My favourite books in 2017

My books 2017In no particular order, nor according to any genre categories, these are simply the books I enjoyed reading – for whatever reasons – the most this year. Some of them were not published in 2017, but I only got around to reading them now. This list excludes some recently released treats which are still waiting for me during the festive season.

I read just over sixty titles in the past twelve months. Not my best achievement by far, but I find that every year I get better at choosing what to read to avoid disappointment.

The six books published in 2017 which provided me with most joy were Ingrid Winterbach’s The Shallows, Hedley Twidle’s Firepool: Experiences in an Abnormal World, Sara-Jayne King’s Killing Karoline, John Maytham’s Rapid Fire: Remarkable Miscellany, Anne Fadiman’s The Wine Lover’s Daughter: A Memoir, and Lyndall Gordon’s Outsiders: Five Women Writers Who Changed the World.

Next year promises to be an exciting one in literary terms and I hope to make it to my usual eighty books in a year. Wishing you all happy reading and kind and peaceful holidays!

 

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Review: Rapid Fire – Remarkable Miscellany by John Maytham

Rapid FireCapeTalk radio station’s Rapid Fire feature will be familiar to many listeners in the Cape. During the segment, two people phone in with general knowledge questions and John Maytham, the host of the afternoon drive show, attempts to answer them on air. Independent of whether he knows the correct answer or not, the question deemed more interesting by the CapeTalk team present in the studio receives a prize. Rapid Fire: Remarkable Miscellany is a collection of the most fascinating questions asked on the programme over the years. Using what he refers to as his “magpie memory” and traversing the depths and widths of the internet, Maytham provides the answers to them all in an accessible, lively manner in this quirky book.

What crime would you have to commit to deserve the punishment poena cullei? Who links Manchester United, South Africa, sunburn, and stripping? How did spam mail get its name? Where would you be if you were on the Looney Tunes approach? How does happy hour affect insects? Which Table Mountain plant could be considered racists? How fat do you have to be to be bulletproof? What shape is wombat poo? Or why are manhole covers round? Divided into eighteen categories, ranging from “Life and death” to “Red herrings”, the questions and answers of Rapid Fire will enlighten and entertain you, and when shared with friends, they will enliven any dinner conversation.

Rapid Fire is a fun way to enrich one’s general knowledge. It is the perfect gift for anyone, independent of age or reading preference. Some of the questions might sound obvious, but the answers will astonish, amuse or embarrass you. In case you still believe that polar bears are white, you better read this book. Paging through the Rapid Fire miscellany, your feline or canine companions might be shocked to discover they are chinless, and understanding how challenging sexual intercourse in space is might put you off your dreams of visiting Mars, but knowing whose cooking recipes are lethal will definitely save your life. Rapid Fire is a delightfully informative read.

Review: Post-Truth – Why We Have Reached Peak Bullshit and What Can We Do About It by Evan Davis

Post Truth

Thinking about any kind of deceit, I always remember my mother’s explanation of the circumstances when lying is acceptable. I was still quite young and she told me that when one of my family members (today a strikingly attractive woman) was born, she looked like a rat. Although all could see the resemblance, everyone commented on the cuteness of the child at the time. In Polish, this is also called a white lie. It is a form of bullshit, but it is not only socially acceptable, but an indication of good manners. In his Post-Truth: Why We Have Reached Peak Bullshit and What Can We Do About It, the journalist and BBC presenter Evan Davis gives another such example: being polite by lying about the deliciousness of the burned pudding your host serves you for dinner.

White lies can be considered innocent, but the trouble with our present reality, as Davis states, is that it has become exceptionally swamped by the kind of bullshit that is truly threatening. Unsurprisingly, Trump and Brexit feature prominently between the covers of Post-Truth.

Davis speaks about the “two things that underlie a lot of bullshit”: it is “a form of communication that is, loosely speaking, too cheap to properly distinguish a genuine and a fake message”, and it suggests “some misalignment of interests that gives reason for someone to be a fake in the first place.” The latter is especially fascinating, and Davis shows that the manner of how and by whom bullshit is delivered can communicate something of importance that is more reliable as an act of communication than the message itself.

