Tag Archives: grief

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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Review: Travels with My Father – An Autobiographical Novel by Karen Jennings

travelsTravelling in India, Karen Jennings visits an art gallery where “holograms of rare gold artefacts line the wall. A notice declares that precious items might be stolen and so holograms are the next best thing. They are fuzzy, unclear. It is like looking at an object at the bottom of a dirty pond.” It is a striking image that made me think of writing an autobiographical novel or a memoir. In the hands of a mediocre writer, recollections and artefacts can become like these blurred holograms. But Karen Jennings is not a mediocre writer.

Travels with My Father is a deeply engaging book in which Jennings attempts to come to grips with the death of her father and the memories and records she has of his life and their relationship. Anyone who has experienced the loss of a loved one knows what a merciless and curious creature grief can be. Jennings’s father died of cancer, leaving behind a wife and two daughters. Soon after the father’s death, the mother decides to sell the “big house” they lived in and Jennings falls in love with Juliano. The book describes the processes involved in these endings and beginnings the family tries to navigate in the wake of the tragedy.

There is anger and silence, depression and incredulity. These are not uncommon reactions, but every story of grief is intimate and individual, too. Jennings delves into her family history and explores the many journeys that define her own life and the lives of her relatives, some of whom are larger than life characters.

During a visit in Tasmania where her uncle and aunt live, she feels like “a prisoner serving my time.” She plans her own death. Her family surprises her with a weekend away. Together they visit Port Arthur, a former convict settlement, a place which had been her father’s favourite when he’d explored the Tasman Peninsula years earlier. Jennings embeds her own struggles with depression and isolation into the story of the settlement and the mental illnesses convicts suffered during imprisonment. At the same time she weaves family tales of addiction, abuse, and ghost haunting into the narrative.

Trying to understand her experiences, she makes fascinating, often unexpected, links between the various stories. And while she enquires into the private with a fine brush, she paints a much larger picture. In 1982, her father, who used to be teacher, played the role of Captain von Trapp in an adaptation of The Sound of Music and received a certificate for the performance on the day Jennings was born. Years later, sitting in the school hall where the musical had been staged, she remembers a man “in a polyester green suit, smelling of soap and armpits. A church-going man who touched girls, who stole, who was a bigot. A man who hated my father.” Her father dared to stand up to this man who was his superior, but was professionally crushed as a result. He later wrote a poem about his retirement: “After 35 years / What I need is / The screaming ecstasy of silence.” Jennings travels to Mondsee in Austria to follow in the footsteps of the musical family and she meditates on the disappointment we feel “in our parents … That they had to live a life of smallness.”

Her father did not wish for a funeral or a memorial: “He wanted to be cremated, scattered, and then forgotten.” He made these instructions in writing, but they were found long after his death and a service at which hundreds of people paid their respects. One of them was a pupil her father had taught in the 1970s. He sends her a letter chronicling how her father had changed his life for the better. The memories of others and their gestures of gratitude make her realise that her “pity is meaningless” and her “bitterness misplaced”.

She visits the hospital where her father died and speaks to a nurse who tells her that “tidying of the body is her favourite part of the job.” She sees it as “a gift” that she can “give to the people who are left behind.” Seeing her deceased husband, Jennings’s mother is reminded of Lenin and their visit to his mausoleum in Moscow. Jennings relates the story of Lenin’s embalming and how viewing the body had been a “highlight of the trip” for her father. Travels with My Father becomes an embalming of sorts.

Jennings remembers how she taught a class at her father’s school after his retirement. A student of his asks her to tell them stories like her father used to. She refuses and gets nowhere with the teaching. When she comes home frustrated, her father reprimands her: “You should have told them a story. I always told them about my travels through other countries. At least that way they learnt something about life outside of their own. Most of them have very small lives, you know, and no promise of them getting bigger.”

Storytelling has that potential. “We are all guilty of … dismantling the past, trying to create something new, something we consider to be an improvement”, she writes. “Even in this book there are memories I have created from the rubble of others.” Jennings’s stories in Travels with My Father are not fuzzy holograms, but vivid art objects she conjures up in the reader’s mind.

Travels with My Father: An Autobiographical Novel

by Karen Jennings

Holland Park Press, 2016

Review first published in the Cape Times, 11 November 2016.

Blue light at Temenos

light

How often can you shatter and remain whole?

