Tag Archives: fiction

Great, even life-changing – the books of 2015

Another great year of reading is coming to an end, although it did not start that way. I am grateful to the love that has returned my passion for reading to me when reading – when life – became unbearable.
Knowing how few books one can read in a lifetime (I won’t depress you with the estimate), I have become quite selective and wise about what I read. Thus, out of the sixty-three books I have read this year (until today, some not for the first time), almost all were good, thirty-one were great – among them were a few which were life-changing – and only two I did not finish. Of these two, one was brilliant, but I was reading it on 6 February and have not been able to return to it. The other one I had wonderful hopes for, but I was so disappointed and frustrated that after a hundred pages I decided not to waste more of my time on it. In the spirit of the festive season, the perpetrator shall remain unnamed.

The great ones I have finished, I would like to divide among four categories: relevant, delightful, exquisite, and life-changing (whereas some, of course, overlap).

There are old-time favourite authors on my list like Alexandra Fuller and Ivan Vladislavić, but also new discoveries like Pamela Power or Mark Winkler.

Ingrid Jonker: A Biography by Louise Viljoen
Back to Angola: A Journey from War to Peace by Paul Morris
A Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
J. M. Coetzee and The Life Of Writing: Face-To-Face With Time by David Attwell
Books That Matter by Marie Philip

Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.
(A Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion)

The Unknown Unknown by Mark Forsyth
What Poets Need by Finuala Dowling
Ms Conception by Pamela Power
What I Didn’t See and Other Stories by Karen Joy Fowler
Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov
The Chameleon House by Melissa de Villiers
Embers by Sándor Márai
Tribe by Rahla Xenopoulos
The Penguin Lessons by Tom Michell

I had a very efficient guano maker installed in my bath.
(The Penguin Lessons by Tom Michell)

The Long Dry by Cynan Jones
Leaving Before the Rains Come by Alexandra Fuller
101 Detectives by Ivan Vladislavić
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
The Dream House by Craig Higginson
The Alphabet of the Birds by SJ Naudé
We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
Sugar Man: The Life, Death and Resurrection of Sixto Rodriguez by Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman and Craig Bartholomew Strydom
the myth of this is that we’re all in this together by Nick Mulgrew
Wasted by Mark Winkler
Notes from the Dementia Ward by Finuala Dowling

We have to admit our massive love for people. If we don’t ever need to know its depth, we just feel the light on the surface.
(The Long Dry by Cynan Jones)

Flame in the Snow / Vlam in die Sneeu by André Brink and Ingrid Jonker
Killing Floor by Lee Child
Water: New Short Fiction from Africa
Mountains in the Sea: A Celebration of the Table Mountain National Park by John Yeld and Martine Barker
The Art of the Publisher by Roberto Calasso

I would like to single out two books I haven’t written about. Yet. Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins and Roberto Calasso’s The Art of the Publisher.
A God in Ruins
Atkinson’s novel is one of the most exquisite books I have read in my life. Its beauty and its declaration of love for the power of literature to capture eternity, to heal, to open up spaces in us we never even knew existed are staggering. Personally, I will always associate the novel with two seminal moments in my life. While reading it during one of those serene nights when you are at peace with yourself and the world, I saw something beautiful and drew a sketch of the scene at the back of the book. It is also engraved in my heart. And when I finished A God in Ruins, I was crushed by the inability to share it with André, but then something happened which gave me comfort and hope and the book will always be at the source of these feelings when it comes to reading. I hope to write about it before the year is over.
The Art of the Publisher
Calasso’s book speaks about everything I have ever known, felt, dreamt about or hoped for in publishing. I have known for years that one day I would become a publisher myself. The Art of the Publisher made me realise that the time has come to make that day become reality.

Book mark: Aerodrome Journal Issue 01 / 2014

Aerodrome coverFor the past fifteen months the digital version of Aerodrome has been an exciting platform for all things literary. Immensely pleasing to the eye, it publishes fiction, poetry, reviews and a particular favourite of mine: author interviews. Freshly launched, the first paper issue of Aerodrome is an aesthetic gem and opens with several interviews with writers and artists such as Isobel Dixon, Zapiro, Mary Watson, Anton Kannemeyer, Conrad Botes and Zoë Wicomb. It also offers the best of the first year’s digital content and includes a few specials which will appear online later. A personal highlight is one of the exclusive features: an inspiring interview with Damon Galgut in which he states that you can recognise a real writer by the way they approach language. In this respect, Megan Ross’s short story “The Accidental Colour” and Jane McArthur’s poem “The Girl from Witwatersrand” delight.