I was mostly captivated by the second part of the book’s subtitle, wanting a guide on how to discriminate between the bullshit we are constantly bombarded with and messages of proper value. Forms of mendacity Davis discusses are “readily apparent to anyone who cares to notice… Their transparency gives rise to one of the mysteries of modern communication: why peddle this stuff if we can all see through it?” Curiosity, doubt, and experience enable us to develop and train pretty dependable bullshit detectors. But bullshit can be so insidious that it escapes even the most watchful eyes. The advice Davis offers against falling for it is often intuitive, and once you read it, it seems pretty self-evident, and yet it is hard to formulate it as succinctly and coherently as Davis does. Contemplating the research and examples he provides you see how aptly he pours those intuitions into words.

Davis proposes two vital questions that should be posed of any message out there to determine what we are dealing with: “does the communicator have an interest in directly deceiving, or in trying to impress? And does the way they have tried to persuade us they are honest and genuine really show that they mean what they say?”

In his research, Davis delves into the human psyche and delivers some home truths about our behaviour: “As part of the mental process of self-justification that we all engage in when we do something wrong, the near-lie offers comfort. It assuages guilt, allowing the perpetrator the self-respect of being able to say to themselves that no lie was told. Let’s admit it: we have all been there, we have all taken advantage of that distinction at some point.”

Writing about the dangers of “the rhetoric of politicians, populists or demagogues”, Davis points out that the worst of them “make successful appeals to anger and fear, frame problems in terms of one group versus another and wrap their worldview up in appealing stories that have a distorted plausibility.” Sadly, his kind of communication will be all too familiar to South Africans. “The techniques of propagandists have been well studied and it is hard to be comfortable with them.”

It seems so easy to abuse our emotions when anger and fear are in play. To guard against such exploitation, as Robert Schindler put it to Davis: “The thing that needs to be fixed is for people to be more in touch with their feelings… If you’re in touch with your feelings you’re better able to handle people trying to influence you by those feelings. You know what’s happening and you can decide whether to act on it or not.” As Davis states, there are occasions when we do not mind having our feelings manipulated and he gives the example of “tear-jerking Christmas ads”, but on the whole it is wise to interrogate those feelings and intuitions rigorously. A Christmas ad is one thing, Newspeak is another.

Whether in politics, advertisement, journalism or social media, we have reached overwhelming levels of deception in the public space. Calculating the price of a communication is an intriguing way of discerning what is worthwhile because “useful signals tend to be expensive” and “by contrast bullshit as a phenomenon is characterised by its cheapness. Words cost nothing to say and so have limited power is helping us to distinguish between the genuine and the fake.”

Despite the mostly grim topic, there is a lot of humour in Post-Truth and I found myself chuckling along the way. I had a really good laugh at a tongue-in-cheek self-reflective comment about endnotes in an endnote to Chapter 3, referring to the form of bullshit they can be indicative of. The book prompts you to interrogate your own forms of communication, not only those of others. Having been tortured by the bullshitting jargon of academia for many years (and Davis extends revealing comments about the meaning of tertiary education degrees), I repeatedly thought of the philosopher Karl Popper and his view that “aiming at simplicity and lucidity is a moral duty of all intellectuals: lack of clarity is a sin, and pretentiousness is a crime.” What I appreciated most about Post-Truth was that it never gave the impression that the author was trying to peddle anything to me. The book is accessible, entertaining and highly informative.

Post-Truth: Why We Have Reached Peak Bullshit and What Can We Do About It

by Evan Davis

Little, Brown, 2017

Review first published in the Cape Times, 8 December 2017.

Review: The Wine Lover’s Daughter by Anne Fadiman

Anne FadimanAnyone who has read Anne Fadiman before will know what to expect of her latest book, The Wine Lover’s Daughter: A Memoir – excellent writing. I adore her work. It engages, soothes and delights me. She could write about any topic and I would want to read what she has to say. Her superb The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures (1997) is one of the most insightful renderings of the challenges which people encounter across cultures and languages. She is a master of the familiar essay. Book lovers will remember her marvellous Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader (1998), Fadiman’s declaration of love for the written word.