Death. Loss. Grief.

House break-in.

Cancer scare.

Institutions breaking you down by sheer incompetence and lack of understanding.

Death, again. And again.

Car accident.

And then…         . A void, a negation of time and space, of reality. How do you describe something or someone whom you tell, repeatedly: ‘I can’t breathe. I am in unbearable pain. I feel small. I am fragile. Vulnerable. Skinless. Please do not hurt me…’ And they violate your body and soul regardless? I do not know. Perhaps some things cannot be described. Sometimes words are too good to contain this, this…          ? blue-light-too

I care about words.

Another shattering.

Another loss.

What remains are the pieces. And a life-long illness. Deal with it, Karina.

turn-withinIn a corner, with no way out, when everything seems lost, broken, incomprehensible, a tiny light might save you. Holding on to that light is not an act of bravery. It is an act of compassion. I survive because I have kind people in my life. Perhaps recognising and reaching out for that kindness is courage? I do not know. I know that the sharing, the true care of friendship, have saved me from utter despair. The women in my life. I repeat: The women in my life. I do not know what I would have done without You. I salute and cherish you!

blue-lightThe first time I travelled to Temenos in McGregor, the retreat was recommended to me by my friend Margie. She knew what I was going through and said that the beauty and silence would be good for me. I fell in love with the place. One-and-a-half years later I went back, for the beauty and the silence. It is a silence punctuated by the outrageous screams of peacocks and the reluctant striking of the church tower clock. People smile, from the distance.

breakfast-at-temenos  sirloin  bemind

You can do things, or just be. Read. Sleep. Eat well. There is a bric-a-brac shop in the middle of McGregor which sells the best olives in the country. Tebaldi’s, the restaurant at Temenos, serves delicious meals. There are donkeys. Wine estates. Dusty heat. Tarot card readers and aroma therapists. Kindness, in the place and its people. The veld. And lazy sunsets which make you believe in tomorrow. It is all right to go to bed before 8pm. To read next to the pool for hours. To start brewing coffee at 5am and drink it on the stoep of your cottage while watching the light yawn and rise in the magical garden around you. Meditate, or just sit doing nothing at Temore, The Inner Temple of the Heart, with its soothing blue light.

reading-next-to-the-pool  falling

Wherever I go, I find coins. I call them my lucky coins. In South Africa, usually, 5c or 20c; 50c if I am really lucky. When I arrived in the gardens of Temenos, I found a R2-coin next to my car. Then, a few hours later, another R2-coin next to the pool. And the next day, while I was telling this story to my friend Helen (our stays at Temenos overlapped for one day and one night) during our sunset walk in the veld – in that very moment – I found another one next to our path. I want to believe that good things are coming. That despite the insanity of reality surrounding us in these troubled times, the kindness of people will prevail.

helen-in-the-veld-at-sunset

questions-from-the-seaDuring the last McGregor Poetry Festival a poem was inscribed on the walls of Temenos, my favourite one from Stephen Symon’s stunning debut collection Questions for the Sea. What synchronicity to find it there when I was returning home last night for the Q&A at Stephen’s reading/launch at Wordsworth Books in Gardens. On the way to the Gardens Centre, I stopped at The Book Lounge to pick up a book I’d ordered earlier, only to find out about the violence in the streets outside the bookshop just hours before. Louanne and Werner spoke about lost children and fear. They cancelled the event scheduled at the bookshop for that evening. The book I was buying was a gift for my friend Louisa who recently shared the remarkable Falling by Elizabeth Jane Howard with me. I started reading it at Temenos. Uncanny is not the word… There is a collective wisdom of women out there, to tap into it, to allow it to nourish and heal you, that is what I am reaching out to.

with-resident-catI arrived at Wordsworth Books rattled, but there were good friends, cheese and wine, and poetry – subtle, soul-restoring poetry. Beauty, like light, can save you. How precious that it can be contained in words. Thank you, Stephen and Nick, for caring about words.

My words are safe. I find strength in the beauty of peahens. I love my Friends. I can’t wait to share my McGregor olives with them.

peahens

And I am very curious what R6 of luck will gift me.

coffee-in-bed

“Your library is your soul”: Reflecting on Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins

A God in Ruins_Costa

Despite her substantial literary success, I did not know Kate Atkinson’s work before A God in Ruins was recommended to me by a friend whose taste I value. It won the Costa Novel Award in the beginning of this month, as did Atkinson’s previous novel, Life After Life (2014). The two are related, but can be read independently. I hope to turn to the sibling soon, as A God in Ruins is one of the most exquisite novels I have ever read, and the idea of Atkinson’s backlist reassures me greatly.