First published in the Cape Times on 31 October 2014.


Natalie Portman in Closer

Natalie Portman in Closer

There is a highly charged scene in Closer, the play and the movie, when Alice (on screen Natalie Portman) strips for Larry (on screen Clive Owen) in a nightclub. Perhaps more than anything else he wants to know her real name. She tells him, ‘It’s Jane.’ Over and over, but he does not believe her. That scene reminds of fiction: also a show, a stripping, a breaking open, where everything is a performance and the greatest truth veils itself behind a lie. No matter how uncertainty blinds you, ‘It’s still Jane.’


'Woman Before a Fish Bowl' by Henri Matisse (1922)

‘Woman Before a Fish Bowl’ by Henri Matisse (1922)

Violence is out of hand; nothing New in South Africa. Nina yawned. She switched off the radio, gulping down the last sips of coffee. She took her keys from the desk in the passage and, with some cash and a debit card, stuffed them into her jeans pocket. No handbag, no trouble, thank you. She grabbed her notebook, made sure that she had all the details of her next victim, and put the alarm on before she left the cottage.

A human rights activist was next on the list for this week. She was working on a series of interviews with victims of crimes and prominent people concerned about the recent developments, trying to beat up a storm about the wave of violence in the country. Her editor was pleased with her initiative. She met Bongani, one of her newspaper’s photographers, in front of Ann Shaw’s house. He was waiting in his pink Tazz, engrossed in one of the science fiction novels he always carried around with him. He did not see her approach until she opened the passenger’s door and got in.

‘Jesus, Nina. You scared me!’

‘Hi!’ she smiled. ‘You should really lock your doors, you know. Even here in this neighbourhood.’ She glanced at the row of old Victorian houses seaming the street. ‘Unless the Force is with you.’ She smiled at the chewed-up paperback edition of the old Star Wars trilogy he was holding.

‘Ha, ha.’ He put the book away on the back seat. ‘So, who is on this morning?’

‘Ann Shaw, the Dragon Lady.’


‘Ann Shaw.’

‘Never heard.’

‘Bongani! Wake up and smell the coffee! Ann Shaw, the Peace Nobel Prize winner of 1986.’

‘Whatever. Is she pretty?’

‘You people! How come, you don’t know her? She is, like – HUGE, spelled in capital letters. The famous anti-apartheid activist. You must have heard of her!?’

‘Nope, sorry to disappoint you, Miss You-Know-It-All. Before my time. I will let the YOU PEOPLE,’ he made the inverted commas sign with his fingers, ‘pass today. So is she attractive, or not?’

‘She is eighty!’ Bongani pretended to be disappointed and started pulling his camera bag from underneath Nina’s feet. ‘Why Dragon Lady?’

‘Let’s just say, she is not exactly press-friendly. I never had the pleasure, but I heard some gruesome stories. So beware and take some of that Force with you.’

‘Funny. Common then, my lightsaber’s ready.’

They got out of the car, Nina felt her hand damp on the notebook. She took a deep breath and moved around the car to join Bongani, who was making faces at the intercom camera, ready to press the front gate button.

* * *

It was already dark. She had her dinner in front of the computer. Tony, the only alarm-proof pet she could think of, was staring at her through the glass bowl next to her laptop screen.

‘Don’t worry, my friend. If anything happens, I’ll protect you, alright.’ She tapped the bowl with her fork.

In between the mouthfuls Nina paged through her last two interviews in search of a new approach for Ann Shaw. It all happened so quickly, but it felt like an eternity. There were five of them. With guns. They spread around the restaurant, assaulted the guests and the manager. One of them hit my wife in the face and I could do nothing. How do you feel about it today? I get these dreams about fighting back, about protecting my wife. It’s a terrible mess. In your latest novel the protagonist is a street kid; he seems so innocent at times, especially when we see him with his friend or the old beggar, but he is also extremely ruthless. Yes, a year ago, I encountered a boy, about twelve. He was begging for money; he said for food. So I took him to a nearby shop and told him to get what he wanted, that I would pay. And I did; when we came out of the shop, he kicked me and called me names, running away from me, the shopping bag clutched tightly to his chest. The next day I sat down to write the book.

