Tag Archives: Karina Magdalena Szczurek

Review: Remnants Restante Reste by Annette Snyckers

Remnants-Restsante-by-Annette-SnyckersIt isn’t often that you can delight in a poetry collection in three languages, but Annette Snyckers’s debut Remnants Restante Reste invites you to do precisely that. Writing in English, Afrikaans and German, Snyckers explores the possibilities of translation and creative expansion. Not all the poems included are presented in all three languages, but the ones that are add a magical layer to the poetry as the individual manifestations enhance and augment one another. The author notes: “Where a poem appears in more than one language, the first version is not necessarily the original version. Poems were written in different languages as I felt the need to write them, and all subsequent translations were done by me.” I feel fortunate to be able to enjoy all three versions in meaningful ways, but even if one of them eludes you, the remaining offerings in the collection are rich enough to suffice for a satisfying read…

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Remnants Restante Reste
by Annette Snyckers
Modjaji Books, 2018

Review: Lacuna by Fiona Snyckers

You are concerned for my sake, which I appreciate,Lacuna

you think you understand, but finally you don’t. Because you can’t. 

— Lucy Lurie in JM Coetzee’s Disgrace

 

Reluctance. That is what I felt approaching Fiona Snyckers’s latest novel, Lacuna. Only after the third attempt did I manage to get beyond the second sentence of the first chapter: “My vagina is a lacuna that my attackers filled with their penises.” I eventually continued when asked to review the novel. And boy, am I glad that I did!

Lacuna is the story of Lucy Lurie, a fictional woman who shares a name with one of the main characters in Disgrace (published exactly two decades ago in 1999). It is a feminist “reply”, for want of a better word, to JM Coetzee’s most famous — or infamous (depending on one’s reading) — novel.

Why my reluctance to read Lacuna? It’s complicated. But let me try to explain…

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Book review: The Woman Next Door by Yewanda Omotoso

The Woman Next DoorNeighbours: a word loaded with connotations. The biblical instruction of “love thy neighbour”, Verwoerd’s “policy of good neighbourliness”, Robert Frost’s “good fences make good neighbours”, and the usual neighbourly mistrust, animosity, even prejudice come to mind. Yewande Omotoso quotes Simone Weil for her epigraph: “The wall is the thing which separates them, but it is also their means of communication.”

The Woman Next Door tells the story of two cantankerous old ladies – one white, one black – who are neighbours in a fictitious wealthy estate in Constantia, Cape Town: “It was known that the two women shared hedge and hatred and they pruned both with a vim that belied their ages.”

Seemingly, however, Hortensia James and Marion Agostino have a lot in common. Both are in their eighties, widowed, with highly successful careers behind them. Yet their lives have left them bitter and lonely. Interestingly, what separates them most clearly, skin colour and money, transpires to be quite superficial, as both of them are masters of pretence. What really divides them is something which stands between all of us when we encounter another human being of whatever background: the fear of reaching out and making oneself vulnerable enough to connect intimately…

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Review: Affluenza by Niq Mhlongo

AffluenzaEvery new book by Niq Mhlongo is literature to my ears. His three novels, Dog Eat Dog (2004), After Tears (2007) and Way Back Home (2013), were fresh, gritty and not to be ignored. Reading them in sequence you witness a writer coming into his own, developing an unmistakably individual voice that captures a historical moment like no other. That moment for Mhlongo is now. If you want to take the pulse of present-day South Africa, you can turn to his work for insight.

Dog Eat Dog encapsulates the lives of a group of Wits students at the time of the first democratic elections. After Tears describes the challenges and disillusionments of their generation after graduation. In Way Back Home the characters have seemingly made it, but their lives are haunted by greed, corruption and ghosts from their past. Never afraid to tell it like it is, Mhlongo offers a brutally honest glance into contemporary South Africa.

In his first short-story collection, Affluenza, he continues in this vein, but at the same time the writing is even grittier. Four of the eleven stories were published before. The topics range from farm murder, suicide, and paternity to animal attacks in a game park. Mhlongo does not shy away from difficult discussions surrounding the issues of race, gender, sexuality or class, pointing to the horrendous levels of miscommunication arising when people approach one another with bigotry…

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Review: Reacher Said Nothing – Lee Child and the Making of Make Me by Andy Martin

Reacher Said NothingMany of my friends will know this story: last year, after my husband died, reading became one of my grief’s casualties. For weeks, I struggled to open a book. That changed when I turned to Lee Child’s Killing Floor. It was just the right kind of light but intelligent and thrilling entertainment that I needed to get hooked on reading again. In the following nine months, I read all other nineteen novels in the Jack Reacher series, and many others.

Having become such a passionate fan, I was excited to find out about Reacher Said Nothing: Lee Child and the Making of Make Me. The author, the Cambridge academic Andy Martin, asked Child whether he could shadow him during his writing of Make Me, the twentieth and latest Reacher novel. He was keen to observe and record Child’s creative process as it happened, proposing “a kind of literary criticism but in the moment, in real time, rather than picking it up afterwards…trying to capture the very moment of creation…you would have someone (i.e. me) looking over your shoulder as you are typing the words.” Five days before the first word of Make Me appeared on Child’s computer screen, he agreed to the literary adventure.

