Tag Archives: Corsair

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.

 

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Even better: Best of second half of 2014 book giveaway

GiveawayIn July last year, I listed here my best reads of the first half of 2014 and gave one of the titles away to a randomly chosen person who commented on the post. The lucky winner was Solomon Meyer and I sincerely hope he has enjoyed his copy of The Maze Runner.

I would like to do the same for the second half of 2014 which turned out to be an even greater reading success than the first. Old friends & new discoveries made the list. I decided, however, to concentrate on fiction & non-fiction only. In no particular order:

?????????????????????????I love historical fiction and it hardly ever comes better than Claire Robertson’s The Spiral House (Umuzi, 2013). I heard Robertson speak at the FLF last year and was immediately intrigued. During the festival, the novel was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Fiction Prize and won subsequently to my, and many other readers’, delight. Written in a mesmerising prose which takes you into the heart of local history, the novel is a rare gem which should not be missed. Apart from anything else it is such a beautifully produced book. Well done, Umuzi!

The VisitorAnother historical title, Katherine Stansfield’s The Visitor (Parthian, 2014), will feature on all my favourites lists for a long time to come. I had the pleasure of reviewing it for the Cape Times. A gift from Robert, a dear friend with whom I studied and practised fencing at the University of Wales in Aberystwyth, this beautiful debut novel came to me when it was most needed. Set in a fictional fishing village in Cornwall towards the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, it tells the story of three friends and their community. The sea is their constant companion and witness to the love, loss and longing unfolding at its shore. Last year, I wrote an essay about the sea and its influence on my own life as a woman and a writer. The Visitor has triggered many memories and helped me focus on the task at hand. Stansfield is also a remarkable poet. Her debut collection Playing House is a delight.

People's PlatformI love engaging with the internet even though I am deeply aware of its pitfalls. I still remember AltaVista, the first chat rooms, or waiting for a page to open for twenty minutes (if you were lucky!) while doing my homework on the side. I have been fascinated by the medium for nearly as long as it exists on a global scale. The People’s Platform – Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age by Astra Taylor (Fourth Estate, 2014) is one of those must reads if you want to consciously participate in the digital age and not be simply reduced to a consumer, abused by power and greed. Culture is one of our most precious resources and treasures. To allow it to waste away in this precarious environment is criminal.

Dont Film YourselfAnother must for the internet age: Don’t Film Yourself Having Sex and Other Legal Advice for the Age of Social Media (Penguin, 2014) by Emma Sadleir and Tamsyn de Beer looks at the legal implications of our interaction with social media. The authors spell out the dos and don’ts of the diverse platforms: Twitter, Facebook, etc. The book is informative and strangely enough very funny despite telling some very grim internet stories of people losing their reputations, jobs, friends and serious money over online blunders. Also essential reading for anyone wanting to marry Kate Winslet.

Divided LivesAnybody who reads me will know how much I admire Lyndall Gordon‘s work. Her latest, Divided Lives (Virago, 2014), raises my admiration to another level. Just looking at the shelf where I keep all her wise, powerful biographies and memoirs reassures me. She has brought so much sustenance and joy into my life as a reader, writer and woman that I am certain I would be a very different, and much poorer, Karina today without having encountered her books. May there be many more to come.

adultsonlycoverA rather racy read, and not all the stories in this anthology were my cup of tea, but there were some which I found very exciting, on the literary not literal level, of course ;) Showcasing some of the talent we have here in South Africa, these erotic short stories cater for nearly all tastes. Funny, thrilling, and exquisite at times, it is a rewarding read (see my review: Adults Only – Stories of Love, Lust, Sex and Sensuality edited by Joanne Hichens, Mercury, 2014).

A_Man_of_Good_Hope_frontA Man of Good Hope (Jonathan Ball, 2014) is Jonny Steinberg at his best. I have a friend who says that when she grows up she wants to be Jonny Steinberg, and I can’t blame her. In his latest, Steinberg tells the story of a man on the most remarkable journey which takes him from Mogadishu via South Africa to even more distant shores. Asad Abdullahi goes through hell and back and on his trip teaches us what it means to hope and dream when it seems that all is in vein. I listened to and interviewed Steinberg during the Open Book Festival last year. For my reflections on the festival see “The Image of a Pie”.

invisible_furies_coverAnother of my favourite authors, Michiel Heyns, launched A Sportful Malice at the FLF last year and the novel featured in my July giveaway, but later in the year I turned to his previous title, Invisible Furies (Jonathan Ball, 2012) and enjoyed it just as much, not only because it is set in my beloved Paris. After a long absence, Christopher travels to Paris where he encounters a world of beauty and intrigue. He is there to help Eric, the son of a friend, come to his senses and return to South Africa. But Eric has some surprises in store for him. Nothing is what it seems in the City of Love.

