Review: Asylum by Marcus Low

AsylumThere is something about a debut novel that excites beyond the ordinary experience of opening a new book by a familiar author. You have no way of knowing what to expect. When starting Marcus Low’s Asylum, I certainly did not anticipate that the novel would hold me captive for several hours. I read it in one go, even though I only intended to dip into it on the morning before its launch at the Book Lounge last month. A friend of mine was interviewing the author at the event and I meant to go to support my friend. By the time I arrived at the bookshop, however, I was there to cheer on everybody involved. Marcus Low has got himself a fan.

Asylum tells the story of Barry Wilbert James. He is locked up under quarantine in the titular asylum. The facility is located in the unforgiving nothingness of the Karoo. The time is the not too distant future (the twenties of our present century) after pulmonary nodulosis – a lethal illness – had affected vast numbers of the population: “We are sick and therefore we are isolated, locked up. We must wait out our days here, and then die – so that the healthy ones, the ones we have forgotten about, may live.”

There is no cure. Admitted to the asylum a couple of years ago in 2019, Barry spends most of his time contemplating his lot and dreaming of distant, frozen landscapes. He avoids other detainees – a “flock of coughing corpses”. To deal with their suffering, they are mostly drugged. Remembering loved ones is devastating. Thinking of the outside world is torture, especially since its state is uncertain. Violence erupts in the midst of the hopelessness the men face. Dreams “are the only way out of here – in those dreams anything is possible, any horror, any one, any thing, even snow.” In Barry’s dreams, some people speak Polish, men in tuxedos dance at masked balls, and there is a threatening presence, but also a white pill which promises relief. And there is consolation: “For it seems to me that even in the most bleak of worlds we’ll find something to hold on to…even if that is something as impossible as snow in this godforsaken landscape.”

After a suicide attempt, a psychologist is assigned to Barry to help him cope with his situation. She advises that he keep a journal. His notebooks form the core of Asylum. It is after they are discovered and stored in the Museum of the Plague in Beaufort West in 2026 that we learn about Barry’s life in the asylum and what led him to implicate himself in some of the other patients’ plans to escape. The eight recovered notebooks – incomplete and intriguingly unreliable – are accompanied by varied notes trying to make sense of the entries and to establish a “plausible chronology”.

Low’s handling of the narrative technique is extremely deft. The lyrical meditative passages of the notebooks are interspersed with fragments, marginalia, poems, and terse academic commentary, which offers factual, but not always enlightening data. The effect is striking. What we get is a version of the story, which might or might not be true, and it is up to the readers to piece it all together in their heads. We know about the documents. We are told that they were found by one of the asylum’s doctors and passed on to the psychologist, who, in turn, donated them to the museum. We are also informed that the body of another inmate, Jonathan Fox, “was found in a shallow grave” near the asylum and that the find corresponds with Barry’s account of the man’s death.

Marcus Low used to be the policy director of the Treatment Action Campaign. At the launch of the book, he mentioned that he is gradually losing his eyesight. Both of these real-life experiences allow him a unique insight into the reality of illness and what it takes to lead a fulfilled life beyond frightening medical diagnoses. His portrayals of Barry’s daily struggles with depression, delusions and his inevitably impending death are heart-wrenching. They provide not only an incisive take on incurable illnesses, but also policymaking in such institutions as health-care facilities or old-age homes.

Asylum explores how one can deviate from a predestined plot by dreaming, or telling stories. The strategy not only applies to fiction, but also life. In the novel, an academic studying Barry’s journals in the museum suggests that the texts show Barry “preoccupied with colour and light.” Barry realises: “I started imagining that someone would one day read all this…That is why I could keep on with it, why it became an obsession, why I’m sitting here now, months later, filling page after page of this notebook.”

Speculative, post-apocalyptic fiction has now firmly established itself in contemporary South African literature. Marcus Low’s Asylum is a remarkable addition to the genre. I am not the only one who found it unputdownable. Friends report similar experiences. Thought-provoking, alluring and sensitively written, it is a mesmerising novel which announces a new thrilling talent on the local literary scene.


by Marcus Low

Picador Africa, 2017

Review first published in the Cape Times on 12 May 2017.


