Tag Archives: Karina M. Szczurek

Review: A Poor Season for Whales by Michiel Heyns

42It is a poor season for just about everything, but not for reading if you can manage to keep enough headspace intact to engage and enjoy it. And the latest novel by Michiel Heyns, his ninth, is pure literary delight. “Margaret Crowley, handsome, clever, rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly fifty-six years in the world with very little to distress or vex her. It was therefore hardly to be foreseen that in her fifty-sixth year she would kill a man with a kitchen knife.”

And so begins A Poor Season for Whales, taking you straight to the heart of the “last outpost of the white middle classes”, Hermanus, where Margaret Crowley has moved after an amicable divorce to start a new life away from her usual social circles in Cape Town. One day, while she is walking her dog Benjy, her canine companion gets into trouble and is rescued by Jimmy, a mysterious stranger, who takes an unsettling interest in Margaret and her life.

At first grateful for his assistance, ambivalent about her own reactions to the young man, Margaret cautiously allows Jimmy into her home, while he does everything he can to become indispensable to her. Her friends and her grown-up children are not impressed, and there are moments when she also suspects ulterior motives, but Jimmy intrigues her beyond the initial hesitation. And when her ex-housekeeper, Rebecca, demands her assistance in providing her with a home, and her over-the-top sister-in-law decides to descend on Margaret and her children for Christmas, Margret does not feel that she has a choice but to allow Jimmy to help her handle the situation.

As you joyously and nervously turn the pages of A Poor Season for Whales, the question throughout persists, of course, about who is going to end up with a kitchen knife in his back, especially after the said knife appears on the set like a Chekhov’s gun. The title suggests that whales might also make an unexpected appearance. Or not.

The plot is carried by pitch-perfect dialogue. Imagine Jane Austen meets Before Sunrise and Heyns’s own A Sportful Malice. The running socio-political commentary felt spot-on. Heyns has a beautifully wry sense of humour and I found myself laughing out loud every few pages. After Jimmy’s condemnation of Margaret’s cooking skills, I might never be able to allow iceberg lettuce into my kitchen.

On a more serious note, the novel also reminded me of The Talented Mr Ripley and perhaps a lesser known but stunning novel by Elizabeth Jane Howard, Falling. The way Heyns depicts the relationship dynamics in his novel made me think – with discomfort – about a few people in my life who have the tendency to push one into previously unimagined corners and get away with it. But a kitchen knife is seldom an option.

A Poor Season for Whales

by Michiel Heyns (2020)

Review first appeared in the Cape Times on 15 May 2020.

Review: Three Bodies by NR Brodie

Three BodiesThe second Reshma Patel and Ian Jack thriller by NR Brodie, Three Bodies, is here and, if you enjoyed the first one as much as I did, you can get excited. Yes, it’s also available as an ebook and Brodie has announced on social media that she will be donating all her royalties from the sales during the lockdown to the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce supporting sex workers in this time of crisis when they are at risk more than ever.

In Three Bodies, the risk to the three women who are discovered dead in different bodies of water around Gauteng comes from a dark source. At first, the cases seem unrelated and, when Ian Jack comes across the first one during an investigation in which he helps to trace a security guard gone missing, and his partner Reshma Patel discovers a severed finger and a stash of money and guns next to two corpses deep underground in Johannesburg’s tunnels while also pursuing a missing person case, they find it difficult to connect the dots. Both finds are accidental, but Reshma’s has immediate consequences for her career when she takes a bold step behind her superior’s back and contacts another unit to investigate the gruesome crime scene she stumbles upon.

As in Knucklebone, the first book in the series, Brodie offers a cast of fascinating characters. Is Myburgh, the ex-cop turned head of security for a group of housing estates, past his best? Despite his impeccable credentials, can Super Sobukwe be trusted after it comes to light that he might have put Reshma and her new colleague, Wayde Claassen, carelessly in lethal danger? And who is the fierce Angela de Bruyn from the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin trying to protect? Do mermaids exist?

It was good to see MaRejoice from Knucklebone return with all her wisdom and intuition. And Joburg is there in all its gore, grit and glory again. Having written a lot of non-fiction about South African cities, Brodie knows a thing or two about how to portray a metropolis like Johannesburg with aplomb. There were a few descriptive passages of characters’ comings and goings when the writing slowed down to a pace that reduced the impact of the narrative, but the vivid cash-in-transit heist scenes and the final showdown of the novel made up for a lot in the page-turning department.