The Snowden FilesThe Snowden Files – The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man by Luke Harding (Guardian Books/Faber and Faber, 2014) is another eye-opener when it comes to the workings of the internet and governments all over the world. Harding reveals the background to the Snowden story and all its scary implications. A tense read of history unfolding in front of our eyes. I hope there will be a follow-up book and some kind of decent resolution to this saga on all fronts.

The Alibi ClubA discovery from last year’s Open Book Festival, Jaco van Schalkwyk’s The Alibi Club (Umuzi, 2014) is one of the most refreshing South African fiction debuts of the last few years. Set in New York in the decade around 9/11, it tells the story of a South African working at a club and interacting with its regulars in the heart of Brooklyn. Tight, impact prose, distinct characters, well-paced storytelling – the stuff of a great promise. I am very curious what Van Schalkwyk will do next.

Travels with EpicurusNot only a delightful book, but a reminder of what good booksellers are for: Travels with Epicurus – Meditations from a Greek Island on the Pleasures of Old Age (Oneworld, 2013) by Daniel Klein was recommended to me by Johan Hugo from the Protea Bookshop in Rondebosch. Johan and I have been talking books for years now, so he knows what André or I might enjoy. With this enlightening read he was spot on for both of us. We literally devoured the little book. It is one of those that makes you feel good about the world and your place in it. And it was only written because of Klein’s initial fear of acquiring dentures… Inspiration is a curious thing indeed.

LullabyThis is also a book Johan introduced me to, knowing that I would be interested in another Polish-speaking author writing in English: Anna’s family emigrates in the 1980s before the changeover in Poland and settles in New York. Missing her roots and extended family, every summer Anna returns to Poland on her own and spends the holidays in her old neighbourhood where she befriends Justyna and Kamila. Together, they survive the ups and downs of puberty: jealousies, hang-ups about their developing bodies, the turbulences of first loves, budding sexualities and substance abuse. Some things go horribly wrong and one day Anna refuses to come back for another visit. Years later, another tragedy brings the three friends together again. Poland is undergoing its own transition while the young women face the new reality and try to pick up the pieces of their broken dreams. The Lullaby of Polish Girls (Quercus, 2013) by Dagmara Dominczyk is a fast-paced story of growing up in a migratory world.

MoonTigerI have a friend whom I see roughly once a year for coffee or lunch. Every our encounter inspires me and gives me food for thought for the next year. The last time we spoke, Penelope Lively came up and he recommended that I read Moon Tiger (André Deutsch, 1987). I have read some of Lively’s other novels and there was even a time when I contemplated writing a thesis on her work, but it was not meant to be. Moon Tiger, however, made me want to go back to her writing again. It is an intense, beautiful study of the nature of history with a grand love story at its centre.

TalesAnother local novel that made a huge impact on me this year: Imraan Coovadia’s Tales of the Metric System (Umuzi, 2014). I was asked to review it for LitNet and decided to do some catch-up Coovadia reading in the process, which proved most entertaining. But this latest is, for me, Coovadia’s best up to date. We speak about ‘post-apartheid’ fiction all the time, but I sometimes wonder how many novels deserve the title in the sense that they have been truly written from that perspective. Tales of the Metric System is definitely one of them.

The DigAn absolute highlight of last year’s and this year’s reading is the discovery of the Welsh author, Cynan Jones. I subscribe to the New Welsh Review. I was reading an old issue of the magazine which included a review of Jones’s rewriting of a Welsh myth, Bird, Blood, Snow (Seren, 2012) and I was intrigued. I googled, as one does, and found that he’d written a novel with a central Polish character, Everything I Found on the Beach (Parthian, 2011). A Welsh author writing a Polish character was too much to resist, so I ordered the novel and Jones’s latest, The Dig (Granta, 2014). Last night, I started The Long Dry (Parthian, 2007) and am enthralled by it like by the other two titles. In the meantime, I have discovered that Jones has also published two other novels which might be tricky to get since they seem to be out of print, but I am patient and persistent, and eventually, I intend to write a longer piece about his work. Literary discoveries get seldom better than this. I am a fan for life.

