Tag Archives: memoir

Review: Patriots and Parasites – South Africa and the Struggle to Evade History by Dene Smuts

denesmutsDene Smuts once said that “there are two approaches to opposition lawmaking work: making a noise and making a difference.” Throughout her courageous life she chose to make a difference. Smuts completed the manuscript of Patriots and Parasites: South Africa and the Struggle to Evade History shortly before her unexpected death in April last year. Her daughter Julia midwifed the project to completion.

In the Festschrift included at the end of the book, Jeremy Gauntlett notes Smuts’s “portable spine” which she lent out “often to many weaker people.” Before entering politics, she took a stance against censorship as a journalist and editor of Fair Lady. She resigned from the magazine in protest when her editorial independence was threatened over a story she ran about Winnie Mandela. She insisted on “readers’ right to know”. The longest-serving female parliamentarian, the first female chief whip, a lawmaker renowned for her work on the Constitution, Smuts was central to the birth of the new South Africa. She understood the importance of “cultivating the garden” that is our country.

The memoir is not a blow by blow account of Smuts’s private life. But when you read closely, the person who emerges from between the lines is a remarkable, inspiring human being who led by example. The book is testimony to her brilliant mind and fierce integrity. You might not always agree with what she has to say, but you never doubt that her heart is in the right place. She is unflinching in her analysis of contemporary socio-political developments and does not hesitate to call a spade a spade, or to mention when she is “incandescent with anger”.

There is no pussyfooting around burning issues of racism, polarisation, affirmative action, corruption, or reconciliation: “Just as apartheid was triggered by fanning the embers of cultural resentment of colonialism into the fire of Afrikaner nationalism, Thabo Mbeki brought out the bellows to reignite black resentment against white rule, both colonial and Afrikaner nationalist, when both had become history.” It is just another example of the ancient adage that we do not learn from history. And if anything, South Africa is one of the best embodiments of the effectiveness of the well-known policy: divide and rule (or conquer).

This is not the time to look for differences when common causes have to be addressed in order for the country to thrive as a whole, and Smuts’s incisive scrutiny of Mbeki’s legacy and the present government’s “misrule” points to the pitfalls we are facing. Only if we can all feel that we are “contributing to a new country”, will we be able to feel “at home”. Smuts recalls Jakes Gerwel’s words: “we had created the institutional mechanisms to deal with” the “remnants of the racist past”; “we should build on the positive foundations of transition and the Constitutional order to develop the non-racial reality already emerging.”

Patriots and Parasites is a passionate account of the importance of free speech, which Smuts championed in all her incarnations, whether as journalist or legislator. She points out the dangers of political correctness if allowed to stultify vigorous and necessary debate. Dialogue is pertinent to a healthy democracy. Communication consists as much of voicing concerns as listening. Smuts reminds of the occasion when in 1985 Ellen Kuzwayo was asked by white fellow women writers what they could do to help the cause: “All you can do is listen, listen.” Smuts herself kept her ear close to the ground as she knew the power of informed decision-making.

She gives compelling insight into the nitty-gritty of law-making, taking us back in time to the transition and recalling the turning points in history that made political change possible. The forces at play in the writing and implementing of the 1994 Interim Constitution and the 1996 Constitution are recorded in fascinating detail. Smuts remembers Kader Asmal acknowledging that “probably never before in history has such a high proportion of women been involved in writing a constitution.”

At the core of Patriots and Parasites is the knowledge that this is just one account of the palimpsest that is history. Other stories have to be told: “If the question is whether South Africa can evade history, then we need, at least, to hold up as true a record as possible of that history. The best way of doing so where records are not available, or are as contested … is to give as many accounts of what occurred as possible. This memoir is one such contribution to our recent history.” We owe it to ourselves to nurture and study these testimonies; not to allow recorded history to fall “into disarray, or decay”. Looking back, Smuts warns against apathy towards diverse manifestations of evil. Otherwise, as the reality around us shows over and over again, we will be “doomed to inhabit a world of false narratives”.

Smuts writes that “all we have to defeat this time, however hopeless it may sometimes look, is misrule and the erosion of everything we have already achieved”, and ends on an optimistic note: “It will be easier, this time.”