Reacher Said Nothing not only takes us behind the scenes of Make Me’s genesis, but Child’s entire career. It goes back to 1994 and the day when Child bought the paper and pencil with which he wrote Killing Floor, the first in the bestselling series. He now writes on a computer, eating quite a lot of junk food and drinking ridiculous amounts of coffee. With Martin there, literally on the couch behind him, Child attempts to verbalise what happens when a writer picks up a pen, or keyboard, and begins dreaming. In this respect it is as much a book for readers as for writers. When writing, Child thinks like a reader; that’s his thing. But there is no magic formula. Only a lot of doubt, hard work (each Reacher is about 100 000 or more words long), and when you are lucky, a good story to tell. Millions of devoted fans across the world can testify that Child knows how to pick them.

Andy Martin also has a great story to tell. Reacher Said Nothing reads like a thriller. Like a master of the genre, Martin builds up the tension to the moment when Child sits down to write the first sentence. From there, he continues about the power of storytelling – the written word’s extraordinary potentials for both, writers and readers.

“He would have been good around the campfire, Lee – he would definitely make you forget about the wolves or the saber-tooth”, Martin writes. But it’s not only the engrossing plot. One of the things that immediately struck me about Child’s writing is a captivating attention to stylistic details such as word choice, syntax, punctuation – a kind of poetry that I now realise is fully conscious, intentional. “It all mattered, linguistically”, Martin writes. It’s about noticing things. And to see the process unfold is fascinating. Child writes only one draft, but the meticulousness with which he constructs the narrative allows him to.

Martin also accompanies Child to literary events, signings and interviews. He speaks to his fans. They spend a lot of leisure time together, watching football or meeting friends for dinner. I loved the humour of Reacher Said Nothing, the banter between the two authors, and Martin’s often hilarious commentary. An early scene: “‘It’s reverse Freudian,’ Lee said. ‘You’re on the couch and you are analysing me.’ I said nothing. He flexed his fingers. ‘Naturally I’m going to start, like all good writers, by…checking my email!’”

Martin and his subject surface from Reacher Said Nothing as two people who are really passionate about what they are doing, are prepared to work their fingers to the bone in pursuit of their visions, and know how to have fun while doing it: “I live in a permanent daydream. I get paid to daydream narratives”, Child says. Reading the book one is inspired, but also reminded that writing is laborious.

Child’s relationship with his fictional character Jack Reacher is most intriguing, and strangely comforting. Anyone who has non-existent people occupying their heads knows what it’s like. Fiction is a thrill, and all of us, readers and writers alike, are junkies. Together with Martin, Child attempts to unravel the two-decade-old mystery behind his character’s worldwide appeal to men and women alike.

It wouldn’t surprise me if Reacher Said Nothing sparked a craze among authors wanting to have a meta-book written about the creation of their own novels in real time as they emerge on the page. It might become a genre in its own right, but Martin’s and Child’s example will be hard to equal or top.

Reacher Said Nothing: Lee Child and the Making of Make Me

by Andy Martin

Bantam Press, 2015

Review first published in the Cape Times on 11 March 2016.

Book review: I’m Travelling Alone by Samuel Bjørk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m Travelling Alone

by Samuel Bjørk

Doubleday, 2016

 

 

Book review: Letters of Stone – From Nazi Germany to South Africa by Steven Robins

Letters of StoneReading about the Holocaust is never easy. Facing its terrible truths, especially when your own family is involved, is heroic.

Anthropologist Steven Robins had no inkling of what he would unearth when he embarked on a quest to discover more about the three women in an old photograph that had sat in his childhood home for years. He was born in 1959 in Port Elizabeth. He and his brother Michael grew up oblivious to their Polish and German ancestry and to the fates of their father’s relatives during the Third Reich.

The journey Robins takes in Letters of Stone connects “different times and places”. It is a journey that took nearly three decades to complete – between the time Robins interviewed his father in Port Elizabeth in 1989 and the publication of this astounding book. To begin with, Robins had very little to go on. But a series of uncanny coincidences led him further into the labyrinth of the private history of his family, and beyond.

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The Break-up

Break-Up LitNet illustration

It was an awkward situation. I was standing there, in front of my best friend’s door, with a cardboard box and an old suitcase in my arms, feeling foolish. I could hear her drying her hair inside. Taking a deep breath, I pressed the bell.

“Coming!” Marlene shouted, switching off the hairdryer.

When she opened the door, the dark hallway of the flat building was flooded with sunshine. It was the beginning of a hot summer day, the humidity in the air promising rain later in the afternoon. Marlene’s damp red curls looked on fire in the bright morning light.