Knucklebone does not have to be read before you can dive into Three Bodies, yet the private and professional relationships between Reshma and Ian are better understood if you know how they have developed since the spectacular ending of Brodie’s debut novel. The magic realism elements of the first book are toned down in the latest, but are used to a great effect towards the end of the novel, allowing us to wonder at the reality we think we know.

Three Bodies

NR Brodie

Macmillan, 2020

Review first published in the Cape Times on 8 May 2020.

Review: The Upside of Down – How Chaos and Uncertainty Breed Opportunity in South Africa by Bruce Whitfield

bruce-whitfield-the-upside-of-down

I’d never thought that a radio show about business news could be of personal interest to me, but I have been enjoying Bruce Whitfield’s clear and accessible Money Show for a few years now. Whitfield’s The Upside of Down is the last book I bought at a bookshop before the lockdown, but it is also available as an ebook. Although written just before the pandemic hit South Africa’s shores, it is an astoundingly fitting and inspiring read for our terrifying times.

The title alone already feels like a reassurance. The same clarity with which Whitfield presents his show can be found in his writing. One doesn’t have to be an economic and political fundi to follow the arguments presented in The Upside of Down. And after failing miserably at the quiz included in the first chapter of the book, I happily absorbed the knowledge and ideas that followed.

There is no way of assessing our current economic situation without wanting to weep, and Whitfield presents us with a sober picture after the looting of the Zuma decade, but he steers his readers towards the positive stories of entrepreneurs, big and small, succeeding against all odds. These are extremely empowering. He also outlines the basic traits that visionaries and companies require to thrive in an unstable environment as well as what socio-economic factors could contribute to stabilising it in order for the desperately-needed growth to follow and employment figures to increase.

Opportunities arrive all the time but, because of a persistent atmosphere of doom and gloom, not enough of us dare to dream. Whitfield understand the power of storytelling in channelling positive energies towards turning those visions into reality: “It’s in the very crisis in which South Africa finds itself today that there lies an enormous opportunity for renewal, growth and optimism.”

The Upside of Down: How Chaos and Uncertainty Breed Opportunity in South Africa

Bruce Whitfield

Macmillan, 2020

First published in the Cape Times on 24 April 2020.

PS This is Salieri, taking the title seriously and seeing the world from a different perspective.

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Review: South African Writing in Transition, edited by Rita Barnard and Andrew van der Vlies

South African Writing in TransitionIt has been a while since I’ve read, edited or contributed to an anthology of theoretical essays on South African literature. But, occasionally, I still have academic longings; therefore, I approached South African Writing in Transition, edited by Rita Barnard and Andrew van der Vlies, with great anticipation, and found the collection most engrossing. The individual contributions focus on a fascinating and relevant selection of primary sources, mostly novels and short stories, reaching as far back as Sol Plaatje’s Mhudi (1930) and incorporating contemporary texts into the diverse readings of the South African literary canon. The work of other South African literary greats – Njabulo S Ndebele, Zakes Mda, Mongane Wally Serote, Nadine Gordimer, Marlene van Niekerk and Ivan Vladislavić among them – is discussed along with an array of new, equally exciting voices, exposing striking continuities and departures.

By its very nature, theoretical writing takes time to compose and publish. South African Writing in Transition is the result of several international conferences which took place between 2012 and 2017 in South Africa and overseas. Most contributors are not based locally, which perhaps limits the scope of the inquiry as a whole, but the collection testifies to South African literature’s continuous appeal to international scholars. Also, the anthology’s topics are pertinent to our present in highly productive and sometimes uncanny ways. As Barnard writes in the introduction to the book: “[I]t is now time to consider the many loops and twists, the stasis and acceleration, the paralysis and hope of postapartheid experience.” We find ourselves in an unprecedented global reality in which the interest in world literature, its contributions and theories, will become more significant than ever, and understanding the South African experience, past and present, socio-historical and literary, as part of it could be of notable value.