Patriots and Parasites: South Africa and the Struggle to Evade History

by Dene Smuts

Quivertree, 2016

Review first published in the Cape Times, 17 February 2017.

Review: Holding My Breath by Ace Moloi

holding-my-breathHolding My Breath by Ace Moloi is a heart-wrenching, deeply inspirational grief memoir. Written in the form of a letter addressed to Moloi’s late mother, it tells his story before and after his mother’s death. He writes in the Prologue to the book: “I have decided to break the silence between us. I am starting this conversation to remind you of your younger son and to update you on my life.” Moloi points out that mourning is like learning a new language – “the language of living without you.” His mother died of an unexplained illness when he was thirteen and left him and his older brother to fend for themselves. Their father was absent when they were growing up. The boys had to rely on other family members for support. They encountered abandonment, hunger and despair as the divided family was mostly incapable of caring for them.

Moloi tries to hold on to the memory of his mother for guidance: “Through the power of your narratives, we were able to piece together the fragments of our history. You empowered us by interpreting events and people to provide a larger picture of who we were. And with every laugh, every remark, every shake of the head at your too-good-to-be-true stories, we forced the universe to take us seriously.”

Moloi is bright and talented, but without the support of a nurturing family for most of his young life, it takes an immense amount of strength and courage for him to get through school. He graduates in the top one hundred students of his province. Eventually he manages to enrol at university and with the help of a bursary completes his studies: “I fixed my concentration on defying my history by finishing school and going to university. I was tired of living with a false sense of family. I needed to work hard so I could start my own family, throw off the reigning curse and set a new generational trend.”

However, the cycles of rage and violence catch up with him. He unleashes his anger at those closest to him. In a moment of utter desolation, he attempts to take his life. His faith helps to anchor him, and he begins keeping a journal. As a student, he excels at a university newspaper and as a student leader. He tries to reconnect with his father, but realises that not having him in his life might have been a blessing in disguise.

Despite all the adversities he faced, Moloi continues making a name for himself as a communicator and writer. He wants a different future and understands the significance of his success not only for himself, but also for others facing similar hardships: “My village needed something to boast about. The kids playing in the dust needed a role model. Their fathers had abandoned them. Their fathers were drunkards who beat their mothers. They were orphans. Their families divided. They needed me to prove to them that it was possible to disobey history and break the curse of poverty and despair.”

Holding My Breath: A Memoir

by Ace Moloi

BlackBird Books, 2016

Review first published in the Cape Times, 3 February 2017.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Travels with My Father: An Autobiographical Novel

by Karen Jennings

Holland Park Press, 2016

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

Stories with strawberry jam and clotted cream

In the night of 9 February 2016, on the twelfth anniversary of my first arrival in Cape Town, I dreamt that I was in a hospital. In my dream, André died there. A few days later I came to pick up his belongings, but no one was willing to assist me. They shoved me around the place, ignoring my distress. I felt desperate, lost. I wanted to take care of his possessions but nobody was keen to help me. And then out of the blue someone offered support. I woke up, relieved.

I signed the contract for my memoir about the relationship I had with André, The Fifth Mrs Brink, that morning. Afterwards, I returned home to find that our grandfather clock had stopped working without any apparent reason. I got it going again, but both the dream and the silent clock disturbed me.

In the late afternoon, on my way to a book launch, I had a terrible car accident in which I killed our beloved Brink Mobil, the ancient green Mercedes André and I used to drive. My friends told me later that I did not kill the Old Lady, that she died protecting me. I couldn’t get rid of the feeling that having the accident on the same day I signed the contract was a sign, signalling some kind of closure or an impending massacre. I hoped for the former, but had no way of knowing which it would be.

Three weeks later, I walked across the city to pick up a rental car provided by my insurance company. Passing the accident spot on an overhead bridge, I could still see the rust-red stains where the Brink Mobil had bled to death.

I walked past the funeral parlour where they took André after his death – he did not die in a hospital but on board of an aeroplane flying over Brazzaville.

I also passed a big red building in Woodstock which caught my eye because it looked quite new and impressive. I considered getting a coffee from a place on its ground floor.

Woodstock is where long ago I once appeared on a friend’s doorstep in one of her dreams. She told me the next day that I’d looked lost and just stood there, clutching a book to my chest. The same friend works in the big red building now.

