

The first thing Carmelita noticed when Marta opened the door was her wide-brimmed black hat. The next was her smile.

“Welcome”, she said happily.

The interior was lit by hundreds of flickering candles that cast long shadows. Laughter could he heard from the dining room where a small group of women chatted animatedly over wine. The long oak table was covered in an assortment of cheese, fruit and cakes. Carmelita added her tupperware container of mince pies to the spread and popped an olive into her mouth.

4-coven

“How are you, darling?” asked a familiar singsong voice.

She turned and was immediately enveloped into Edythe’s warm, motherly embrace. Edythe was also an Academical. They had met many years ago at a Coven meeting, and had clicked almost at once. Edythe was well-loved in the community and renowned for taking young witches under her wing.

“I’m great. Super excited for tonight. It’s so good to see you. It’s been ages.”

Edythe nodded and plucked a cherry from the table. She closed her eyes in delight. “Oh I do love a good Sabbath,” she said.

Carmelita spotted her friend Charlotte on a divan, clutching a glass of red wine. Charlotte’s lustrous jet-black mane and ruby-red lips made her instantly noticeable in a crowd. The young witch was an Academical in training and had only been part of the Coven for a few months. Carmelita liked her very much. They waved at each other excitedly.

The only other Wildling was Linda, an old soul like Marta. She could disappear for days on her canoe to be one with nature. She smiled faintly and drifted towards the window.

The witches stopped talking as Marta appeared in the doorway with a large basket of twigs. “Are we ready?” she asked. “I can’t wait a moment longer.”

 

The Coven assembled on divans and leather armchairs, each taking a handful of twigs which they would tie together with lengths of twine.

Carmelita swallowed a mouthful of wine. No one could truly appreciate wine as much as a Wildling. They could taste the earth and vines in every drop, the dew on the grapeskin, the wood of the barrel.

She shook off the pull of the grapes and concentrated on the task at hand. Every ring of twine bound the spell to the twigs. Her fingers worked the string, and she felt the flicker of life through her fingertips. The magic they were casting needed both the skill of the Academical and the raw power of the Wildlings. The Academicals understood the spell, the cause and effect. They created the words that held the magic together and knew the ancient incantations that would hold them fast. Wildlings drew power from the world around them and added the spark of life needed to quicken the spells.

It would take all their combined power to cast the spell.

Carmelita watched as Marta wound heavy twine around her hands methodically. Round and round and round. She was creating the head – the most important part of the sacrifice.

 

“We missed you at the last Sabbath.”

Carmelita looked up absently. Charlotte was smiling at her cheerfully.

Guilt pricked at her. She had always been secretly jealous of her Academical friends. They were cool and composed, kilometres above everyone else. Carmelita went mad more than she could sometimes stand. It was easier to lock herself away, like a werewolf at full moon. Quiet absence was better than wild-eyed raving.

She smiled and made up some excuse, feeling even guiltier for it. She hated lying. But she hated being seeing as unstable more. She had missed the last Sabbath and felt terrible about it. She concentrated on her bindings, and hoped Charlotte wouldn’t pursue the conversation. She didn’t.

The afternoon lifted and opened into quiet night.

The witches listened as Edythe told them about a Winter Solstice ceremony she had participated in during her Oxford days. Her student Coven drank plum wine till midnight, when they finally stole into the night to make their sacrifice. It was an anxious, exciting time when being a woman was just as bad as being a witch. Being both was practically scandalous. It took a long time for Edythe to realise she wasn’t wicked.

More wine was poured and the snack table was quickly swept away to make room for their bundles.

“Where shall we do it?” asked Charlotte. “I can’t drive like this. I think I’ve drunk and entire bottle of Pinotage on my own already.”

They exchanged nervous glances. No one was in any condition to drive.

Marta smiled and picked up an armful of bundles. “There’s no need. There’s a reason I’ve let the garden go to seed. The trees are so wild it’s become a leafy fortress. No one will be able to see what we’re up to.”

7-coven

They left the house in single file. The stoep creaked as they walked, and long branches scratched and pulled at their skirts. Carmelita could see the swell of stars above them. A frog chirruped from somewhere in the garden and she immediately relaxed. She wasn’t afraid of the dark shadows and rustling. She felt most at home with what scared others.

They built a fire. While the others watched the flames build, Marta and Edythe constructed the sacrifice. They were the most senior Academicals and had performed this ritual many times before. Charlotte watched their movements with bright-eyed concentration, memorizing every step.

Carmelita slipped into the shadows and hung a smaller twig effigy from a tree branch. It was three twigs bound together to create Algiz, the rune of protection -her own private gift to Marta. Her friend would discover it in her own time, when it would hopefully bring a smile to her face.

