Tag Archives: crime fiction

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.

Book review: I’m Travelling Alone by Samuel Bjørk

TravellingAloneDespite my irredeemable addiction to Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series, I do not often turn to thrillers or crime fiction for entertainment. But Night School, the next Reacher adventure, is coming out only in September, and since the nights are getting longer, it is nice to have a few good stand-ins in the meantime. Locally, I really enjoyed the recently published Sweet Paradise by Joanne Hichens: tight plotting, great writing, a scary villainess, and a heroine with balls. It surprised me, and that is a quality I truly appreciate in genre fiction.

I remember picking up Henning Mankell’s The Man from Beijing and realising how it would end just after a hundred pages. For the rest of the book, I had hoped the author would astonish me, but he didn’t. That kind of disappointment is not easily forgiven. But Scandinavian crime and thriller authors have been making huge waves on the international literary scene in the last decade or so. I devoured Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy and like millions of readers around the world could not get enough of its intriguing main characters, Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist.

It seems that there is a new kid on the Scandinavian crime block, Samuel Bjørk (pen name of the Norwegian writer and musician Frode Sander Øien). His I’m Travelling Alone is making international headlines, reaching the prestigious German magazine Der Spiegel’s number one bestselling spot and selling TV series rights to ITV. It comes with a quote on the cover, warning his compatriot Jo Nesbø to “watch out”. Being unfamiliar with Nesbø’s work, I cannot compare, but judged solely on its own terms, I’m Travelling Alone is a spine-chilling, page-turning novel.

In 2006, a baby disappears from the maternity unit of Ringerike Hospital in Hønefoss in the south of Norway. Half a dozen years later, a six-year-old girl is found dead hanging from a tree. Dressed like a doll with an airline tag which reads “I’m travelling alone” around her neck, the girl is soon believed to be the first victim of a serial killer about to strike again. A race against time begins. Holger Munch is put in charge of finding and bringing the killer to justice. Despite, or precisely because of, being the typical middle-aged, overweight, chain-smoking, sadly divorced, veteran police investigator, Holger is instantly endearing. As is his partner, the deeply disturbed but fascinating, thirty-something Mia Krüger.

In the beginning of the book, Mia is living in complete solitude on an island, drugged and drunk, mourning her beloved sister and awaiting her own death. It takes some persuading from Holger to sway her to postpone her suicide in order to help him solve the case. They both have a troubled past to atone for, and have no clue how it is about to surface to haunt them.

The next girl is found murdered and two more go missing. But then the ruthless killer changes his (or her? the police are uncertain) MO and contacts a journalist writing for a daily, placing him and his editorial team in front of an impossible choice: Who dies next? And when Mia and Holger discover that the next intended victim is someone they both know and care about, the urgency to track down the perpetrator intensifies unbearably. The hunt leads them to a mysterious sect and an old-age home where Holger’s mother lives. What at first seems a dead end reveals itself as a deadly possibility. And the murderer is always a step ahead.

The two investigators, the police squad, and family and friends around them are all well-drawn characters one takes immediate interest in and liking to. They propel the story forward. Additionally, to a certain extent, I’m Travelling Alone felt like armchair travel. I have a very soft spot for Norway, having travelled the country, loved its landscape, read some of its brilliant classics, and made a few Norwegian friends for life. I actually visited some of the places mentioned in the novel, have experienced the weather and tasted the food. Reading all the everyday details of the characters’ lives has brought back many great memories. I couldn’t resist and had some herring again while reading.

I was spellbound almost to the end. However, the last twenty pages let me down. To be honest, I am not sure that I understood how all the puzzle pieces of the story fit together or whether the author managed to tie up all the loose ends, yet it somehow did not matter. I found the ride as far as the last four or five chapters exhilarating and the strangely abrupt ending did not spoil the fun. I sincerely hope that Mia and Holger will return and I look forward to the next Samuel Bjørk crime novel with great anticipation.

Review first published in the Cape Times, 4 March 2016.

I’m Travelling Alone

by Samuel Bjørk

Doubleday, 2016

 

 

The Image of a Pie: Reflections on Open Book 2014

Niq Mhlongo, Chris Beukes, Malaika wa Azania and Natalie Denton
I cried twice. No matter how much I tried to control myself, the tears kept coming and I was grateful for the pack of tissues I had in my handbag. I should have started shedding tears at the beginning of the event, when the woman who is our national treasure, Sindiwe Magona, noticed that we were only a few people in the audience while the whole of South Africa should have been attending. But it was only when Sixolile Mbalo, the soft-spoken, beautiful author of Dear Bullet, Or A Letter to My Shooter (2014), pointed to herself with her most articulate hands and used the possessive pronoun “my” to refer to the man who raped, shot, and left her for dead, that the dam of anguish broke inside me. In my own personal reality I speak of “my friend”, “my brother”, “my husband”. To have to survive a reality where a rapist is internalised into “my rapist” is nearly unbearable to think of, and yet, as Ekow Duker, the third panellist of the Open Book Festival event presented by Rape Crisis, mentioned, “We get more upset when our soccer team loses than when a woman is raped.” That is the reality Mbalo lives, and courageously survives, every single day of her life. All of us should take note and salute her. Any moment, her fate could become that of “our friend”, “our sister”, or “our wife”.

“Women are ghost heroes in our struggle.” – Niq Mhlongo

This year’s Open Book unfolded over five days from 17 to 21 September in Cape Town. It was filled with insight and inspiration. Apart from the moment described above, laughter dominated. The second time I shed tears, they were also an expression of joy. Speaking about her touching Good Morning, Mr Mandela (2014), Zelda la Grange told Marianne Thamm that Madiba destroyed all her defences just by holding her hand when they met. La Grange’s life bears testimony to one of Thamm’s remarks: “Mandela made us better people; that’s what good leaders do.” The conversation between these two powerhouse women was undoubtedly a highlight of the festival. Judging by the faces and comments of people present at the event, most felt its magic.

“Let it all come out and let us talk about it.” – Mandla Langa

Sixolile Mbalo’s and Zelda la Grange’s life stories capture the immense span of the spectrum of South African everyday experience. And it is essential for our humanity to pay as much attention to the one story as to the other, even though it is in our nature to gravitate towards happiness and success.

“Memory is always a fiction we tell ourselves.” – Rachel Zadok

Continue reading: LitNet.

Jonny Steinberg, Mervyn Sloman and Mark Gevisser
Niq Mhlongo, Geoff Dyer and Zukiswa Wanner
Raymon E Feist, Deon Meyer and Andrew Salomon
Zelda la Grange and Marianne Thamm