A God in Ruins is many things. It is the story of a British family set against the historical background of the past century. It is a novel about war and its aftershocks. It is a fine enquiry into human nature. But above all, it is a declaration of love for literature, its power and its manifold mysteries. And it is highly ambitious. What astounds about A God in Ruins is that it never falls short of these formidable ambitions. Such novels are rare. They take root in your mind and blossom in your soul. Even ferocious readers encounter a novel like this only once in a while.

The way it captures fiction’s ability to heal, to open up spaces in us we never even knew existed is striking. It is poetic in style as well as in its wisdom. For me personally, A God in Ruins was a magical key. It opened two doors in my life. Two doors connecting the past to my fragile present: one appeared while I was still reading, the other after I’d finished the novel. I stepped through the first, an imaginary one, during one of those serene nights when you are at peace with the world and yourself. It was around midnight. I was lost in the arms of a comfy easy chair; a soft caramel light illuminated the room. When I looked up from the book, I saw something so beautiful that I wanted to hold on to it forever. But I was scared to disturb the scene by searching for my camera, so I turned to the last blank page of A God in Ruins and drew a sketch of what was in front of me: a moment of flickering hope. It is also engraved in my heart.

The second door was real. It is the door to my late husband’s library. There are innumerable books in our house. We have roamed among them with the great pleasure that exploring books can bring only to two readers in love. When I finished A God in Ruins, I was crushed by the inability to share it with André. It was published a few weeks after his death. But I knew, had he been alive, I would have passed the novel to him the second I was finished with it that early Sunday morning, and I would have asked him to read it immediately so that we could discuss it in detail. Instead, I was all alone in an empty bed and all I could do was weep. What I have discovered about grief and loneliness is that it is not the lows which are unbearable, but the emptiness of the highs, when all you want to do is experience them with the person you love and there is no-one there to hold you…

Continue reading: LitNet

How to quench literary thirst?

Water coverSimple: with Water!

There is a wonderful anthology of short stories coming our way at the end of the year, and I am not only saying this because I had the privilege of co-editing it (with the multi-talented Nick Mulgrew): Water: New Short Fiction from Africa, curated by Short Story Day Africa.

Life should be about all those half-full glasses, and this particular one is overflowing with talent and inspiration. The great thing about most short fiction anthologies is that they give you samples of writers’ work which can lead to amazing discoveries. Most of the contributors to Water were new to me, but all of them, without exception, will remain on my radar of literary interests and I will follow their careers with anticipation.

I think that if you can read a short story a few times (which I had to do for all the stories in the collection) and can still enjoy it, discovering new aspects with each turn and deepening your appreciation, then it has to mean something. Next week, I will proofread all of them one more time before the anthology goes into print, and I do not dread the task at all, but actually can’t wait.

Short Story Day Africa has been doing incredible work since it came into being, offering a space for African authors to express their desires about the African story (as writers and as readers), connecting, inspiring, developing ideas, celebrating a genre that is without equals. A good short story is a good short story, and despite all the rumours that nobody writes, publishes, or reads it, the short story will survive and thrive, because many of us LOVE to write short stories, and we LOVE to read them! It’s all very simple, actually.

All of the contributors to the anthology are good writers and I salute them! When I single out only a few in what I am about to say, it is not because of favouritism, but because I feel that I am only at the beginning of a journey which Water is taking me on.

Efemia Chela: Every time she publishes a story, its exquisiteness astounds me. I know three. All three belong to the best of the best I have ever read. This is someone with a talent so precious that it should be cherished and nourished, so that it can grow strong roots in our literary community. One day, Chela might tower over it like one of those majestic baobabs which grace the African landscape.

Alex Latimer: His story in the anthology is bizarre, to say the least, but it speaks about grief in a way that has touched me deeply. Its handling of the emotion is so subtle and so beautiful, it will stay with me for a very long time. As will Alexis Teyie‘s story about the most unbearable of losses. When you get to the last line, it literally knocks you off your feet.