Continue reading: LitNet

Review: Notre-Dame – A Short History of the Meaning of Cathedrals by Ken Follett

Notre-Dame“Something priceless was dying in front of our eyes. The feeling was bewildering, as if the earth was shaking”, writes Ken Follett about watching the Notre-Dame Cathedral burning on 15 April last year. Not an expert on cathedrals, but known across the world for his The Pillars of the Earth, a novel about the construction of a cathedral for which he did an enormous amount of research, he became the media’s go-to person for commentary about the Notre-Dame fire and, together with his French publisher, decided to write Notre-Dame: A Short History of the Meaning of Cathedrals to support the reconstruction efforts of the architectural treasure after the catastrophe. All the royalties generated by the book go to the charity La Fondation du Patrimoine.

Follett’s brief account of Notre-Dame’s eight-centuries-long existence is informative and touching. “Notre-Dame had always seemed eternal, and the medieval builders certainly thought it would last until the Judgement Day; but suddenly we saw that it could be destroyed”, he writes in the opening pages of the book. The history of this popular site of pilgrimage is astounding. “How did such majestic beauty arise out of the violence and filth of the Middle Ages?” Follett asks and illuminates the cathedral’s many wonders. It was built before standardised measurements, modern mathematics, efficient tools, and with hardly any safety regulations. Women and foreigners played vital roles in the construction – it was an international effort of note. And literature – novels like Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris (1831) – spread the building’s fame across the world. In 1944, it was the backdrop of a “masterpiece of political theatre” as General de Gaulle ended a victory march at the cathedral.

The slim, beautifully produced book conveys Follett’s passion for the subject matter and explains why so many of us wept when we saw Our Lady of Paris burning.

Notre-Dame: A Short History of the Meaning of Cathedrals

Ken Follett

Macmillan, 2019

Review first published in the Cape Times on 27 March 2020.

Review: The Book of Gifts by Craig Higginson

The Book of GiftsAs readers, we turn to specific authors when we don’t want to be disappointed. The internationally acclaimed writer, Craig Higginson, has become one of these for me. His latest novel, The Book of Gifts, is another gem in his impressive oeuvre. It begins with a family trip to uMhlanga Rocks and radiates from this particular moment into the past and the future, gradually piecing together the puzzle of the intricate – often toxic – relationships that play out during the holiday in KwaZulu-Natal. At the centre of the unfolding story and the complex familial constellation are the two half-sisters, Emma and Jennifer. Emma is a successful sculptor and mother to Julian, at the time of the holiday an eleven-year-old boy who falls in love for the first time with an enthralling, slightly older Clare. Jennifer is a teacher at Julian’s school back in Johannesburg where they all live, and wife to Andrew, a psychologist struggling to find his professional and personal bearing.

“A gift is never a destination in itself,” Andrew tells one of his patients, “but a means to an end – a stepping stone towards somewhere else.” Every chapter of The Book of Gifts is told from the perspective of one of the main characters and contains a mention of a gift that one of them gives to another with diverse intentions and consequences. The gift that stands out throughout is the one of life, whether it is the life a parent gives to their child or the life that an artist gives to their creation. Emma continues asking herself whether she is capable of managing both these callings, as a mother and as a creative person, and experiences guilt that allows a potentially lethal gift, “the poisoned apple”, to threaten her and her son’s well-being.

In a world where everyone has a secret and integrity is torn apart by betrayals, the gift of truth has the biblical potential to set one free, but speaking up takes courage. When Julian ends up in a comma after a mysterious fall, the adults in his life have to dig deep in order to comprehend – and perhaps finally accept – their responsibilities towards the conflicted young man and towards one another. But not all of them are ready for the effort involved.

Higginson explores how an act of creation can also reshape reality in order to reveal or disguise culpability, which adds another fascinating dimension to The Book of Gifts that made me reconsider my own understanding of the relationship between truth and storytelling. This finely layered, mesmerising novel will cement Higginson’s position as one of the most gifted – yes, that word again – writers in South Africa and beyond. His ability to shine a light into the darkest places of the human heart and confronting them with empathy is remarkable: “This is where life begins, he thinks, as he takes another step into the dark.”

The Book of Gifts

Craig Higginson

Picador Africa, 2020

Review first published in the Cape Time on 20 February 2020.