She hovered in the doorframe, staring at the box and the suitcase, twisting one of her curls between a forefinger and a thumb.

“Hi,” I volunteered.

“Hi, come in.” She disentangled her fingers from her hair and swept her hand aside in a gesture of welcome. The flimsy bathrobe she was wearing came undone as she did so, and I glimpsed a perfect, small breast before she tied the garment tighter around her waist.

“This is weird,” she said, following me into the flat.

I pressed my lips together and agreed. “You can say that again.”

We were facing each other, not really knowing how to proceed. Nothing had prepared us for this odd situation.

“I don’t know.” She paused. “I don’t know whether all the clothes will fit into this suitcase.” She rushed through the second part of the statement. “The box might also be too small for all the other stuff,” she added with a shy smile.

“That’s alright, maybe you’ll have a bag or something for me?” I looked her straight in the eye, without returning the smile. I didn’t know what was really expected of me. Was I supposed to be distant? Angry? Sympathetic? I had no clue. Deep inside, I simply wanted to be neutral, but that didn’t feel right either. But how was I to pick sides?

“Right!” She gracefully turned on her bare heel. “Let me show you the stuff first.”

She led me to her bedroom. As always, the place was in a state of chaos. I never saw her make her bed, or pick up all the magazines and books from the floor. She was the fastest and least discriminating reader I knew; the likes of Dan Brown and Virginia Woolf were strewn all around us. We shared the passion of reading, but I was more careful with my choices, and I liked to be organised. Pedantic, is how Marlene described it. I preferred to think of myself as fastidious.

“That’s all I could find.” She pointed at a pile of clothes on the bed next to one of the crumpled pillows. “Some pieces were still in the laundry basket, so he might want to check.”

She reached for the box I was carrying. “Let me try to get the other stuff in here for you.”

While I was packing the suitcase, she put some DVDs, CDs, computer games and comic books from another pile on the floor into the box.

“I’ll get a plastic bag for the sneakers and the roller blades,” she said and left the room.

With difficulty I zipped up the bulging suitcase and looked at the box. I recognised the top CD cover: Lady Gaga. Kester once played the record for us. I tried to keep up with the latest in music, but some developments were beyond me.

Marlene returned, packed the remaining items, and handed me the bag.

“This won’t change anything between us, will it?” She was facing the window and the lucid sunlight illuminated her features again. I knew her well enough to recognise what was coming. I wasn’t good with tears, especially not hers.

“Of course not,” I reassured her, put the bag aside, and pulled her into a loose embrace. Her hair smelled like summer rain on hot concrete.

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Book review: The Seed Thief by Jacqui L’Ange

The Seed ThiefThere are writers and then there are writers. Most of us can only dream of becoming the kind of writer Jacqui L’Ange already is, and the stunning The Seed Thief is only her debut novel. Her prose is luminous. It feels as if her words are caressing the pages they are printed on. Enthralled from the beginning, I was reading with bated breath, afraid that the author could not sustain such excellence through an entire novel, that she would take a false step, get lost along the way, and lose me as a reader. But The Seed Thief is one of those rare books which deliver on all fronts and leave you completely satisfied.

The novel tells the story of Maddy Bellani, a South African botanist with migratory roots. She works for one of the world’s seed banks in Cape Town, specialising in fynbos and dedicated to preserving the floral diversity of our planet for future generations. Brazilian by birth, Maddy is sent on a mission to Salvador, Bahia, to locate and secure the seed of the Newbouldia mundii, an African tree extinct on its continent of origin, but rumoured to have survived in Brazil, where it had been taken to by Africans during the slave trade. The plant is desired not only for preservation, but specifically for its medicinal properties. And some people are prepared to do anything to get their hands on it.

Maddy embarks on the mission after the break-up of her relationship with Nico: “Only now that it was finally ending, could I admit how much I’d wished we could have turned the mutual vulnerabilities that brought us together into something less fragile.” She is haunted by a family tragedy from the past and the relationship with her estranged father who finds out about her visit to their home country and attempts to get in touch: “Just knowing that he knew I was here made my emotional barometer plunge.”

Keen on redefining herself in Brazil, Maddy flies to the other side of the world in pursuit of the elusive Newbouldia mundii. The seed is protected by the practitioners of Candomblé, an Afro-Brazilian religious community worshipping gods and goddesses called orixás. Negotiating their different customs and loyalties is not easy and, as Maddy discovers, sometimes what you get in the end is not exactly what you set out to find.

Seeds are like love, unpredictable in the paths they travel. They take root in the most unlikely places, often against all odds. In order to gain access to the treasure she seeks, Maddy has to gain the trust of the Candomblé terreiro (the house of worship) and Zé, the mysterious man who guards their garden: “The rhythm of our interaction became a gentle ebb and flow. He would open up and play, then retreat and observe. Whenever he retreated, I found myself wanting to follow, to draw him back out and close to me. When he came in too close, I pulled back just enough for him to gather himself like the tide.”

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wanting_The Seed Thief

“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…

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