Megan Ross: After reading her story, I cannot wait to get my hands on the novel she is writing at the moment. May the muse be good to her.

Mark Winkler: He has already published two novels which I might not have looked at, hadn’t I fallen in love with his story in Water. I am nearly finished with his latest, Wasted, published earlier this year (the sense of humour and the unusual, totally unpredictable, plot!), and I will read the first, An Exceptionally Simple Theory (of Absolutely Everything) (2013), as soon as I can.

And then there is Dayo Ntwari: His story is exceptional as a story, but the world and the characters he creates in it are so fascinating that one feels there could be more to them than just this one incarnation. I would love to get to know them and the scary futuristic-mythical place they live in (which is such an astute reflection of our own times) better. Any literary agents out there looking for fantasy/speculative fiction/SF from Africa? Look no more. Just saying.

I can’t wait for readers to dive into Water and discover these treasure among twenty-one excellent stories. And I promise to report more on the journey these waters are taking me on.

water6

Joanne Hichens, an everyday superhero

If you think that bringing up three kids and paying the bills on your own is tough, you are right. Running a short story competition? Hard work. Writing a book? Yep, also uphill battle. Getting it published? Nearly impossible. Starting your own publishing company? F-u-c-k-i-n-g crazy. Surviving widowhood? Not sure how one does it, not there yet.

Well, in the past two years, Joanne Hichens has been doing it all. And tonight, she launched her novel Sweet Paradise which is the publishing flagship of her newborn venture, Tattoo Press. Fittingly for the occasion, The Empire Café in Muizenberg was jam-packed with friends and excited readers. The book is dedicated to Joanne’s late husband, Robert, who died unexpectedly in January last year. Joanne stood brave and beautiful in front of the crowd, her three amazing children running the show. She spoke about how Robert encouraged her to write, believed in her as a novelist, how after his death everything became a struggle and all she wanted to do was watch other people’s miseries on TV while hugging a wine bottle. I can relate. There is a very good reason why I don’t keep whiskey in the house or why I know when NCIS’s latest episode is airing. I know what inner strength is required to get up from bed every morning and why sometimes one fails.

Photo by Liesl Jobson

Photo by Liesl Jobson


And yet, here she is with two short story anthologies, a novel, and a publishing house to her name, all achieved within twenty-two months since Robert’s death. Despite her own frailty, Joanne has been a pillar of strength for me on my journey through widowhood. She is not only a hero, but a superhero. Watching her tonight I was once again inspired, as a woman and as a writer. I take my hat off to her.

At the heart of a celebration like tonight’s there is a loneliness that is so dreadfully painful that one has to be a superhero to keep on standing. And I know this because yesterday I held a copy of Vlam in die sneeu for the first time in my hands and I failed.

The magic of Open Book 2015

Helen MacdonaldSo, who else has fallen in love with Helen Macdonald during Open Book 2015 in Cape Town? H is for Hawk has been on my radar for a while, but I’ve only decided to get the book when I heard about Macdonald’s generous endorsement of Stray: An Anthology of Animal Stories and Poems, edited by Diane Awerbuck and Helen Moffett (all royalties donated to TEARS Animal Rescue). How cool is that? Macdonald showed up at the Open Book Stray Readings and stole my heart reading the passage in which she first saw and fell for Mabel, the goshawk who helped her cope during her time of bereavement. At one of her other Open Book events, Macdonald spoke about how you can’t tame grief and how sometimes you have to do mad things in order to survive it.

This was my first Open Book since André’s death. Last year, we were still mourning Nadine Gordimer – together. We’d thought that we might celebrate the tenth anniversary of our first and only public interview (at Schloss Leopoldskron in Salzburg in 2004) with an event at the festival, but André was recovering from a knee operation and did not feel up to it. We did pay tribute to Nadine: with Margie Orford, Billy Kahora and Imraan Coovadia reading from her work and sharing stories about her influence on their lives and writing. André read from his own work at another event. We attended a few others, gathering memories which all returned to me this year when I was walking around The Fugard Theatre – alone.