I finished the first draft of The Fifth Mrs Brink in July. In September, I asked for the rights to my book back. I had to leave; I had no way of staying. If I wanted to truly take care of my and André’s stories, I had to find a home for them elsewhere. I submitted my memoir to another publishing house. They made me an offer. My new publisher gave me a book she thought might interest me: Second-Hand Time by Svetlana Alexievich, an account of how people survive, and make sense of, tyranny and massacres – by weaving tapestries of stories to keep us safe at night. The words of Second-Hand Time live in my bones.

In the evening of the 1st of November, someone asked me online which great writer I would like to have tea with. There is only one: The One. He liked his tea white with two sugars. And when he wanted to spoil me, he baked scones for us for breakfast.

scone

jonathan-ball-publishersI don’t know what I dreamt in the night of the 1st of November, but I know I slept through it. That in itself is a gift, a good omen. Uninterrupted sleep had become rare in the past few months, although I am mastering it again. In the morning of the 2nd, I had a scone at my favourite coffee shop. I drove to Woodstock in the little car that a friend lent me after my accident. I parked underneath the big red building, found my way upstairs to the 4th floor where kind people were waiting.

It is perhaps fitting that the publication of The Fifth Mrs Brink will be delayed by a few months next year to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the first time I became a refugee when my family escaped the tyranny of Communist Poland and sought asylum in Austria.

szczurek-arriving-in-safe-haven

Arriving on the doorstep of Jonathan Ball Publishers, I felt like a refugee who had sailed through treacherous waters in a derelict dinghy and found her way to the shores of a safe haven. With only my ancient fountain pen in the bag I carried, I was seeking asylum again.

Massacres and tyranny can be intimate, private, go nearly unnoticed.

I am not the only one who survives by telling stories.

My stories are safe now.

Old writer, young wife: The life and times of the fifth and final Mrs Brink

karina-in-austria

Afrikaner novelist André Brink married Karina Szczurek when he was 71 and she was 29. They were together for 10 years before he died on a plane, beside her, high above Africa. She has just finished writing her memoir, in which she recounts her life with South Africa’s most celebrated and controversial novelist. Andy Martin went to Cape Town to talk to her about life after André…

Continue reading: INDEPENDENT

Review: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

When Breath Becomes AirReading dead authors is not unusual, but opening the late Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air feels different. He wrote it knowing he was dying and it was published by his widow a year after his death. The immediacy of the knowledge is uncannily palpable. For me, the experience was even more intimate on two different levels. Firstly, I also had a cancer scare recently and Kalanithi was my age when he died. In retrospect, his memoir made me count my blessings, again, as I am healthy and have escaped with just a fright. Secondly, like me, as a young person he struggled to choose between two vocations: medicine and literature. Unlike me though, he chose medicine. But literary longings had never left him and when life became unbearable, like many of us he found some amount of solace in the written word.

The striking title of the book derives from lines of an Elizabethan sonnet: “You that seek what life is in death, / Now find it air that once was breath.” To contemplate it alone is already an experience in itself. In the forward, we are told: “Be ready. Be seated. See what courage sounds like.” Can one ever be ready for death? I doubt it, especially not when at the age of thirty-six, with the most promising medical career ahead, you look at a CT scan of your lungs and become aware that they are riddled with tumours.

At this stage of his life, Paul is about to complete the decade-long training necessary for becoming a professor of neurosurgery. He is married to Lucy, also a doctor. Because their relationship is strained, he does not know at first how to break the dreadful news to her.

When Breath Becomes Air tells Paul’s story before and after the lethal verdict. We see his aspirations taking him to the heights of what is possible in his field. Every day he is confronted with illness, decay, and death – of others. He is constantly challenged to question what makes life meaningful. Some of the descriptions of his daily routines as a medical student and doctor are not for the faint-hearted. Even less so is the narrative of him becoming a patient. It is gut-wrenching to realise how the potential Paul had worked so hard to build will “go unrealised”. With searing honesty, he describes his attempts at making the most of the time left at his disposal and the ambition that drives him in the face of ultimate defeat. He writes how, paradoxically, the illness heals his marriage, and how he makes the courageous decision to become a father to a child who will most likely not remember him. Knowing that his words will outlive him, he writes the book.