Station ElevenEmily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (Picador, 2014) was sent to me for reviewing. Also a writer to watch out for. The novel is speculative fiction at its finest and belongs with the Atwoods & Le Guins of the literary world. It is a genre which has always appealed to me and I hope to write in it myself one day. Station Eleven tells the story of a handful of survivors of a lethal flu which wipes out most of the human race. Disturbing and touching at the same time, it contemplates the big questions in life while telling a gripping story.

The Night WatchmanRichard Zimler has been a friend since we first corresponded about The Children’s Hours: Stories of Childhood. His work is an inspiration. I have been a fan for years. His latest novel, The Night Watchman (Corsair, 2014), is set in Portugal, but it tells a very familiar story of abuse, power, corruption and the sense of hopelessness we all face in this world when confronted with any of these evils. Zimler never goes for easy answers. His stories are nuanced, beautifully written (he is a master of dialogue) and always full of life’s wisdoms. It is an honour to know and to read him.

D&DTokoloshe SongTwo local friends, Alex Smith and her partner, Andrew Salomon, have published novels last year with Umuzi (again, gorgeous covers): Devilskein and Dearlove, Tokoloshe Song. Both are fantasy novels, very different though, but equally entertaining. Most days I am not a fantasy fan, but when it is done well, like these two heart-warming and enchanting books, even a non-believer’s heart melts. I loved the characters, their unusual universes filled with magic and wonder, and their stories which kept me spell-bound. I might convert after all!

Devil's HarvestAnd speaking of the devil, Andrew Brown’s Devil’s Harvest (Zebra Press, 2014) is not an easy read. Heart-wrenching and honest, it tells the story of a British botanist and a Sudanese woman who is a survivor of a genocide. The story of their journey through South Sudan is one of those that had to be written and has to be read. Brown did an excellent job at making sure that it is not forgotten. This was my first of his novels, and certainly not the last. Something to look forward to in 2015!

OctoberAn accidental encounter on twitter, of all places, revealed that I share a publisher with Réney Warrington. October (Protea Book House, 2013) is a subtle love story of how two damaged women struggle through emotional numbness to find a way back to life. The photographer Jo is shell-shocked by the divorce of her parents and her sister’s homophobia. When she meets the famous pop singer Leigh who has to overcome a serious illness and a troubled past, Jo does not expect to ever heal again. Despite serious doubts, they decide to give their relationship at least a fleeting chance…
Warrington is also a photographer and October includes a few startling images that poignantly illustrate the narrative.

This DayAnother twitter encounter resulted in my reading this meticulously crafted novel about a day in the life of a grieving woman. Having lived through the worst imaginable ordeal for a parent, Ella now has to take care of her husband who is suffering from severe depression. As each heart-breaking day dawns, she leaves massages in the sand for the sea to wash away. It is in the water that she also confronts her deepest hopes and worst fears. Poetic, full of insights, and simply beautiful, Tiah Beautement’s This Day (Modjaji Books, 2014) is an remarkable achievement.

Please let me know:
1) which books have made such an impact on you in the second half of 2014 that you wanted to share them with others?
2) which of the titles I’ve mentioned above you would be interested in reading yourself?
From your comments, I’ll draw one name at the beginning of February 2015 and send you the book you have chosen from the list of my favourite titles.
(Just to clarify, it seems this wasn’t clear: The winner will get a brand-new copy of the book they chose from my list.)

Book mark: The Night Watchman by Richard Zimler

The Night WatchmanChief Inspector Henrique Monroe of the Lisbon Police Department is brilliant at what he does, but gets help from a very unusual source. When a successful businessman is murdered under strange circumstances in his home, Monroe is called to investigate. The complex case awakens memories of Monroe’s distant past of growing up in Colorado with his younger brother Ernie, and threatens to unravel the fragile new reality the cop had been constructing around himself in Portugal ever since. His search for truth takes him to the country’s highest echelons of power. What he finds is horrifying, but tragically common. The Night Watchman portrays a troubled, corrupt society any South African reader will recognise. Tense, deeply felt, the novel asks a pivotal question: “Was it a paradox that truths left unspoken ended up taking away your voice?” The disquieting answers it provides are heart-breaking.