At the opening ceremony, Mervyn Sloman said that every year Open Book is infused with magic. How true. “You’re a magician,” someone magical in my life said to me once. Perhaps I can conjure miracles when inspiration and desire strike, but I would like to think of myself as a magician of a different kind, one who can recognise the magic of the everyday. Even when suffocating in the clutches of grief.

with SallyMagic was all over The Book Lounge and The Fugard Theatre during Open Book this year. In the stories I read preparing for the festival (discovering my love for the work of Karen Joy Fowler, Melissa de Villiers and Andrey Kurkov in the process); in the warmth of a friend’s grip around my arms at the opening ceremony; in Karen Joy Fowler’s humour; in the melody Petina Gappah sang during her interview with Lauren Beukes; in a walk in the sun between events; in Stephen Segerman’s and Craig Bartholomew Strydom’s devotion to the Sugar Man story; in Claire Robertson’s mesmerising reading voice; in seeing the first cover designs for the special edition of Flame in the Snow; in Elleke Boehmer’s, Henrietta Rose-Innes’s and Craig Higginson’s inspiring eloquence; in a dim sum lunch, a bubbly and a Glenfiddich shared with friends; in Beverly Rycroft’s moving honesty; in a friend’s sparkling eyes which could have been clouded by loss but weren’t; in the hospitality of Fugard’s Iris who with her colleagues took such great care of all of us; and, last but not least, in S.J. Naudé’s careful thoughts about our craft – the magic and beauty of it all.

with KarenI loved chairing the three events I was asked to. I loved seeing old friends and meeting new ones. I loved interacting with writers whose work has meant so much to me over the years. I loved buying books and talking about literature with people who care. I loved being asked to sign my novel. I loved feeling that I was close to returning to my own creative writing. I loved every single memory from the past. I loved making new ones.

Thank you, Mervyn, Frankie and all the other magicians at The Book Lounge.

You can’t tame grief. Grief is this creature that moves into your home when death strikes. It lurks, ready to pounce at all times, especially when you least expect it. It never leaves again. You can’t tame it, but you can tame the way you react to it. And live. And experience joy again, in a story and in your life. And smile. And appreciate the magic. That moment.
with Andrey and Andrew

(Photos: Books Live and PEN SA)

Review: Sam and Me and the Hard Pear Tree by Jami Yeats-Kastner

sam_and_me_hard_pear_tree_covGrief is a curious creature. When you lose a beloved person, everything changes. You even have to learn to breathe anew. None of it is predictable. The process is highly individual. Reading Jami Yeats-Kastner’s heart-wrenching memoir about the death of Sam, her youngest son, was perhaps not the wisest choice for me after having experienced the greatest loss of my life, the death of my husband. Yeats-Kastner’s journey, however, is very different. Yet her story resonated with me in unexpected ways and gave me a measure of comfort.

“The Day It Happened” for Yeats-Kastner and her family was 8 February 2013. Her eighteen-months-old son drowned in their pool. That day she became the “Crazybutterflylady”, guided by signs in the form of butterflies on her path to acceptance and to herself.

As my favourite philosopher Mark Rowlands says: “To be at our best we have to be pushed into a corner, where there is no hope and nothing to be gained from going on. And we go on anyway.” Yeats-Kastner repeats the sentiment in the opening of her book: “Sometimes you need to be completely broken to find the most powerful part of yourself.”

As she notes, losing a child is “universally accepted” to be the greatest of pains. It is the loss of a life not lived, of the immense potential and its beauty. It is unbearable. Those left behind live in a void that is undefined: “If you lose your parents you’re an orphan; if you lose your husband you’re a widow. But what is the name for us, the broken ones? There isn’t one, because people can’t accept that it should happen.”

What Yeats-Kastner shows is how to transform the heartache of such a loss into a force for good. She seeks out messages which lead her on a path of discovery. She realises that in order to continue a meaningful life, to be a good mother to her other two sons (one of whom has severe low muscle tone), to be a loving wife and a fulfilled person, she needs to preserve her space and cultivate her creativity. Not afraid of what others might think of her, she pursues all avenues – whether spiritual, religious, or alternative – to achieve her goals. Together with friends, she starts a charity in her son’s name and learns to appreciate “life’s great truths”.

Nothing is easy. Guilt feelings persist. Reproach from others has to be confronted. There are days where everything seems impossible. Yeats-Kastner confronts it all with searing honesty and does not flinch, simply asking that we do not judge her too easily. She describes her family’s ordeal and their courage to find a new life. They move house, take up new professional challenges, and follow the butterflies which seem to appear out of the blue, but are in fact constantly around you if you are bold enough to look for and acknowledge them.