Writing about your family members can be daunting, not a task to be undertaken lightly. Fadiman does it with wit and style. The Wine Lover’s Daughter is another of Fadiman’s declarations of love – the one she feels for her late father, the formidable Clifton Fadiman whose life spanned most of the twentieth century. A man of letters, an extraordinary editor, a famous radio and television personality, Clifton Fadiman was also known as a wine connoisseur and collector who drank half a bottle – seldom less or more – every night at dinner time until he was well into his nineties. “He once said that the cork was one of three inventions that had proved unequivocally beneficial to the human race. (The others were the wheel and Kleenex.)”

In remembering the life of her remarkable father, Fadiman does not gloss over the uncomfortable flaws of his character. This is true love, warts and all. She writes with compassion and humour, drawing a picture of a man who was deeply ashamed of his roots and desperate to escape them: “as a young man he had looked around him and realized that things were run by people who spoke well and who were not Jewish, not poor, and not ugly. He couldn’t become a gentile, but there was nothing to stop him from acquiring money and perfect language. The ugliness was a self-deprecatory exaggeration.” He was hard-working and on a mission: he did not want to be a “meatball”, transforming diligently “into something approximating foie gras.”

His family was worried about him when he was growing up, “since all he seemed able to do was read.” But that passion led him straight to the offices of the prestigious publisher Simon & Schuster, where he remained for most of his life. He was conservative in many ways but never adverse to dialogue, reshaping his views as the world around him was changing. He allowed his children to find their own ways. His daughter’s journey included coming to terms with the fact that, although she followed in his footsteps as a writer, wine did not agree with her palate.

The Wine Lover’s Daughter is a literary treat of note. Tender and generous, it will go well with half a bottle of your favourite vintage.

The Wine Lover’s Daughter: A Memoir

by Anne Fadiman

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017

Review first published in the Cape Times, 24 November 2017.

Review: Love, Africa – A Memoir of Romance, War, and Survival by Jeffrey Gettleman

Love Africa“It’s easy to explain why you like something. But love? That’s tricky. That’s a story, not a sentence,” writes Jeffrey Gettleman, a foreign correspondent for the New York Times, in his first book, Love, Africa: A Memoir of Romance, War, and Survival. This is the story of two “obsessions”: a woman and a continent. As a young man, Gettleman travels to Africa for the first time and meets Courtenay, a fellow Cornell student. Both encounters shape the rest of his life. Now in his late forties, Gettleman has come to call Nairobi his home; and after many ups and downs, he and Courtenay married and started a family in Kenya.

In the early days, one of Gettleman’s friends and mentors, Dan Eldon, asks at a campfire in the Mikumi National Park: “You guys ever wonder what to do with a landscape like this? It’s, like, beautiful food you can eat; a beautiful woman you can kiss; but what are you going to do with a landscape this beautiful?” You can love it. If you are a journalist, you can also attempt to capture it in words. Gettleman credits Eldon for making “that all-important introduction: Jeff, World. World, Jeff.”

It is through his journeys to Africa and the people he encounters here that Gettleman decides to become a reporter and dreams of being a foreign correspondent in East Africa. “But writing is like travelling. Often you have to pass through a bunch of places you don’t want to visit in order to arrive where you do.” After interviewing the likes of Desmond Tutu and Salman Rushdie for a student newspaper as a graduate, Gettleman eventually cut his journalistic teeth in Brooksville, central Florida, at the St. Petersburg Times where he covered “small-town carnage, one-on-one war”. One of his big stories at the time was about the child molester and murderer, Willie Crain – “the ultimate depths of depravity”.

In 1999, Gettleman became a general assignment reporter for the Los Angeles Times. Soon after, he was writing from Afghanistan and the Middle East, and in 2002, he transferred to the New York Times – initially as a domestic correspondent, before he was sent to Iraq. It was only in 2006 that his Africa dream came true as he took over as chief of the East Africa bureau of the newspaper in Nairobi.