The Night Watchman
by Richard Zimler
Corsair, 2014

Book mark first published in the Cape Times on 12 December 2014.

In 2007, I reviewed one other novel by Richard Zimler:

The Seventh GateThe Seventh Gate
Constable, 2007

In 1990 the discovery of seven manuscripts of the sixteenth-century Kabbalist Berekiah Zarco sparked Richard Zimler’s internationally bestselling novel The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon (1996). Following its success, Zimler, an American living in Portugal, published two other novels about the Portuguese-Jewish Zarco family: Hunting Midnight (2003) and Guardian of the Dawn (2005).

The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon explores the fates of the Jewish community at the time of the Lisbon massacre of April 1506. Partly set in nineteenth-century Africa, Hunting Midnight is the story of a friendship between the Portuguese John Zarco Stewart and an African healer and freed slave named Midnight. Guardian of the Dawn takes us back to Goa at the time of the Catholic Inquisition in the seventeenth century.

The fourth novel in Zimler’s independent historical novels series is The Seventh Gate. Set in Berlin of the 1930s, it portrays Hitler’s brutal rise to power and the effects it had on the Jewish community and the disabled long before Second World War began. It subtly exposes how a whole nation could succumb to the madness of the Nazi regime; some willingly, others under extreme pressure. Meticulously researched and vividly brought to life, Zimler’s Berlin of the 1930s is a nightmarish place where loyalty between family members and friends as well as each individual’s sanity and heroism are tested to the limits.

In spite of its harrowing topic, The Seventh Gate is the kind of novel that makes you relax after the first twenty pages, knowing that there is another five hundred in store for you before the final curtain falls. Driven by superbly drawn characters, strong dialogues, and the unusual but beautifully touching love story at its centre, The Seventh Gate is a tribute to all the people who suffered similar fates at the hand of the Nazis as the characters in the novel.

The story is told by Sophie. In the Preface of the novel she is a fragile eighty-nine year old living in America and being taken care of by her nephew. After a spell in the hospital she decides to entrust him with her memories of the past when she was a teenage German girl in Berlin of the 30s and the world began to fall to pieces.

Sophie tells the story of Isaac Zarco, a descendant of the Kabbalist Berekiah Zarco, and the members of The Ring, now a clandestine group of Jewish activists trying to fight the Nazi regime. It is also the story of her brother Hansi, a distant child whom Sophie loves dearly and whose life is threatened by the Nazis. Misunderstood by her mother, betrayed by her father and Tonio, the boy she has a crush on, Sophie has to make some tough choices, trying to protect Hansi and her friends from the Nazi onslaught. The sudden wave of mysterious murders, disappearances and forced sterilizations makes her and Isaac realise that Berekiah Zarco’s worst fears might be about to come true, centuries after he wrote his manuscripts.

Artistically talented and mischievous, Sophie is a heroine one will not easily forget. Her passion for the cinema, her growing sense of righteousness, her awakening sexuality, and her selfless devotion to the people she loves sparkle with authenticity. The novel is interspersed with the poignant sketches she draws of her friends, adding to this overall effect.

Much has been written on Hitler’s Germany, but Zimler’s The Seventh Gate reveals a side of its inhumane machinery which has not been as prominent in the renderings of the time as it should have been, as the novel carefully examines how the horrors we associate with the time of the war already started happening in the early 30s with everyone watching almost in complete silence. Zimler probes the questions of how power is consolidated by intimidation and propagandistic lies, but also shows how small acts of courage and integrity can stand in its way. As Sophie comments on her younger self: “I’m still too young to know that people need only be frightened for their lives to swear that night is day. And that they can believe it’s really true.”

In an interview with Boyd Tonkin, Zimler stated that the relationship between the siblings Hansi and Sophie is his “monument” to the victims of the Nazi war on the disabled. The author expressed his wish that “every reader who reads the book with an open heart will be devastated by what happens to them both.” Because of the powerful storytelling of The Seventh Gate one cannot help but be.

Review first published in the Sunday Independent on 25 November 2007.