Sam and Me and the Hard Pear Tree is a moving memoir of survival, healing and hope.

Sam and Me and the Hard Pear Tree
by Jami Yeats-Kastner
Jacana, 2014

Review first published in the Cape Times, 2 April 2015, p. 24.

Review: Synapse by Antjie Krog

SynapseReading Antjie Krog’s latest volume of poetry translated into English, Synapse (Mede-wete in Afrikaans), I was faced with an old personal dilemma: How much hard work is too much in order to reach that moment where meaning and aesthetic pleasure reveal themselves to you as a poetry reader? I don’t have an adequate answer. Perhaps everyone’s threshold is different anyway. In the end all you have is your very individual frame of reference, as a friend recently reminded me.

In any poetry volume you will find poems which will immediately speak to you. Others will require a specific key to unlock a feeling of appreciation. Rereading, research, or exploration of context will eventually reward your effort. Some poems will forever remain inaccessible no matter the amount of goodwill you put in. And then there will be those which will simply leave you cold. The poems in Synapse fit into all these categories.

The volume is divided into two parts: The Yard and Four Efforts in Linguistic Synapse Tracing. The first part opens with a series of epigraphs which are followed by thirteen poems, all focused on the images of the yard and the farm. These I find the strongest and most captivating in the book. In the epigraphs we are introduced to spaces in which the land and its ownership take centre stage and gender roles are clearly defined. The poems speak of the death of a patriarch, familial roots which reach into a troubled past, grief, guilt, race relations, and the ancient questions of owning and belonging.

As the poem 11. fossilised tree trunk makes clear, everything is connected, embedded, echoed throughout history. And yet, everything changes: “after all the years we gurgle (the only outlasting ones) / burdened with the dying light and bloodsick with heritage / : the new ones prepare to enter the yard” (13. old yard). At the heart of one’s relationship with the land are beauty and language: “places that could always snap my skeleton into language / coil me into voices bore into my entrails / expose a certain wholeness of belonging as my deepest tongue / tear chorales and something like discord from my brain” (6. live the myth).

This is the kind of poetry that leaves one gasping for air, which opens up new spaces in one’s understanding and feeling about the past and everyday reality in this country.

The Yard continues with poems which grapple with morality and reconciliation. The idea of interconnectedness is challenged in hold your ear to the tear in the skin of my country where already the format of the poem signals separate spheres of understanding the concept of forgiveness. The words of the speaker of the first section, Cynthia Ngewu, who testified in front of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission about the murder of her son, one of the Guguletu Seven, cascade onto the page like a waterfall. The neat couplets which follow represent an ordered attempt to understand the motives and worldviews of the officer who was involved in the killing. In the end, we are told, “it was futile to try to weave interconnectedness into / the concrete bunker that lives inside Mr Barnard’s whiteness”.

The bleakness of moving beyond such divisions is captured in miracle where South Africa’s relatively peaceful liberation is juxtaposed with present-day, all-consuming greed and violence: “we have become the prey of ourselves caught up / in ethnic avarice and total incapacity for vision”.

More intimate poems about ageing, memory, grand-motherhood, domesticity, or the I-you constellation of lovers reveal the wonders of the world along deeper philosophical questions about our capabilities and responsibilities. The tone ranges from sombre to light-hearted. Krog is one of the few poets out there who can smuggle Skype, wifi, the Internet and memory sticks into poetry and make them look as if they almost belonged. Also, when she swears, she makes it count.

The poem convivium astounds with its breadth: “what use my caress in the breath-earthed night if a centre- / less universe opens space in the nonexistent for dark / matter to overpower a few broken beads of light?” The poem, like the human body at the core of its universe, “tuneforks such abundance”.

Apart from a handful exceptions, especially the Lament on the death of Mandela, the latter part of the volume, specifically the obfuscated Four Efforts in Linguistic Synapse Tracing left me baffled. The tightness and clarity of the preceding poems dissolved in musings where it became more and more difficult to follow the poet on her journey. The academic in me insisted I persevere and come to grips with the pieces, but the Sunday morning reader just wanted to return to the earlier poems in the collection or open another book. The Sunday morning reader won.

Synapse
by Antjie Krog
translated by Karen Press
Human & Rousseau, 2014

A ‘butchered’ version of this review appeared in the Cape Times on 19 December 2014, p. 12.