Review: To the Volcano, and Other Stories by Elleke Boehmer

To-the-VolcanoThe internationally acclaimed, Durban-born writer, Elleke Boehmer, has a second short story collection out: To the Volcano, and Other Stories. Set mostly in the southern hemisphere and illuminated by the legendary southern light artists and tourists travel the world to experience, the twelve stories in this collection explore the tenuous and tenacious relationships people have with the South.

Boehmer is also a novelist and a literary scholar; her work across the disciplines is devoted to understanding the complexities involved. The way she presents her observations and insights in fiction is a balm for the soul. The one word that came to mind throughout the reading of To the Volcano was “gentleness”. Not necessarily when it comes to themes touched on in the stories – these are often anything but gentle (trauma, colonialism, illegal migration, ageing, loss, etc.) – but the way they are presented in exquisite, considered prose.

A little boy keeps his frail grandmother, who is suffering from dementia, grounded by constructing paper planes for her. A woman on holiday is given a bracelet that feels like a portal to a disquieting reality. Two shelf stackers in a supermarket connect on Valentine’s Day. The widow of a writer continues taking care of his legacy. During a trip to the titular volcano, the lives of a group of university lecturers and students are transformed: “You have lit a fire in my soul,” writes one of them to another, “My love is strong as death, its flashes are flashes of fire.”

Boehmer’s stories “flash fire”. They are about seeing, about interconnectedness and about the shifting of perspectives. By flipping the globe on its axis and placing the South at the centre of our attention, she allows us to look at the world from a vantage point that is unusually regarded as peripheral.

To the Volcano, and Other Stories

Elleke Boehmer

Myriad Editions, 2019

Review first published in the Cape Time on 20 February 2020.

Review: Letters Home by Jolyon Nuttall

Letters HomeWe have entered an era when biographers and literary scholars bemoan the fact that most of us have stopped writing letters, the ones composed with a pen on paper, folded into an envelope and posted to be received and perhaps kept under a pillow or in a jacket’s pocket because of the precious content they contain. For centuries, such letters were frequently lifelines to others and bore testimonies to our lives in ways that our modern world, despite all our inventions and our seeming connectedness, is no longer capable of reproducing.

Jolyon Nuttall was a journalist and media manager before retiring and returning to his love of writing. He published Vintage Love, a book of essays about his personal and professional life, in 2018. Last year, before his death of cancer, he compiled Letters Home, a collection of letters he wrote to his family in the early 1960s while he was assigned by a South African newspaper to the foreign correspondent desk in New York. The book also contains essays which contextualise the letters and record the time’s influence on Nuttall’s subsequent life.

Letters Home is dedicated to Misa Ban, a Japanese actress Nuttall met and fell in love with during his stay in New York. The letters tell the story of a young man trying to find his way in the turbulent world of the 1960s, in South Africa and abroad, and experiencing an impossible love, forbidden by the apartheid laws of his home country. The personal essays which follow describe the consequences of the choices Nuttall felt compelled to make as a result of these socio-historical tensions.

Published posthumously, Letters Home is a beautiful homage to the letter as an art form and to the rich life of a man who did not shy away from difficult questions.

Letters Home

Jolyon Nuttall

Staging Post, 2019

Review first published in the Cape Times on 6 March 2020.

Review: Missing Person by Sarah Lotz

Missing PersonMissing Person, the latest thriller from the author of The Three, Day Four and The White Road, Sarah Lotz, was my companion on a recent overseas flight and kept me so entertained that I hardly noticed the long hours flying by.

Lotz is one of those versatile storytellers whose imagination knows no bounds. She addresses themes that are topical, but is never predictable or didactic and is not afraid to push the boundaries of genres. Despite part one opening “in a cemetery on a damp October evening”, unlike her previous three novels, Missing Person does not include the supernatural. Instead, it ventures into a space that is just as inscrutable: the internet.

An online platform specialising in identifying victims of unresolved crimes in the States goes on a mission to find the person behind the corpse knows as the Boy in the Dress, suspected to be Teddy Ryan. Unbeknownst to them, the group of hobby detectives involved are joined in their search by the killer responsible for the young man’s death. They are also assisted by Teddy’s nephew, Shaun, who’d been made to believe by his family that his uncle had died in a car accident years ago in Ireland. Determined to understand what led to Teddy’s demise, Shaun travels from Wales to the States and meets with the amateur sleuths of Missing-linc.com, none of them suspecting that he might be on direct collision course with his uncle’s murderer and that a single wrong gesture can have lethal consequences.

