Tag Archives: Karina M. Szczurek

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.

 

 

 

Review: Stillicide by Cynan Jones

StillicideIn his writing, Cynan Jones showcases the full potential of the short forms of prose – the novella and the short story. I have been a fan for years. The economy of his prose and the uncanny insight he offers into the human condition are a rare gift. Stillicide, his latest book, is a collection of short fictions which originated as a BBC Radio 4 series. The pieces are interlinked and centre around the theme of water, as the title suggests. “Stillicide” is defined as “a continual dropping of water” or “a right or duty relating to the collection of water from or onto adjacent land.”

Highly topical not only for drought-stricken South Africa, but globally, the stories of Stillicide are set in an imagined, but not too-distant future where water is a highly priced commodity. The cityscape is familiar as the Thames still runs through it, but the iceberg transports to the city signal a new threatening reality. The characters of Stillicide attempt to carve out a meaningful existence in this hostile world.

A man with nothing left to lose is tasked with the security of the titular “water train” of the opening story. A neglected woman discovers hope within herself and nature. Two boys walk through a desolate landscape with a dog. An elderly couple are about to lose their house to rising sea levels, but they remain like limpets, “they barely move more than half a metre from their home scar all their lives”. The discovery of a rare insect has the potential to stop a development that half a million people are marching against with little hope. “The belligerent will of a thing to exist”, the need for a voice to be kept alive cannot be underestimated. Both find refuge in the stunning stories of Stillicide.

Stillicide

Cynan Jones

Granta, 2019

Review first published in the Cape Times on 24 January 2020.

Review: The Gospel According to Lazarus by Richard Zimler

The Gospel According to LazarusIn his novels, Richard Zimler, who is best known for The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, has been chronicling Jewish history throughout the ages and from all corners of the world for many years. His latest offering is an unusual, deeply touching retelling of the gospel. At its centre, Zimler places Lazarus and allows him to tell the story in a long letter to his grandson: “Picture me endeavouring to tell you matters that will never be able to fit easily or comfortably on a roll of papyrus.”

Lazarus, a widower and a father of two, lives with his sisters and is a tile maker commissioned to design symbolic mosaics for affluent citizens of Galilee. He is friends with the man whom most readers will know as Jesus of Nazareth. It is this relationship that leads Lazarus into danger and tests his faith as well as the people closest to him.

The Gospel According to Lazarus goes back and forth in time, but focuses on the days following Lazarus’s return from the dead. Zimler’s daring recreation of this tale from Lazarus’s perspective is a truly remarkable feat of the imagination and of empathy. The experience is described with sublime sensitivity, as is the unshakable friendship that binds the two main characters of the story. “I have found that most men and women huddle behind their own heartwalls and only rarely peek outside. We spend thirty, forty, fifty years or more not seeing one another”, Lazarus tells his grandson. “But he looked and saw.”

Whether we are believers or not, through Zimler’s fearless storytelling, we are reminded that there are “profound and hidden things in our world” and that fiction, not unlike faith, can bring us closer to understanding our own humanity and the stories that have sustained it for millennia.

The Gospel According to Lazarus

Richard Zimler

Peter Owen Publishers, 2019

Review first published in the Cape Times on 24 January 2020.

Review: Little Boy by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Little BoyThe versatile American artist Lawrence Ferlinghetti is a literary legend. For his hundredth birthday last year, Faber & Faber published a beautiful hardback edition of his latest work, a memoir in verse titled Little Boy. The cover and the first few pages lured me in at the bookshop; I couldn’t wait to take it home.

Unfortunately, after the enticing lyrical beginning, the book descends into a mostly opaque and often unpalatable dissection of the writer’s life, his troubled home country, and human experience as a whole that would need months of research to be properly understood. An enterprise that is contrary to Ferlinghetti’s self-proclaimed desire for accessibility, and I suspect that the attempt would feel like a waste of time in the end. Which is a great pity, because there are passage in the book that testify to the possibilities of Ferlinghetti’s talent and vision: “And looking back over the lost terrain the great / misrememberer with myopic vision sees only himself / in the shorn landscape of half-overturned vehicles / of desire and misread signs at country crossroads / pointing different directions …”.

If only such lines could have been rescued from the rest of the book. It might be Ferlinghetti’s last, but Little Boy will not diminish his significant contribution to all the arts he made his own. Gems like these will continue to shine: “it is the time of final reckoning of the / never-ending end of night to get real after a / lifetime of illusion and evasion …”.

Little Boy

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Faber & Faber, 2019

Review first published in the Cape Times on 24 January 2020.

Review: Whose Story Is This? Old Conflicts, New Chapters by Rebecca Solnit

Whose Story Is ThisThere are numerous writers out there who understand the complexity of the present. Many can also clearly convey their insights. But few do it as strikingly as Rebecca Solnit. I have discovered her work only recently, but have read and loved all the books she has authored by now. Her latest is another intellectual delight.

Whose Story Is This? Old Conflicts, New Chapters is a collection of essays Solnit penned over the last three years. At the heart of the book is the ancient question of who and how is allowed to tell a story. It might seem simple at first glance, but there are no easy answers. And when one realises how many seminal stories are silenced and for which reasons, one can grow terrifyingly worried about the narratives that infiltrate our lives.

Storytelling and power are tensely interlinked. Credibility or lack thereof forms part of that connection. Having a voice doesn’t necessarily mean that it is your time to speak. Truth and accuracy are paramount. And perhaps most importantly for our strange times, the dominant story is often the one that is lethally misleading: “Gaslighting is a collective cultural phenomenon, too,” Solnit notes, “and it makes cultures feel crazy the way it does individual victims.” Whose Story Is This? is worth reading just for the explanation of this concept. But the book offers so much more.

Solnit’s intense clarity of thought and compassion allows us to follow her as she “maps or machetes” paths out of “this horrible tangle.” She says that it is all about the “active practice of paying attention to other people.” It is also about kindness. Our world can use a lot more of these vital skills, if we want to envisage a future that is meaningful to most, not only a few.

Whose Story Is This? Old Conflicts, New Chapters

Rebecca Solnit

Granta, 2019

Review first published in the Cape Times on 20 December 2019.