Book review: Syd Kitchen – Scars that Shine by Donvé Lee

Syd-Kitchen-Cover-3D-199x300A few years ago when I read Donvé Lee’s illuminating debut novel An Intimate War (2010), I promised myself that I would read anything this author writes. I doubt I would have picked up Syd Kitchen’s biography otherwise. Kitchen’s name meant nothing to me before I read the book. An acoustic folk musician who came into prominence in South Africa in the 1970s, Syd Kitchen was not the kind of person I enjoy reading about: an addict and a gambler who “didn’t so much as burn the candle at both ends as apply a blowtorch to the middle” (according to Michael Cross). But there is no doubt that he had a unique talent and a charisma which touched many people’s lives, and Lee’s compassionate portrayal of the man made me curious about his music.

Born in Durban on Valentine’s Day in 1951, Syd Kitchen led a life marred by substance abuse and resulting poverty. A self-taught guitarists, songwriter and performer, he just about tried everything apart from conformity. His rebellious nature often brought him in conflict with other musicians and the record companies. A victim of sexual abuse, he found it difficult to find healing and stability in his life. But all his life he was surrounded by adoring fans, especially women, and friends who carried him through until self-neglect eventually killed him much too early, at the young age of sixty.

He became an iconic figure in the music circles around South Africa. The title of his fourth album – Africa’s Not for Sissies (2001) – became a well-known catchphrase. His international breakthrough arrived late in his life, and although it was relatively small, it was significant. Several documentaries record his life. Lee’s is the first biography.

I love the scene with which Lee opens the book: Sev Kitchen, one of Syd’s two daughters, once asked her father why he wasn’t “as big” as other musicians in the country. He explained that he was “like a special braai marinade…tangy mango orange chutney with a bit of chocolate in it. Very few people might like it but the ones that do will only eat that.” Sev goes on to observe that her father was “not just going to go and be sticky barbecue for everyone.” Nor will Lee’s book be, but Scars that Shine is a fascinating biography even if you do not know the subject.

Lee writes the biography in the guise of an autobiography, allowing Kitchen to tell his own story in the first person. It is no mean feat. Her own voice only surfaces distinctly in the Foreword where she recalls how the idea for the book came about and tells us: “The more I delved into Syd Kitchen’s extraordinary life, the more Syds I uncovered. I found a saint, a scholar, and a skollie. I found an insufferable narcissist, a profoundly lovable but troubled human being, and a man who planted fertile seeds as he danced through the lives of others.” Lee’s biography can be counted among them.

Syd Kitchen: Scars that Shine

by Donvé Lee

Tracey McDonald Publishers, 2017

An edited version of this review appeared in the Cape Times on 5 May 2017.

Book review: Invisible Others by Karina M. Szczurek


“And your work – is it inspired by soul or conscience?”


A writer from South Africa, Cara meets a Polish historian, Konrad in Paris, both trying to deal with scars of their complex pasts. Cara recovering from an affair with a famous painter, Lucas that ended tragically; Konrad still grieving over the death of the women he loved. There’s also Lucas and his wife Dagmar who have their own ghosts to deal with. All these characters’ journeys are touching and exquisitely written.

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”  This book, although fiction, makes you hang on to that saying and you realise again how much truth there is to it.

Thank you to my friend Louis Wiid (Author of Submerged) for suggesting this book. I cannot remember when last I was moved this deeply by a book. The story evokes…

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Book review: Flame and Song – A Memoir by Philippa Namutebi Kabali-Kagwa and How to Open the Door by Marike Beyers


cover-marike-beyers_how-to-open-the-doorIn 2013, South African-born author Deborah Levy published Things I don’t want to know, a response to George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Why I write”. The Notting Hill Editions version of this exquisite book flourishes two quotes on the cover. On the front: “To become a writer, I had to learn to interrupt, to speak up, to speak up a little louder, and then louder, and then to just speak in my own voice which is not loud at all.” On the back: “Perhaps when Orwell described sheer egoism as a necessary quality for a writer, he was not thinking about sheer egoism of a female writer. Even the most arrogant female writer has to work over time to build an ego that is robust enough to get her through January, never mind all the way to December.”

Flame-and-Song-front-cover-320x480Levy’s incisive essay was very much on my mind when I was reading two recent titles published by Modjaji Books: the poetry volume How to open the door by Marike Beyers, and the memoir Flame and song by Philippa Namutebi Kabali-Kagwa. But it took me a while to figure out what the connection my intuition had been suggesting was, and then it hit me: since its inception, Modjaji Books has been offering a publishing platform for loud books by authors with soft voices – the kind of soft which utters the most powerful messages. No shouting necessary, please; we are getting all the way to the end of the year here.