She returned to the fire to discover the likeness of man tied to a spike in the ground. Flames licked the bottommost twigs, singing the mossy ends. It would catch soon.

Edythe stepped forward and sprinkled a handful of earth into the flames.

“Tonight we celebrate the end of another year and with it the end of a terrible reign over our souls. With these words I banish the influence of a most odious spirit. May his evil never touch us. And may the new year be free of his malevolence.”

Marta stood in front of the burning figure solemnly.

Carmelita knew the intention of this ritual was mostly for her friend’s benefit. As much as the witches tried to live above the world and its mundane cruelty, there were some people whose cunning was beyond logic and reason. Sometimes being brilliant and beautiful attracted the jealousy of bad people who wished those gifts for themselves.

Marta was the most brilliant woman she knew, and preternaturally beautiful. It was an unearthly beauty like the ancient elves and fairies who had learned long ago to hide themselves from the world.

8-coven

Linda stepped forward and flicked a glistening branch towards the flames. Drops of blood clung to the bound twigs. “With this blood I consecrate this site in the name of Jörð, goddess of the earth.”

Charlotte tossed a handful of basil into the fire, her pretty young face illuminated by the flames. “I protect this site in the name of Frigg, who we honour this Mōdraniht.”

“Protect us from treachery,” intoned Carmelita, invoking the sign of Eihwaz with her fingers.

“And may the new year bring with it mercy,” said Marta, cupping her hands.

They watched the effigy burn and concentrated on their own wishes. Carmelita knew that Marta was secretly wishing for justice and Edythe strength. What Charlotte and Linda wanted she did not know. She herself wished for peace.

Inside they could hear Marta’s old grandfather clock strike twelve times for midnight.

When the sacrifice had burned down to ashes they returned to the house to consume the Mother’s Feast, knowing the new year would bring all that they had wished for.

9-coven

 

Review: Things Unseen by Pamela Power

things-unseen-by-pamela-powerFounded and headed by author Sarah McGregor, Clockwork Books is a new independent local publisher with a growing list of fascinating titles. Its latest release is Pamela Power’s second novel, Things Unseen, a psychological thriller set in the posh suburbs of Johannesburg. I first read it in manuscript form, and remember that I had to pause and take a deep breath after the shocking violence of the opening scene in which we witness the terrifying demise of a person and an animal. Let’s just say that the rest of the book is also not for sissies.

Not at first glance, but the following chapters are perhaps just as disturbing as the beginning. The novel attempts to describe the kind of violence which is nearly imperceptible to outsiders – emotional and psychological violence. We meet Emma and her husband Rick at their university reunion. Emma works for a local theatre company and she is friends with her boss Gay and her partner Sophie, a psychologist. Rick is an ambitious gynaecologist with a roving eye who treats Emma like a trophy, not a wife. She is aware of his numerous affairs, but turns a blind eye until she encounters Craig, her first big love, at the event. He is visiting from the UK where he’d settled many years ago. Faced with the question of what could have been, Emma begins to re-examine her life.

All is brought to an abrupt end the evening of the reunion when Emma, distressed about not being able to reach her mother nor their domestic worker Lizzie on their phones, abandons the alumni gathering and rushes back to discover her mother brutally murdered in their home, a mansion on a vast property meant for a large family with kids. Despite many attempts, Emma and Rick are childless. Their infertility is a source of great distress to Emma. The couple drifts further apart during the murder investigation and the tensions between them escalate upon the arrival of Ross, Emma’s troubled brother who lives in Australia. Emma is convinced that the main suspect in their mother’s murder – their gardener who is missing – could not be responsible for the gruesome deed although most clues point to the contrary. When her mother’s lawyer explains the unexpected wishes of the dead woman to her family, everyone is taken by surprise. And then Emma encounters a sickly sweet smell in their garden and the events of the night of the murder take on another evil twist.

Craig, a former policeman turned security expert, assists Emma in her search for truth. She refuses to look at the facts alone when her gut feeling tells her that they simply do not make sense. Craig trusts her intuition and applies his investigative skills to help her. Everything becomes even more complicated when they rediscovers their long-buried feelings for each other and begin falling in love again.

The main narrative is interspersed with a sequence of dark images from the past which gradually reveal the portrayal of the horrendous abuse of a child. It is clear that the child grew up to be one of the protagonists, an innocent victim turned ruthless perpetrator, but Power keeps the plot cards close to her chest and has the reader guessing who did what until the spectacular showdown at the very end.

