Tag Archives: review

Review: All the Places by Musawenkosi Khanyile

musawenkosi-khanyile_all-the-places_coverIt was by chance that I read Musawenkosi Khanyile’s debut poetry collection on a rainy morning, still tucked up in my bed. But it was no coincidence that the juxtaposition of the comfort of my bedroom and the realities described in the volume repeatedly moved me to tears. Unapologetically autobiographical, the poems included in the book trace the author’s journey from childhood to adulthood, from his rural family home, through the township, to the city. A journey undertaken by many, but not often evoked in poetry with such distinct tenderness that it takes your breath away.

All the Places offers you a glimpse into the heart of what it means to grow up with the odds staked against you, but does so without an ounce of self-pity and, perhaps more strikingly, without gratuitous exposure. The subtlety and restraint with which Khanyile approaches his subject matter is remarkable. He captures lifetimes into a few lines and makes you feel, acutely – not so much the difference between the stories he tells and those of privilege, but the common humanity of all our dreams: “In the class without a door, I took the exercise book of a little girl / who smelled of paraffin and looked at the tree she had drawn – / a leafless tree with no bird in it” (A School Visit). When asked what she wanted to be one day, the girl tells him: doctor.

Khanyile himself is a clinical psychologist with another degree in creative writing. But coming from Nseleni, he recalls the gaps in his family home’s walls, the constantly leaking roof, the demeaning trips to the outside toilet, and that in order “to survive the streets that gush out blood / and open into graves” you had to know how to “outrun the rain”. All the Places is dedicated to Khanyile’s brother Zamo: “I left you the dining room floor / and graduated to a bed / after our sister left for varsity” (Find the Truth).

As the collection’s title suggests, many of the poems focus on specific geographical spaces. In Nseleni, Khanyile states “that the goal is to make it out alive.” But even if you do escape and beat the odds, negotiating hard-earned privileges comes with its own challenges. In The World Opens Up, he asks: “What are the side effects of surviving the township?” The titular poem opens with the lines: “All the places he goes to / remind him of where he comes from.” And in Bantry Bay, a man at a guesthouse cries at the sight of the sea: “Why all this sentimentality about what’s not his? / The sea is not his. This balcony is not his. / All that he has is himself – / when does he cry about that?”

A great gift to its readers, All the Places allows you to look at the world with fresh eyes, with compassion.

All the Places

by Musawenkosi Khanyile

uHlanga, 2019

Review first appeared in the Cape Times on 16 August 2019.

Review: The Wickerlight by Mary Watson

The WickerlightThe Wickerlight is the second book in Mary Watson’s The Wren Hunt series for young adults. In the first book, the protagonist Wren is chased and taunted by a few boys in the woods around Kilshamble, the village where they all live. Set in modern day Ireland, but one in which magic is as real to the novel’s characters as social media, the next instalment in the series picks up the story of one of these boys, David. He is a member of the judges, one of the ancient draoithe clans. Their sworn enemy for centuries are the augurs.

When a new family settles in Kilshamble and the older daughter Laila dies under mysterious circumstances on the village green, the judges and the augurs are set for another confrontation. Laila’s sister Zara tries to unravel the puzzling clues she receives about her sister’s death. Grieving and desperate to find out what happened, she stumbles into a world of magic that is beyond her comprehension and control. Falling in love with David puts her at the centre of the merciless battle for power between the draoithe clans. She enters a “new real, with its beating intensity”, which proves impossible to resist.

Through her spellbinding storytelling, Watson not only reveals a moving tale of love and redemption, but tackles a serious contemporary issue: toxic masculinity, how it is instilled into young minds and souls, and how difficult it is to live with for all concerned. David worries how he is drilled to believe “that strength and ambition are more important than kindness. That feelings are something to be overcome.” It will take great courage to break free from those shackles.

‘Wickerlight’ is defined as threshold time, like stepping “into pure magic”. It is exactly what reading Watson’s novels feels like.

The Wickerlight

by Mary Watson

Bloomsbury, 2019

An edited version of this review was published in the Cape Times on 8 August 2019.

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…

Continue reading: LitNet

Remnants Restante Reste
by Annette Snyckers
Modjaji Books, 2018

Review: Joe Country by Mick Herron

Joe CountryThere aren’t really many among the cast of characters in Mick Herron’s Jackson Lamb spy thriller series that you would want as a friend. On the whole, they are a bunch of losers. It’s almost always certain that they’ll either let themselves or their colleagues down. Yet, you can’t help but follow their (mis)fortunes with feverish anticipation.

Judging by Herron’s previous books, he has never been reluctant to kill off one of Lamb’s slow horses, as the Regent Park’s spy rejects are called. So when it says on the cover of Herron’s latest that “they’re heading into joe country” but “they’re not all coming home”, and the first chapter ends with two people being dead and Slough House needing “some new slow horses”, you suddenly begin picking favourites and calculating who you could bear to lose as a character. And so, it was with a sense of heavy foreboding that I started reading Joe Country. Until the very end the tension was nerve-wracking.