“A female writer cannot afford to feel her life too clearly. If she does, she will write in a rage when she should write calmly,” says Levy. Exploring what it means to be a woman who wants to write, and echoing Virginia Woolf’s classic A room of one’s own (1928), Levy speaks up for the things one desires, about “being in the world and not defeated by it”.

Marike Beyers is a poet. Philippa Namutebi Kabali-Kagwa is a storyteller, with published poetry and children’s books to her name. How to open the door and Flame and song are books about “being in the world and not defeated by it”…

Continue reading: LitNet


Book review: The Shallows by Ingrid Winterbach

The Shallows“Winterbach is the kind of writer any literature could be envious of” – Marlene van Niekerk is quoted on the cover of The Shallows, Ingrid Winterbach’s latest novel translated from the Afrikaans into English. The original, Vlakwater, was published in 2015. One of South Africa’s most distinguished novelists, Winterbach is the author of ten other highly acclaimed novels, five of which are also obtainable in English. Anyone who has engaged with her work will understand what a privilege it is to have it available in translation. She is a quintessentially Afrikaans, South African, writer; her narratives are deeply rooted in the local consciousness. However, their appeal is truly universal. The stories she tells, the way she tells them, remind me of authors like the American Siri Hustvedt, or the Pole Olga Tokarczuk, or the Israeli Etgar Keret. They come up more easily for comparison than other compatriots. In fact, the only writer I can think of locally whose work displays a similar storytelling intuition is the translator of The Shallows, Michiel Heyns. The supple prose of his translation testifies to the perfect match.

Winterbach once spoke about her novels as not being plot-driven. She compared writers to sea creatures: some have impressive, strong fins with which they propel themselves through the twists and turns of the novel’s plot; others develop short flippers that serve similar purposes, but perhaps less obviously and with fewer display tendencies. She felt she belonged to the latter group. Despite the title of her latest novel, Winterbach’s powerful flippers in The Shallows take the reader into the deepest waters of what it means to be human, especially a creative being, in our contemporary world.

The novel begins at an undertaker where two people go to view the body of a deceased friend: “The time there was sacred. That is how I see it in retrospect.” The woman telling the story confesses on the first page: “In the course of my life I’ve done irresponsible things. I have at times been dishonest and unfaithful. But I am loyal to those I love.” She is one of a stellar cast of intriguing, if not bizarre, characters we encounter in The Shallows, and Winterbach is a master of characterisation: “I was born with a cleft palate and a harelip. I have a broad, flattish nose, a narrow forehead and hair as abundant as that of a Catholic saint… I couldn’t drink properly as a baby and I had trouble learning to talk. As a result I was a furious and frustrated child.” The nameless narrator adds: “People of both sexes find me sexually either irresistible or repulsive.” After the death of her friend, she decides to write a monograph on the famous Olivier twins whose moving-image work has conquered the international artist scene. For the book, she interviews the brothers’ father with whom she shares a dark past.

Her narration is interspersed with the story of Nick Steyn, a painter who moves from Stellenbosch to Cape Town after separating from his long-term partner. He takes on a lodger, Charelle, a young promising photographer with whom he develops a tentative friendship. He also becomes friends with Marthinus, one of his neighbours, after discovering a pig belonging to the man roaming in his garden: “Side by side they stood on the stoep contemplating the creature. A big, black pig serenely grazing.”

Over beers and obscure masterpieces of world cinema, Nick and Marthinus exchange recollections of a man they both knew in the past: the writer Victor Schoeman who disappeared from their lives under suspicious circumstances. Victor is the author of a book – the titular The Shallows – which suddenly begins to resonate in the events happening around Nick and Marthinus: “Just look at The Shallows, Victor liked unusual angles, he liked complicating things, he liked unexpected twists, he liked ambiguity, he liked to shock and intrigue.” They suspect that Victor is masterminding, or is at least somehow implicated, in the strange coincidences occurring in their lives.

One day, Charelle disappears without a trace and the notorious artist Buks Verhoef makes an offer on Nick’s house. Soon after, Verhoef is shot in a coffee shop in Stellenbosch. He dies in the arms of the nameless narrator we are introduced to on the opening pages of Winterbach’s delightfully peculiar novel – the other The Shallows we are holding in our hands.