Things Unseen is a fast-paced, haunting thriller which addresses our most intimate fears of invasions and violations in the context of present-day crime realities of the country, but also free of the socio-political context. What Emma and her family members experience could happen to anyone anywhere in the world. The challenges of the betrayals and losses she faces in her marriage will be known to many women, independent of race and class. The madness of grief and the inability to make sane choices when you are in its grips are part of the story. And Johannesburg, with all its social woes, is very much a character in the novel. Readers will recognise the everyday realities of the upper-middle-classes – the glamour and the horror of the rich and beautiful – but these form only part of the narrative drive, not a closer study of the underlying societal struggles.

Power is a scriptwriter and editor. Her dialogues are vivid, her characters are recognisable, and feel real. She has a wicked sense of humour which shines through despite the sombre themes. At the heart of her novel is a love story, a woman’s quest to reclaim and follow her dreams despite the horrific circumstances she finds herself in. Emma is surrounded by a tightly knit group of friends who help her to pull through and pursue her own path towards fulfilment. The characters grow on one as the story progresses and one can only hope for a sequel.

Things Unseen will appeal to readers who like to get lost in a good yarn. I can imagine that many will want to finish it in one sitting, so perhaps start reading when you have a nice pot of tea or a glass of wine ready on standby and know that, if you wish, you can disappear for a few hours into the world of Things Unseen.

Things Unseen

by Pamela Power

Clockwork Books, 2016

Review: There’s Always Tomorrow by Abner Nyamende

theres-always-tomorrowThe overwhelming impression I had while reading Abner Nyamende’s There’s always tomorrow was that the novel had not been edited properly, if at all. It began with the first page, where the word “darkness” features six times without apparent reason. And the unnecessary repetitions are only the tip of the iceberg. After finishing, out of curiosity I looked up Partridge, the publishing house, and was informed that, although backed by a giant international trade publisher, the company provides only self-publishing services to their authors. Editing seems to be part of the professional packages on offer, but I cannot imagine that it was employed in this particular case. In this regard I was appalled at the quality of the final product, and it is a pity, because the book has an important story to tell. If the author did pay for editing of any kind, he was cheated…

Continue reading: LitNet

Review: Travels with My Father – An Autobiographical Novel by Karen Jennings

travelsTravelling in India, Karen Jennings visits an art gallery where “holograms of rare gold artefacts line the wall. A notice declares that precious items might be stolen and so holograms are the next best thing. They are fuzzy, unclear. It is like looking at an object at the bottom of a dirty pond.” It is a striking image that made me think of writing an autobiographical novel or a memoir. In the hands of a mediocre writer, recollections and artefacts can become like these blurred holograms. But Karen Jennings is not a mediocre writer.

Travels with My Father is a deeply engaging book in which Jennings attempts to come to grips with the death of her father and the memories and records she has of his life and their relationship. Anyone who has experienced the loss of a loved one knows what a merciless and curious creature grief can be. Jennings’s father died of cancer, leaving behind a wife and two daughters. Soon after the father’s death, the mother decides to sell the “big house” they lived in and Jennings falls in love with Juliano. The book describes the processes involved in these endings and beginnings the family tries to navigate in the wake of the tragedy.

There is anger and silence, depression and incredulity. These are not uncommon reactions, but every story of grief is intimate and individual, too. Jennings delves into her family history and explores the many journeys that define her own life and the lives of her relatives, some of whom are larger than life characters.

During a visit in Tasmania where her uncle and aunt live, she feels like “a prisoner serving my time.” She plans her own death. Her family surprises her with a weekend away. Together they visit Port Arthur, a former convict settlement, a place which had been her father’s favourite when he’d explored the Tasman Peninsula years earlier. Jennings embeds her own struggles with depression and isolation into the story of the settlement and the mental illnesses convicts suffered during imprisonment. At the same time she weaves family tales of addiction, abuse, and ghost haunting into the narrative.

Trying to understand her experiences, she makes fascinating, often unexpected, links between the various stories. And while she enquires into the private with a fine brush, she paints a much larger picture. In 1982, her father, who used to be teacher, played the role of Captain von Trapp in an adaptation of The Sound of Music and received a certificate for the performance on the day Jennings was born. Years later, sitting in the school hall where the musical had been staged, she remembers a man “in a polyester green suit, smelling of soap and armpits. A church-going man who touched girls, who stole, who was a bigot. A man who hated my father.” Her father dared to stand up to this man who was his superior, but was professionally crushed as a result. He later wrote a poem about his retirement: “After 35 years / What I need is / The screaming ecstasy of silence.” Jennings travels to Mondsee in Austria to follow in the footsteps of the musical family and she meditates on the disappointment we feel “in our parents … That they had to live a life of smallness.”