When Breath Becomes Air is published with a beautiful epilogue by Lucy, “his wife and a witness”, who carries on with “love and gratitude alongside the terrible sorrow, the grief so heavy that at times I shiver and moan under the weight of it.”

When Breath Becomes Air

by Paul Kalanithi

The Bodley Head, 2016

Review first published in the Cape Times, 22 April 2016.

The heart has spaces – the love letters of André Brink and Ingrid Jonker

Drawing in Ingrid's letter of 15 October 1963
In the beginning there were the women of his past, a ghost among them. André Brink had never been afraid to love. After the life-defining relationship of his youth with Ingrid Jonker, her suicide, and four divorces, at the age of 69 he had the guts to say yes to a delicate possibility.

When we met in Austria towards the end of 2004 I was terribly young, on the verge of a divorce, broken by betrayals, and almost paralysed by mistrust. Continents and cultures apart, 42 years between us, the odds staked against us could not have been higher. Yet we somehow mustered enough courage to dare the impossible and turn it into reality. For ten years, the first thing we did every morning after waking up next to each other was to smile. No matter what. Of course it hadn’t been easy. Nothing worthwhile ever is. And coming to terms with our respective pasts was our greatest challenge.

André first introduced me to Ingrid in a letter on 23 December 2004:

She was a year or so older than me, and light-years older in terms of sexual experience. It was an incredible, hectic, heady, head-over-heels love of extremes, swinging wildly from ecstasy to the depths of misery; and it became just too exhausting and demanding. After two years (and several break-ups and new starts) she started a new love-affair, and then I did too (both of us, I think, grasping at possibilities of getting out of our own relationship which had become suffocating). And so it ended. She had one more mad love-affair, and committed suicide.

Coming to live with André in the South African spring of 2005, I very quickly realised that in order to know him – truly know him – I had to understand what had happened between him and Ingrid 40 years earlier. We both had to. No other woman in André’s life had left as indelible a mark on him as Ingrid. No other haunted me as much in the beginning of our relationship.

I am proud of countless things André and I have achieved together, but the one that made all else possible is the space we created in our relationship for sharing, for being painfully open with each other. André and I met at Vienna International Airport when I went to pick him up and accompany him on the train journey to Salzburg, where he was participating in a symposium I’d helped organise. On that trip we began a conversation which, literally, lasted ten years until I told him I loved him for the last time and closed his lips with a final kiss just before he died earlier this year. It was a stripping of minds and hearts. Time after time, we stood completely soul-naked in front of each other, risking everything, and eventually knowing that love would prevail, always, no matter how terrifyingly ugly the revealed truth – on both sides – was. It is the kind of knowledge which can lay any ghost to rest.

At the end of Everything I Know I Learned from TV: Philosophy for the Unrepentant Couch Potato, my favourite philosopher, Mark Rowlands, writes: “If I could repay you with a wish it would be that you find something in your life so important that without it you would not be the same person. If you’re lucky you’ll have it already.” The relationship with Ingrid was such a thing for André. He wrote in his memoir, A Fork in the Road (Harvill Secker, 2009): “On that memorable afternoon of 15 April, 1963, a group of us were gathered in the lounge of Jan Rabie’s rambling old house in Cape Town, when Ingrid walked in, barefoot and provocative, and the movement against censorship officially began, and the course of my life was changed.” Her influence permeated everything: his personal life, and, just as crucially, his writing. One only needs to look at André’s women characters, walking in Ingrid’s footprints across the pages of his novels, to comprehend what an impact their meeting had on his creativity. And they are only the most obvious example. But despite the evidence, for many years André was exceedingly reluctant to speak or write about Ingrid after her death.

At the time of our engagement in early 2006, together with Antjie Krog and Ingrid de Kok, André was working on the new translations of Ingrid Jonker’s poems which would result in the publication of Black Butterflies: Selected Poems (Human & Rousseau, 2007). It must have been during this period that he showed me his and Ingrid’s correspondence for the first time. He kept the letters in the same place as his diaries which he reread for the writing of the introduction to Black Butterflies, the first text of its kind after many years of silence. An intimate treasure and a chunk of literary history many had wondered about for decades, even back then the letters had an irresistible appeal for me. Although my grasp of the Afrikaans language and literature was shaky at this stage, I understood their importance as a key to André’s life story and to the creative and intellectual forces culminating in the literary movement of the Sestigers. We looked at them together, he told me their story, and allowed me to comment on the translations as well as on the introduction. The title for the collection followed from a suggestion I’d made. Being included felt like a form of exorcism.