Winterbach is never afraid to take risks, to experiment with form and style. Her work provides intellectual and aesthetic pleasure. She challenges her readers: makes us think and cry and laugh. There are moments of sublime tenderness in her narratives which take your breath away, and all you can do is sit in silent wonder, marvel at the ordinariness and the mystery of our reality unfold right in front of our eyes. None of it is contrived.

There is a scene in the novel where Nick remembers the last trip with his former partner: “Isabel had one day, sitting across from him in the museum cafeteria, suddenly interrupted her bitter diatribe and said: Console me. It was so unexpected that he didn’t know whether he’d heard her aright. Console me, she said again. He was caught unawares. They looked at each other. He didn’t know what to say. She looked down. She’d seen his incapacity. There were tears in her eyes. She got up.”

In contrast, Winterbach’s writing has the astounding capacity to console, to find meaning in a meaningless world.

The Shallows

by Ingrid Winterbach

translated by Michiel Heyns

Human & Rousseau, 2017

Review first published in the Cape Times on 31 March 2017.

Interview: Patriots & Parasites

Dene Smuts

In her remarkable memoir, Patriots & Parasites, the late Dene Smuts writes:

“If the question is whether South Africa can evade history, then we need, at least, to hold up as true a record as possible of that history. The best way of doing so where records are not available, or are as contested…, is to give as many accounts of what occurred as possible. This memoir is one such contribution to our recent history.”

Smuts writes from within history, a passionately lived history. Her fight against censorship as the editor of Fair Lady in the 1980s, her understanding of Thabo Mbeki’s legacy, and her reading of the recent Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall movements are illuminating. She is not infallible, but she is constantly aware of the fact that hers is one of many accounts, and her integrity is beyond reproach. Smuts finished her memoir shortly before her death in April last year. Her daughter, Julia Smuts Louw, guided the manuscript towards publication.

Karina M Szczurek: You became the custodian of your mother’s papers after her death. Please describe the process of the memoir’s publication under your curatorship.

Julia Smuts Louw: My mother had already been in preliminary discussions with Quivertree by the time of her death. I picked up the conversation as soon as I could, knowing that my mother had been happy with the relationship and the direction. By the time she passed away, there was a completed first draft, but it was quite different to the final version. My mother was very detail-orientated – a trait which can be a mixed blessing, as I know, having inherited it myself. Consequently, she had created quite an epic tome, which required some shortening and reorganising to make it readable for those who aren’t quite as devoted to the law as she was. It was, and remains, a book about the ideas and issues close to her heart, however. I am indebted to Angela Vogel as editor, and Jan-Jan Joubert as fact-checker and general Drawer of Hard Lines. In terms of my involvement, I became a sort of general project manager, making sure the edits made sense, overseeing picture research, writing the cover copy and press materials, collating the Festschrift tributes and so on.

KMS: The striking title was your choice. Did your mother have a different working title, and if yes, why did you choose the present one for the book?

Continue reading: LitNet

Patriots & Parasites: South Africa and the Struggle to Evade History
Dene Smuts
Publisher: Quivertree Publications
ISBN: 9781928209607

Your body never lies

K is for KarinaA while back, I spoke to a friend about the phrases ‘to handle something’ or ‘to have a grip on something’ in connection with the physical ability to hold, handle, or have a grip on something as a manifestation of an emotional and psychological capability.

Another friend once told me: your body never lies. She was adamant that we have to listen to our bodies in order to keep our minds and souls healthy.

A pain in your hands or arms could be a true psychosomatic symptom of your lack of grip on life. You are no longer capable of handling things. Metaphorically, something is slipping through your fingers and you are in no position to stop the process.

I can no longer move my right arm without experiencing pain. In fact, I am in constant pain no matter what I do. I type and write through pain. My body has been screaming for a long time now, and I have been trying really hard to listen to it attentively, but I realise that I have lost my grip on something, perhaps many things, and it is no wonder that I have been dreaming of rest, of doing nothing, of simply relaxing and allowing myself to recharge the batteries that have been empty for many months. I am no longer handling my everyday life the way I would like to. My mind, body and soul find no peace. In the last three years I have been through so much that expecting anything different would be expecting miracles. Grief, illness, theft, evil, betrayal, injustice, incompetence, car accident – any of these blows of fate would be enough to break you. Facing all within a relatively short period of time takes a lot out of you. No; not a lot. Everything.

Listening to your body is one thing. Action is another. Or rather inaction.