Gettleman won the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting in 2012. Even if you don’t know his journalism, reading the memoir you will understand why. His writing is visceral; it is impossible to remain unaffected. He states: “There’s exactly one difference between an adventure and a tragedy: death.” Right from the tense opening pages of Love, Africa you know how tightly these two are intertwined, how high the stakes. The memoir exemplifies a hard lesson Gettleman learns – the one that contrasts a life wasted and a life lived: “Or maybe the lesson was simpler. It wasn’t about death. It was about life. It’s never long enough. So get it while you can.”

Gettleman is not the first mzungu to fall hook, line and sinker for this continent. Many have written about their experiences. What makes Love, Africa stand out among the diverse accounts is the vulnerability that Gettleman allows to underpin his writing. He constantly challenges, and accepts when necessary, his limitations as a journalist: “I didn’t have the capacity to absorb all that was being asked of me, nor the courage to tell these men who were putting their hand on my heart the truth. I wasn’t a conduit to a just world. I was simply a reporter.” But there is no doubt that he and others can make a difference, whether in small ways to individual lives they touch or on a grand scale when reporting leads to deeper awareness and changes in policy making. At one stage Gettleman notes: “if we could break Iraq, just imagine what we could do to a really poor place where few were watching.” He is fearless in his criticism, whether of his own or other governments – the right and the courage to do so should never be taken for granted.

There is no way of escaping helplessness in the face of the atrocities Gettleman has to cover as a reporter, and searching for the right way to do it is one of the most vital tasks. When writing, he finds himself having to fight editors for single words like “hacked” to express what he’d witnessed. But as he points out, “just because there was a million questions about what exactly you should do, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do anything.”

Some of his observations seem simple, but go to the heart of conflicts we hear about on the news or experience in our everyday. The following struck me in particular: “Elections are anxious in most Africa… They are not just a race. They are a test. The key questions is never who wins. It’s whether the loser accepts.” And this: “The only African countries that succeeded in overcoming this [colonial divisions] and building anything close to a national identity were those that took forceful steps to neutralize ethnicity or tribe (I use the terms interchangeably).”

Exploitation and betrayal mark our socio-political legacies. Gettleman’s greatest achievement in the book is to trace his own personal, intimate history of both against the background of the global story. His honesty is disarming as he recalls his path towards loyalty and integrity. It is strewn with the suffering of others, especially Courtenay. “I have few regrets in life,” he writes, “but here I wished I could redo everything. But I couldn’t, which left me simply hoping that that clumsy, hurtful time would slip deeper and deeper into a softly entombed past, like the tracks we left behind in the desert that the evening winds gently erased.” In the end, he is redeemed by the ancient truth: “This is all I need, my freedom and you. Take everything else from me. It doesn’t matter.”

Love, Africa: A Memoir of Romance, War, and Survival

by Jeffrey Gettleman

HarperCollins, 2017

Edited version of this review was first published in the Cape Times on 24 November 2017.

Review: Camino Island by John Grisham

Camino IslandJohn Grisham has published two dozen books since I last read him at university. His The Partner was my introduction to the thriller genre and, thinking back to the impact the brilliant twist at the end of the novel had on me, I still think I could not have asked for a better one. Twenty years on, and I still remember the shock and delight of the final revelation. Grisham had me fooled as much as the main character had been fooled by the real “partner” of the story. I read some of his other titles at the time, have watched a few of the films based on his books since then and loved all, but have not longed to return to reading Grisham until recently. The premise of Camino Island sounded too intriguing for a reader and writer like me to resist. Once again, Grisham did not disappoint.

This crime thriller is set in a world which will feel familiar to anyone who has ever been interested in the secret lives of books. How they are written, when do their manuscripts become precious and why, how do they change hands when they are published and when does their possession become a criminal offense are only some of the questions that perhaps not all readers ask themselves, but Camino Island answers in the most entertaining fashion. The story is relatively simple: the priceless manuscripts of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s five only novels are stolen from the Princeton University during a nearly perfectly executed heist. The opening chapters focus on the tense choreography of the criminal plan. A single drop of blood from one of the thieves leads to the first arrests of suspects, but they refuse to talk to the authorities and the trail to the missing treasure goes dead.