It was hard to take at times. Nina felt swamped with all the stories. Fortunately, this morning’s interview went well. Shaw was not as formidable and difficult as she had expected. No nonsense, straight to the point, terribly eloquent, and surprisingly attractive after all. Even Bongani was impressed: ‘I thought you said she was eighty. My makhulu is eighty. This lady is sexy!’

All the preparation and the rather sleepless night before the interview were worth the trouble. Nina felt that Shaw had really responded to her. And Bongani did a brilliant job, too. She had the photographs in front of her on the screen. He was bloody young, only twenty, yet he was the best photographer they had. He had a way with people, letting them be, and capturing their essence without interposing. He even made the woman she had interviewed first for the series comfortable, and she actually smiles in one of the photographs they printed with the article. One of her eyes still swollen from the blows delivered to her face. She was six months pregnant at the time of the attack. Alone at home, her husband away on business. All I could think of was my baby, please God, don’t let me lose my baby. And her incredible presence of mind, When he started unbuckling his belt, I asked him to use a condom. Blank. You know, because of HIV. The attacker miraculously obeyed.

No wonder Ann Shaw was furious. Recently, she had written a few scathing articles herself. The international medias were sucking up all the reports coming from the country, especially if Nobel Prize winners were the authors. A change of moods. More and more voices speaking up in a wave of disappointments. It hurt most when it came from people like Shaw, who had always defended the Miracle. Now, they felt they couldn’t anymore; the lack of proper response from the authorities a crime in itself. Silence, once again one of the worst evils – nobody in the government willing to deliver us from it, Nina thought.

Please God, don’t let me lose my baby.

Shaw’s hoarse voice and her sarcasm: You know what is the worst? Hearing victims say how glad they are to be alive. As if that wasn’t their God-given right. Nina was tired. The lack of sleep was getting to her. She saved the file with the first part of the interview, she updated her backup copy and put the memory stick in a cookie jar in the kitchen. Then she put the laptop in a cabinet drawer and locked it for the night.

‘Don’t let the bed bugs bite you, Tony!’ She took the panic button with her to the bathroom.

Everything in slow motion. You want to run away – don’t really know from whom or what – but you can’t with your feet glued to the ground. One of those dreams. Interrupted by a vicious sound somewhere in the background.

‘Nina, sorry to wake you up so early, but I just got the news from my pal at the station. Is your Shaw article ready?’

‘No. Almost. You said I had until tonight. I just have to tie up a few points. Why?’

‘Ann Shaw was attacked in her house last night.’ Nina was awake instantly. ‘I want you to phone her and try to get a comment. Maybe you can see her again?’

‘You’ve got to be kidding! Ann Shaw? Of all people!’

‘I know, I know. Irony of fate.’

‘No respect for anybody anymore. Was she hurt?’

‘No, thank god.’

‘Don’t let her hear you say that!’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Nothing. So what happened exactly?’

‘Around eight, two men, masked but unarmed, forced their way into her house through the back door when the domestic was brining out the garbage. They must have known that the two women were alone in the house.’

‘And? What did they do? Take?’

‘The usual: cell phone, laptop, some money, jewellery. So, phone her O.K.? See what you can get.’

‘You mean loot some more?’

‘You know what I mean. Sorry again for waking you up. Coffee is on me today.’ She hung up and stared at the panic button next to her bed.

* * *

Ann Shaw did not want to comment. But she promised to get back to her as soon as possible. Nina thought her voice sounded much more placid today. On her way to the office, Nina stopped at the chemists.

‘What can I get you, lovey?’

‘A ticket to Australia,’ she mumbled under her nose.


‘No, no. I’m sorry. A packet of condoms please.’

‘Six, or twelve?’

‘Six, please.’

In the car, she took one out of the box and stuffed it into her jeans pocket. She put the others in the cubbyhole and drove on to work.

First published in New Contrast 36.1 (March 2008). I wrote this story in 2007 after a few of our family members and friends, Nadine Gordimer among them, became victims of crime. It was at this time that I thought of what I was experiencing as a witness and a writer as ‘pre-traumatic stress disorder’.