Since February I have been telling friends that I would be taking some time off to rest. No deadlines, no creative or critical writing, no editing, no translating, no appointments – no work of any kind actually. Just rest: meeting friends, reading for pure pleasure, sleeping late, walking, swimming, watching TV, basking in the sun, laughing (a lot!).

I have never been bored in my life. Maybe I could get bored for once? How long would it take?

K is for kindness tooI had this grand plan of learning how to quilt while resting (I always find it reassuring, comforting, to see something come into being in my hands – activities like crocheting, knitting, or ironing soothe me). But now, not only has my plan of a self-imposed sabbatical been delayed because of work-related commitments I simply cannot get out of (I know, I know!) by two to three weeks, I actually cannot quilt, at least not until my arm recovers.

It is pathetic.

I realise that it is so much easier to take care of others. Now, I have to learn to truly take care of myself. I will do my job, because it is important to me, but I also have to grant myself some proper rest – because I am important to myself. When you live on your own, it is a surprisingly difficult lesson to learn. But, in the words of Manuel: “I learn, I learn!”

Be kind to yourself, they tell me. I try.


Review: Stanzas No. 4

Stanzas 4Stanzas No 4
June 2016
Editors: Patricia Schonstein and Douglas Reid Skinner
Publisher: African Sun Press

Poetry is balm for the soul. Even when touching on rough or depressing topics, there is something about the distilled, focused, observant quality of the form that brings comfort. Stanzas is a poetry quarterly featuring established and emerging South African writers, as well as local and international poets in translation. Publishing predominantly in English, it also includes translations into and from Afrikaans. It promises “an open space where poetry matters”, and offers a versatile selection of voices.

Any conscious language practitioner will know how heavily loaded words can be. Language is a record; every word contains a universe of memories. Poets have the ability to draw on that wealth and create snapshots of time and place, people and emotions, where whole worlds collide to hold diverse images in their manifold constellations…

Continue reading: LitNet

Review: Easy Motion Tourist by Leye Adenle

Easy-Motion-Tourist-UK-cover“She knew these girls, these women. She understood their world. For them, prostitution was not a choice; it was a lack of choice.” Amaka, a gutsy lawyer trying to protect the sex workers of Lagos, knows that most of them will never get off the streets. Leye Adenle’s thriller Easy Motion Tourist is their story.

All Amaka wants is that the women in her care stay as safe as possible under the circumstances. Sometimes keeping them simply alive is as much as she can hope for. She establishes a secret network of contacts and a database of details on clients who pay for sex. The women Amaka works with can phone in and keep tabs on each other’s movements. Then, one day, one of the prostitutes turns up mutilated and dead in front of a bar where Guy, a British journalist, is trying against better judgement to appease his curiosity about local nightlife: “I was a white boy in Africa for the first time, on assignment to cover a presidential election that was still weeks away, the outcome of which was a foregone conclusion. This was only my second day in Lagos and the first night I’d gone out alone – exactly what I’d been advised not to do.”

Witness to the body-dump, Guy is arrested for questioning and rescued by Amaka at the police station where he see another gruesome murder of a suspect in police custody and has to fear the worst for himself. Together with the streetwise and brave Amaka, he embarks on a mission to find out who is behind the horrific killing of the prostitute, but he is completely out of his depth. He pretends to work for the BBC but is actually a reporter for a start-up internet TV news channel.

Guy decides to write about what he had witnessed, suspecting like everyone else that the murder was one of many ritual killings. “Every time there is an election we find dead bodies everywhere,” he is told; people are “doing juju to win elections”. During the investigation Guy begins to fall for Amaka, but is unsure whether she returns his feelings.

The story of the murder is reported on CNN, causing a lot of unease among the Lagos elites. Pressure is put on police inspector Ibrahim to solve the case and to protect the affluent from the ensuing chaos. A lot seems to be at stake, but no one truly knows what is happening behind the scenes and who is the mysterious Malik. Is he running the show? Is someone killing these women for witchcraft or illegal organ trade?

From luxurious hotel rooms to the gutters of Lagos, Easy Motion Tourist presents an uneasy, brutal metropolis where only the toughest survive: “a city of armed robbers, assassinations and now, it seemed, ‘ritualists’ had to be added to the list.” But among the ruthless violence and corruption there are rays of light, and Easy Motion Tourist offers an intriguing ending which might mean a promising sequel.

Easy Motion Tourist

by Leye Adenle

Cassava Republic Press, 2016

An edited version of this review appeared in the Cape Times on 10 March 2017.