The FBI’s Rare Asset Recovery Unit is doing its best to find the manuscripts insured at a value of $25 million – the amount at stake for the prestigious insurance company which has to pay out if the goods are not recovered. Working closely with the FBI, Elaine Shelby begins an investigation on their behalf. Her approach boarders on illegal, but seems to have been far more effective in the past than official routes, and her latest plan looks like it might have a chance to succeed again.

Elaine recruits Mercer Mann, the protagonist of Camino Island, to spy on Bruce Kable, a bookshop owner located on the titular island in Florida and suspected of dealing in stolen rare books and manuscripts. The Fitzgerald originals are believed to be in his hands.

Mercer is a young, talented writer with a crippling university debt to pay off and on the verge of losing her job. She has a short-story collection and a highly acclaimed novel to her name, but has been experiencing a few years of a creative drought since her last publication and is desperate to write again. To escape her predicament she agrees to help Elaine who makes her a financial offer she can hardly refuse in her situation. She returns to Camino Island where she used to visit her beloved grandmother every summer when she was a child and where she still part-owns the cottage which she inherited when the grandmother died eleven years ago. Mercer’s assignment is to start on her second novel, get close to the other writers based on the island and, most importantly, to the mysterious bookseller at the centre of the literary community. Elaine hopes that Mercer can infiltrate the island’s literary scene in time to discover whether Bruce Kable is somehow involved with the disappearance of the Fitzgerald manuscripts and whether they are indeed hidden somewhere on the island.

A cat and mouse game ensues. No one knows whom to trust and what to do. And the people initially responsible for the theft of the irreplaceable manuscripts and not apprehended by the FBI are following their own agenda. They will stop at nothing to get their share of the millions the manuscripts are estimated to be worth on the black market.

Grisham delivers what he is famous for: the ultimate page-turner. I found myself as much involved with the plot as with the lives of his fascinating characters: the struggling writer who can’t make ends meet, longing “for the freedom of facing each day with nothing to do but write her novels and stories”, but aware that she might be selling her soul to the devil in order to achieve her dream; the bookseller who knows how to charm and satisfy his customers so as not to only stay in business but to prosper; his highly successful wife who spends a lot of time in France searching for antiques she sells on to discerning American buyers and seems to have no qualms about her own or her husband’s infidelities; the two gay women known for their bestselling romance novels and their writer friend whose new manuscript promises to be a flop while alcoholism threatens to destroy him; or the sly agent working around the clock to retrieve the stolen goods as her boss is liable to cover the insurance claim in case she fails.

What I do not recollect from my initial reading of Grisham twenty or so years ago is whether the prose of the early novels was as bland as this recent offering. There was not a single exceptional sentence in Camino Island that would have made me wonder at the ingenuity of the writer. Having experienced the stylistic prowess of a thriller writer like Mick Herron in the past few months, I was particularly struck how unappealing Grisham’s was in this respect. And yet, I confess to not having been able to put the novel down. Camino Island was great fun and it made me want to catch up on my Grisham reading. Apparently his next legal thriller, The Rooster Bar, is already in the bookshops. Exciting holiday read guaranteed.

Camino Island

John Grisham

Hodder & Stoughton, 2017

Review first published in the Cape Times, 17 November 2017.

Review: The Blessed Girl by Angela Makholwa

The Blessed GirlThe Blessed Girl is Angela Makholwa’s fourth novel. Although it was published only a few weeks ago, it has already gone into its second print run and I have an idea it is not going to be its last. The book sheds light on a phenomenon which has moved into the public eye in the last couple of years: the life of a blessee (usually a woman “who lives a luxurious lifestyle funded by an older, sometimes married partner in return for sexual favours” and who flashes that lifestyle on social media) and her blessers (the sponsors of that lifestyle and recipients of the sexual favours).

In interviews, Makholwa has stated that she did a lot of research into these opulent lifestyles and has spoken to people involved first-hand, even registering for a website which connects potential blessees with their blessers. The outcome is an authentic portrayal of the scene. Makholwa’s wit will make you laugh but while entertaining, she incisively delves into the much darker aspects of her story than the glitter lives of her characters would suggest on the surface. The Blessed Girl reads like chick-lit and does what the best of its kind achieve: for all its humour and light touches, it is a very serious analysis of the topic at hand.

