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Review: Secret Keeper by Kerry Hammerton

Secret KeeperSecret Keeper
Kerry Hammerton
Modjaji, 2018

To read the entire review, click here: LitNet

[…]

The keeper of the titular poem tends to secrets as others tend to bees. Like the insects, the secrets always return, “hairy bodies crammed into my mouth” wanting to escape (“The secret keeper”).

The last part of this captivating book, not unlike life itself, consists of poems of loss and grief. Here, too, there is a before and after, and once again it is impossible to imagine how “to get to the other side” (“This year”) when a loved one, the father, dies. The mourning child states: “I am better at my other life,/ where no-one is dead,/ where sadness doesn’t press/ its cold weight into my sternum/ creep along my clavicle, breathe into my spine” (“My other life”).

In Secret keeper, Hammerton manages to capture the essentials of most adult lives – love, loss, loneliness, anxiety, ageing and death – and leaves us pondering our own mortality, and that deep longing not to feel our insignificance “at night” when we are all alone under the “black sky, stars,/ the milky way”.

[…]

To read the entire review, click here: LitNet

You Make Me Possible reviewed on LitNet

btr“Biography lovers may despair that the internet is making it improbable that biographers will still discover old, forgotten letters in dusty attics, revealing juicy secrets about celebrities. It still remains a problem when writers discard electronic records of their correspondence, but this book proves that emails can be every bit as romantic as old-fashioned letters, and all the more immediate.”

— Elkarien Fourie

Read the entire review here: LitNet.

Review: There’s Always Tomorrow by Abner Nyamende

theres-always-tomorrowThe overwhelming impression I had while reading Abner Nyamende’s There’s always tomorrow was that the novel had not been edited properly, if at all. It began with the first page, where the word “darkness” features six times without apparent reason. And the unnecessary repetitions are only the tip of the iceberg. After finishing, out of curiosity I looked up Partridge, the publishing house, and was informed that, although backed by a giant international trade publisher, the company provides only self-publishing services to their authors. Editing seems to be part of the professional packages on offer, but I cannot imagine that it was employed in this particular case. In this regard I was appalled at the quality of the final product, and it is a pity, because the book has an important story to tell. If the author did pay for editing of any kind, he was cheated…

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Book review: Writing What We Like: A New Generation Speaks, edited by Yolisa Qunta

Writing What We LikeFor a white person, reading Writing What We Like: A New Generation Speaks might feel like gatecrashing a party where some ugly truths will be revealed about you. Provocative and penetrating, Writing What We Like is a difficult book to review when you happen to be white, because one feels that one should not be talking at all, but listening only. One is torn between possible accusations of one’s own “intellectual arrogance” and the need for dialogue. And yet, a way to disrupt entrenched ways of thinking and to establish connections across barriers imposed on us by a turbulent and harrowing history is to try to imagine ourselves into the skins of others. That is where creativity and empathy begin – in writing, reading and interpretation – where we cease to view ourselves in any other categories but human. The ultimate goal is understanding, coupled with compassion. Everything else will follow from there.

If there ever was a timely book, Writing What We Like is definitely it. It is the brain child of Yolisa Qunta, who over the period of the past two years interviewed and collected essays written by her fellow young black South Africans for this remarkable publication. Only a few of the pieces first appeared elsewhere.

Qunta was concerned about the “dearth of books” published by her black peers and felt “duty-bound to record” their lived experience of transformation. She hopes the book will “help to shape the debates currently taking place in the workplaces and the bars, and over dinner tables ekasi and in suburbs across the country”.

Twenty-four contributors deliver twenty-eight pieces ranging in topics from hip hop and Rhodes Must Fall to Nkandla and BDSM. Unfortunately no biographical notes about the authors were included in the collection.

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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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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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