“If he doesn’t approach me, I’ll leave him alone”, the killer remembers first seeing his victim at a bar. The young man approached, sealing his fate. But was he the only one? Is this crime connected to another unsolved case?

The attempt to piece together the puzzle of Teddy’s mysterious disappearance is a way for Shaun of trying to cope with his life after the loss of his mother to cancer. His relationship with the rest of the family is strained. The affair he is having with a married man is burdened by too many lies. It’s hard to trust others when so much of your experience is steeped in deceit. Shaun likes his work at a bookshop, but questions whether there isn’t more to life than that.

Lotz’s other characters – the cyber detectives with their own fascinating stories and motives as well as the people in Shaun’s everyday life – are movingly drawn, believable and thus highly relatable. The murderer’s back story and his present life are chilling in their calculated simplicity. Missing Person is well-paced and, even though you know from almost the start who the killer is, the novel has great twist and turns that I did not see coming. Dialogue is another aspect of the book that Lotz does extremely well. No wonder that the thriller comes with endorsements from the master himself, Stephen King, and our own queen of the genre, Lauren Beukes.

Missing Person

Sarah Lotz

Hodder & Stoughton, 2019

Review first published in the Cape Times, 28 February 2020.

Snow leopards

Despite being able to transform into an object that exists in the world, in its essence, a book is a communion between an author and her readers. Unless you are writing a manual for wig making, the content of a book will hardly ever manifest as an artefact in reality. The kind of traces fiction or non-fiction leave behind are emotional and mental states, occasionally of life-changing consequences, but book content usually doesn’t metamorphose into material things.

Imagine how moved I was when I pulled, out of a box, a longing which had only ever existed in my soul and as a phrase in my writing. And suddenly I held it – all real and beautiful – in my hands. It was a gift beyond imagination, a gift that only creativity can birth into the world. Pure magic: right there before my teary eyes, in my unbelieving hands. One of the most touching gifts I have ever received.

Snow leopards

The power of storytelling.

Snow leopards Paper House by Julia Smuts Louw

Once upon a time, I compiled a collection of stories. Among them was Julia Smuts Louw’s “Paper House”. I have encountered Julia’s work when she was a creative writing student at UCT and I asked her to contribute to Touch: Stories of Contact. We didn’t particularly keep in touch after the project, but bumped into each other at literary events and, more recently, reconnected over our tasks of taking care of our loved ones’ literary legacies.

A while back, I got an inspiring and beautiful message from Julia about my memoir. She came to Karavan Press events. We went out to dinner. We have started thinking of working together on another literary project in the near future.

And then, a few days ago, she messaged me to say that she wanted to meet to give me something.

We had coffee. I opened the box containing my gift. A man observing the handover felt compelled to come over after we’d stopped hugging to say that it was wonderful to witness the exchange and the happiness it’d so obviously brought into the world.

Snow leoprads reading

There they were: my snow leopards. Not only images in my head, but real creatures in the world that Julia had created herself after reading my memoir. The one phrase that encapsulates my being manifest in two clay statues – snow leopards reading a Karavan Press book to each other.

Snow leopards Karavan Press

It is difficult to articulate magic, but here it is, sprung up among words and inspired fingertips.

Words can do this.

And all of it was happening while my dear friend, Erika Viljoen, was adding the final touches to her Afrikaans translation of The Fifth Mrs Brink, to be published by Protea Book House later this year. Another longing manifesting in the world in ways that are difficult to articulate, accompanied by a gratitude which knows no bounds. My memoir could never feel complete without an Afrikaans translation. Now it is almost here, and Die vyfde mev. Brink will have both of our names on the cover, Erika’s and mine. And we will be publishing another book together in 2020.

That’s the power of storytelling. And friendship that is like family, and more. And all those incredible journeys – new and old – that are still continuing …

… en net ’n handvol mense ken waarlik die Karina wat wild rondhol saam met sneeuluiperds.

Thank you.