Bontle Tau is the narrator of the novel and the blessee who seems to have it all: she is not even thirty, has the looks of a supermodel, owns her own penthouse apartment, drives a luxury car, throws money around on fancy restaurants, beauty treatments and designer goods like there is no tomorrow. She is offered business opportunities most of us can only dream of. It all comes at a price, of course. She is at the beck and call of her three main blessers who are all older, married, more or less affluent, and use her as they please. But she wants us to believe that it is all worth it, that she is the one exploiting others, not the other way around.

Bontle is not the kind of woman you would necessarily want to be friends with, and Makholwa makes sure that we know not to trust all that her protagonist is trying to sell to us, but she gives Bontle a voice that is genuine and thus allows us to care for her in a manner which surprised me. As the story progresses and Bontle’s seemingly charmed life unravels on the pages in front of us, it is nearly impossible not to feel empathy for the young woman as she makes her choices and deals with the ones forced on her. Makholwa paints a credible, moving backstory for her which explains Bontle’s position in life. It fills you with sorrow and anger. The ending of The Blessed Girl looked predictable at times, but Makholwa managed to surprise and I appreciated the unusual way Bontle’s fate unfolded. A book of our times; not to be missed.

The Blessed Girl

Angela Makholwa

Pan Macmillan, 2017

Review first published in the Cape Times, 10 November 2017.

Angela Makholwa and Lauren Smith

Angela Makholwa and Lauren Smith at the launch of The Blessed Girl at the Book Lounge.

 

A time of feathers

HopeTraumatic events in your life have a tendency of distorting your perception of time. Accumulated layers of distress and pain can be paralysing. One of the saddest consequences of trauma is that it often becomes extremely difficult to live beyond the present moment, to imagine a future, especially a future that is kinder, filled with light. Survival mode takes a lot out of you. You have to be careful with your limited resources to simply take the next breath, to move one step forward. Just keeping still requires enormous effort.

I have been thinking a lot about my own near-inability in the last three years to make long-term plans. A year ago around this time, it felt like there was hardly any future left to look forward to. I lived from day to day, managing, coping. It is a strange state of being – when you don’t ask of a day, What good things may I expect of you? but just pray to get through it. And then, of course, the night awaits, and the morning beyond can feel like an eternity away, the darkness absolute.

Despite everything, I coped. Got on with it.

The morning always arrived. Eventually an evening in November when there was a glimmer of joy. Soon after mornings began to taste of hope.

You can never know when something happens to change it all. The small kindness, the little light. The few words which flutter with true meaning.

A year later, the past is undeniably with me; the pain might be slightly more rounder, but it hasn’t disappeared; I struggle to think about things beyond the end of this year. But, my everyday is gradually overflowing with opportunities and I have more and more strength to recognise and honour them.

Most of us do not want to just cope; we want to thrive, feel content. We want to welcome every day with a smile  to say good night, not fearing the night. We want to see the future and be able to reach for it with hands capable of holding on. Mine are still frail and tired from the burdens they have had to carry, but they are reaching out. And I plan to make the most of it.

 

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –

That perches in the soul –

And sings the tune without the words –

And never stops – at all –

 

— Emily Dickinson

 

Review: Elmet by Fiona Mozley

Elmet by Fiona MozleyEvery year, I try to pick at least one of the titles shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize and read it before the winner is announced in mid-October. This time, the novel which intrigued me the most on the list was Fiona Mozley’s debut, Elmet. The narrative draws you in from the first sentence: “I cast no shadow”, it begins, and continues in Mozley’s beautifully balanced prose that is balm for the aesthetic soul: “Smoke rests behind me and daylight is stifled. I count sleepers and the numbers rush. I count rivets and bolts. I walk north. My first two steps are slow, languid.” This kind of writing is difficult to resist.