Her father did not wish for a funeral or a memorial: “He wanted to be cremated, scattered, and then forgotten.” He made these instructions in writing, but they were found long after his death and a service at which hundreds of people paid their respects. One of them was a pupil her father had taught in the 1970s. He sends her a letter chronicling how her father had changed his life for the better. The memories of others and their gestures of gratitude make her realise that her “pity is meaningless” and her “bitterness misplaced”.

She visits the hospital where her father died and speaks to a nurse who tells her that “tidying of the body is her favourite part of the job.” She sees it as “a gift” that she can “give to the people who are left behind.” Seeing her deceased husband, Jennings’s mother is reminded of Lenin and their visit to his mausoleum in Moscow. Jennings relates the story of Lenin’s embalming and how viewing the body had been a “highlight of the trip” for her father. Travels with My Father becomes an embalming of sorts.

Jennings remembers how she taught a class at her father’s school after his retirement. A student of his asks her to tell them stories like her father used to. She refuses and gets nowhere with the teaching. When she comes home frustrated, her father reprimands her: “You should have told them a story. I always told them about my travels through other countries. At least that way they learnt something about life outside of their own. Most of them have very small lives, you know, and no promise of them getting bigger.”

Storytelling has that potential. “We are all guilty of … dismantling the past, trying to create something new, something we consider to be an improvement”, she writes. “Even in this book there are memories I have created from the rubble of others.” Jennings’s stories in Travels with My Father are not fuzzy holograms, but vivid art objects she conjures up in the reader’s mind.

Travels with My Father: An Autobiographical Novel

by Karen Jennings

Holland Park Press, 2016

Review first published in the Cape Times, 11 November 2016.

Book marks: The Leonids, The Bostik Book of Unbelievable Beasties, Cats

the-leonidsThe Leonids

by Isobel Dixon

Mariscat Press, 2016

 

Isobel Dixon is one of South Africa’s finest poets. This year she published a collection of poetry, Bearings, and The Leonids, a pamphlet containing seventeen poems devoted to her mother who died last year. The exquisite pamphlet is a tribute to a beloved mother and to the family she nurtured around her. It opens with the vivid, sensuous impressions of “Notes Towards Nasturtiums”. The poems contain striking images of everyday life, memories of love and kindness, all infused with the pain of loss. Dixon takes us into the heart of her family home, celebrates the closeness she shares with her sisters, recalls her parents and evokes the intimate moments when they both passed away. Reading Dixon you are constantly reminded of the power and beauty of language, how it can blossom with the generosity of simple, gorgeous kappertjies. How it can preserve that which is most precious, long after it is gone.

lauren-beukes-read-her-latest-book-bostik-book-unb-57The Bostik Book of Unbelievable Beasties

by Lauren Beukes

Bostik South Africa, 2016

 

One of the greatest gifts you can give to a child is to nourish their imagination. The Bostik Book of Unbelievable Beasties contains twenty “ridiculous rhymes” about creatures living in the land of Unbelievia. Children from around South Africa were asked to illustrate the rhymes written by award-winning author Lauren Beukes. The best twenty drawings were chosen for this delightful book. Kids will love the funky texts about The Oogle, The Gulpsome Squidge, or The Vampire Bunny who “might give you a fright if you spot this critter stalking your garden at night. It’s got s fluffy tail and fangs and wears a red cap. But don’t be afraid, don’t try to escape! You see, this bunny vamp only sucks carrot juice. Except on its birthday, when it slurps chocolate mousse.” The awesome illustrations by their peers will inspire many more flights of the imagination.

Download here for free: The Bostik Book of Unbelievable Beasties

jane-bown-catsCats

by Jane Bown

Guardian Books/Faber & Faber, 2016

 

Sharing a life with felines is fascinating. Jane Bown, the Observer photographer who died in 2014, is best remembered for her iconic portraits. This collection of her cat photographs was compiled by Robin Christian who was her researcher and catalogued her archive. Cats includes seventy-six photographs Bown took over five decades, ranging from Jean Cocteau’s portrait with his cat Madeline to shots of the many cats in Bown’s own life. Who can resist Queenie’s trusting face or the impertinence of the three furry beauties on the kitchen counter of Bown’s Hampshire home? She was clearly in tune with the elusive nature of her feline subjects. Cats is a book to melt any cat person’s heart. The only thing which disturbed me about it is a quote by Bown: “Once you’ve owned a cat you are hooked forever.” You cannot own a cat. But they do hook one for life.

First published in the Cape Times, 11 and 18 November 2016.