I wrote in my own diary of the time: “Dear Ingrid, are you smiling at us after all?”

Continue reading: LitNet

Interview: Ivan Vladislavić and 101 Detectives

101 DetectivesThe FollyMy first encounter with Ivan Vladislavić’s writing took place in a multidimensional construct of language and fantasy that is his remarkable novel The Folly (1993). It must have been around a decade ago when I moved to South Africa. Since then I have always returned to his books with a great sense of anticipation which has never been disappointed. His latest collection of stories, 101 Detectives, is no different, although it baffled me in the beginning. The first three pieces made me think a lot about the intellectual playfulness of The Folly. Some of the stories are set in recognisable and yet shifted or alternative realities which are quite uncanny. In a recent e-interview I asked Vladislavić whether this was his way of avoiding the cliché trap, of challenging the impression of one of his characters that “no matter what I do or say, or how I remember it or tell it, it will never be interesting enough” (“Exit Strategy”)? He hadn’t gone about it “deliberately”, he wrote, and mentioned that in his youth he read “a lot of sci-fi and was taken with writers like Ray Bradbury, who could twist the ordinary into the alien very skilfully through a kind of estranging lyricism”. Of his own early work he says that “the strangeness is more a product of language and imagery than of constructed setting.” More recently he had read speculative fiction again, “which may account for the atmosphere of a story like ‘Report on a Convention’. Many ordinary contemporary spaces are strange. One grows accustomed to it, but the precincts and lifestyle estates often have a weirdly layered, compelling artificiality to them. They’re at such an odd angle to the surrounding world that ‘shifting’ them would make them feel less rather than more peculiar.”

Reading and listening to Vladislavić, the key word I associate with his work is “intellectual”, especially in conjunction with “stimulation”, and it is the main reason why I read him. He challenges me, inspires me to question reality and literature, to perceive both more consciously and often with deeper appreciation. I delight in the engagement. When I think Vladislavić, I also think art, photography, beauty, language, and, perhaps above all, Johannesburg. Few have written as perceptively about Johannesburg as he, “mapping and mythologising” the city (in the words of Elleke Boehmer). Few can employ language to capture not only the beauty of experience, but the beauty of language itself to such stunning effect. Few have entered collaborations with artists of different media, as victoriously enhancing the disciplines in the process. In 2010, together with the South African photographer David Goldblatt, Vladislavić published TJ & Double Negative, a novel with photographs. More recently he worked with Sunandini Banerjee on an illustrated novella titled A Labour of Moles (2012), and 101 Detectives also includes a “Special Feature”: a gallery of photocopies of dead letters, ie letters never delivered to their intended recipients because of address errors and suchlike, referred to in the story “Dead Letters”. There are also images of the places they were supposed to have reached, taken from an exhibition in Poland dedicated to them.

What appeals to Vladislavić in this kind of exchange? I wondered…

Continue reading: LitNet

Book review: Leaving Before the Rains Come by Alexandra Fuller

Fuller LeavingI must have been quite a disconcerting sight: weeping my eyes out in the middle of O.R. Tambo International Airport. I couldn’t help myself. That is what a good book can do to you. I was passing the wait for my flight home with the final few chapters of Alexandra Fuller’s latest memoir, Leaving Before the Rains Come, when the tears just started spilling over. It wasn’t the first time one of Fuller’s books had made me cry. But perhaps it was most fitting since this particular story feels as if it had been written through a lot of intimate pain.

Mostly known for her international bestseller, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Fuller is the author of four other books. She is one of those writers who will either irritate the hell out of you or steal your heart. She stole mine with The Legend of Colton H. Bryant, the incredibly moving story of a young cowboy who died on the oil rigs in Wyoming, and I have been reading her work ever since. My other favourite is Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier in which Fuller captured her haunting encounter with a veteran of the Rhodesian war. In hindsight, the book can be read as a companion to Leaving Before the Rain Comes.

Continue reading: Not Now Darling, I’m Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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