Mozley’s story is deceptively simple: the siblings Cathy and Daniel are living with Daddy in the house he built with his own hands for the family. The land their home stands on used to belong to the children’s mysteriously elusive mother. Before Daddy reclaimed the land for them, Cathy and Daniel lived with Granny Morley and still went to school. Their parents came and went for different reasons, until one day one of them did not return. And then their grandmother died and Daddy decided to move the family to the place where their mother came from. Now, a distant neighbour takes care of the children’s schooling, but otherwise they are mostly allowed to roam free. They keep house, live off the land, drink and smoke, and fend for themselves – more or less successfully. Their Daddy used to box in illegal fights arranged by migrating travellers. He never lost. His reputation opens up possibilities, but eventually also comes to haunt him and his secluded family: “Everything he did now was to toughen us up against something unseen.”

Daniel, the younger of the siblings, is the novel’s narrator. His sister is not only older but tougher, wise and brave beyond her years. Despite the seeming neglect the children experience, there is a lot of tenderness and love in the family and there is little doubt that they do the best they can to take care of their own. The place they settle in York has an ancient history. In the novel’s epigraph Mozley quotes Ted Hughes’s Remains of Elmet: “Elmet was the last independent Celtic kingdom … even into the seventeenth century […it was] a sanctuary for refugees from the law”.

Elmet is remarkable for its mythical quality. The novel is obviously set in recent times in a specific landscape, but the story could have happened anytime and anywhere where those who think and live distinctly and want to carve out an existence outside the norm are hounded down and made to conform or to pay the price for their independence. From the opening paragraphs we know that something dark and dangerous is looming. Mozley builds up her narrative masterfully and when it explodes, it leaves you reeling and dazed. She did not win the coveted prize, but Elmet was a worthy contender and Mozley is a writer to keep on your literary radar.

Elmet

by Fiona Mozley

JM Originals, 2017

Review first published in the Cape Times, 3 November 2017.

Review: Dark Chapter by Winnie M Li

Dark ChapterOpening Dark Chapter, Winnie M Li’s debut novel, you will find out the following: it is a work of fiction, but the book is “inspired by the author’s own rape in similar circumstances”. Dedicated to “all the victims and all the survivors – and most of us, who are somewhere in between”, the narrative plays out in that “in between” space and is a harrowing account of a woman’s attempt to come to terms with her new frightening reality after being raped. The circumstances Li describes are somehow unusual, the telling perhaps even more so.

The protagonist of Dark Chapter is Vivian Tan, a twenty-nine years old, highly educated, professional American living in London on a visit to West Belfast as a George Mitchell Scholar to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the peace process. She decides to explore a hiking trail recommended by her travel guidebook. Walking on her own, she is accosted by a teenager with evil on his mind. The encounter ends in a brutal rape. It turns out that Johnny, the perpetrator, is only fifteen, illiterate, and lives in a nearby caravan park with his family of Irish Travellers.

“They say events like this change your life forever”, Li begins the novel and goes on to relate how Vivian and Johnny arrived at this point in their trajectories, what circumstances shaped them, and what happened in the aftermath of the horrid attack. Vivian immediately reports the rape to the police. At first, Johnny goes on the run, but then is turned in by his own family members (who believe his sanitised version of events), so that he can attempt to clear his name in court.

Li explains in the introduction to the novel that Johnny’s part of the story is “completely made up” and that the trial in the book did not take place as the “real-life defendant pleaded guilty”. Li imagines Johnny’s life and family and friends and writes the story alternatingly from both perspectives. Creating any character is a leap of the imagination but, as a rape survivor, putting yourself into the shoes of a rapist is an incredible act of empathy and courage. Nowhere in the novel does Li excuse Johnny’s actions, but she allows him a credible voice.

Writing Vivian could not have been any easier. Li had her own experience to draw on, but one of the greatest challenges that trauma poses for a survivor is the piecing together of a coherent narrative about what happened. Dark Chapter is a palpable portrayal of a woman’s journey to recovery as she holds the youngster accountable for the crime he committed against her by entrusting her story over and over again to the authorities: “How many more times does she need to be flayed alive in this process? Every single step of seeking justice involves exposing herself, more and more.” There seems to be on other way.

Earlier this month, Dark Chapter won the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize. It is an extremely difficult but important read.

Dark Chapter

by Winnie M Li

Legend Press, 2017

Review first published in the Cape Times, 20 October 2017.