“Lamb had been given Slough House, and had been squatting here since, a grim overlord to the Service’s washouts”. The latest addition to his stable is Lech Wicinski. Officially, he has committed an unforgivable crime, and since he can’t prove otherwise, his life turns to hell. Meanwhile, the wife of one of the previously killed slow horses reaches out to Louisa Guy for help in finding her missing adolescent son. What at first looks like a straightforward runaway tale turns sinister when an old enemy shows up and once again threatens to spill slow horse blood.

With his wicked humour and masterful suspense build-up, Herron has once again given us an irresistible thriller. Just when you think he can’t get better, he does and makes you care about his Slough House misfits more than you ever bargained for.

Joe Country

by Mick Herron

John Murray, 2019

Review first appeared in the Cape Times on 26 July 2019.

Review: The Troubled Times of Magrieta Prinsloo by Ingrid Winterbach

The Troubled Times of Magrieta PrinslooOpening an Ingrid Winterbach novel fills me with excitement every single time. She is one of my favourite contemporary Afrikaans writers and I am immensely grateful that her work is available in English.

Expect the unexpected is the slogan that runs through my head whenever I am reading Winterbach’s exhilarating and wise narratives. The latest, The Troubled Times of Magrieta Prinsloo, was no exception. From the first page to the very end, the novel astounds. How about this for an opening sentence: “Magrieta Prinsloo, daughter of the biology teacher, tall, firm of calf and buttock, dark hair, right eye inclined to wander slightly outwards when she’s overworked, doctor of zoology, head of laboratory with twelve people under her, in early January, after a run-up of several months, gradually grinds to a halt.” Who could possibly resist reading on?

Magrieta is in trouble. Whether it is her depression or the wrong medication prescribed by her doctor or the unease she is feeling in her marriage, it all becomes too much to bear and, one day, after a spectacular blow-up with her boss, she quits her job at the university. There is no ready excuse and there doesn’t seem to be a way back for her, so she begins working for the Bureau for Continuing Education. Her new boss is peculiar, to say the least, and runs the bureau like “an espionage outfit”, assigning more and more work to his associates while solving Sudoku games all day long in his office. Eventually, he disappears mysteriously, and Magrieta and her colleague Isabel have to pick up the pieces at the bureau.

A man is murdered on a beach at Jameson Bay where Magrieta saw a beached humpback whale. On one of her walks, she encounters a woman who has pitched up a tent in the vineyards behind Magrieta’s house in Stellenbosch. She has no idea what any of this means, but she continues with her work and, after a bad spell in the relationship, Magrieta realises that she does not want to lose her husband. In several public toilets she finds strange whale graffiti drawings that she interprets to be signs left behind for her to find, but why? “You’re lucky…that the universe communicates with you like this behind toilet doors”, Isabel tells her.

Then, one day, while she is searching for clues of her boss’s whereabouts, Magrieta sees a baleen whale leap out of the sea and is transformed by the experience.

Winterbach has a knack for creating the most unusual characters and inventing odd loops for them to jump through, and yet it all seems uncannily familiar in the end. It is impossible not to care for them and not to keep on reading.

A novel about change and the essentials that make our lives fulfilling, The Troubled Times of Magrieta Prinsloo reads beautifully in Michiel Heyns’s translation.

The Troubled Times of Magrieta Prinsloo

by Ingrid Winterbach

translated by Michiel Heyns

Human & Rousseau, 2019

An edited version of this review was published in the Cape Times on 26 July 2019.

Review: The Drop by Mick Herron

The DropThe sixth Jackson Lamb thriller, Joe Country by Mick Herron, is hitting our bookshelves. The Drop is a novella in the series that only a few months ago introduced a new character into the cast of Regent Park’s drop-outs whiling away the time as “slow horses” in Slough House, where Jackson Lamb rules supreme. Whereas most of them arrive on Lamb’s doorstep after a major screw up in the field, the new addition ends up in the dubious care of the obnoxious Cold War spy through a set of weird coincidences. His fate is sealed after Solomon Dortmund, an old spook, observes an envelope changing hands in a way that stirs all the retired spy’s hard-wired intuitions into action.

“A drop, in spook parlance, is the passing on of secret information. It’s also what happens just before you hit the ground”, the novella’s blurb tells us. What it does not give away is that sometimes it is information which is planted without your awareness that can have the direst consequences for your future. Slough House is a dead end for most.

Before you turn to Joe Country, treat yourself to The Drop, a slim gem that you can devour in one sitting. Herron is the best thing to happen to the spy thriller genre since Graham Greene. Each book in the series can be read independently, but once you start on any of them, you will want to read them all. Characters, plots, crisp writing and especially the humour are irresistible; I’m totally hooked.

The Drop

by Mick Herron

John Murray, 2018

Review first appeared in the Cape Times on 19 July 2019.

Review: Talk of the Town by Fred Khumalo

Talk-of-the-Town“Now, there are storytellers, and there are Storytellers”, the narrator of Water No Get Enemy, one of Fred Khumalo’s stories collected in Talk of the Town, tells us about Guz-Magesh, a larger than life character who features in two of the pieces: “His well of tales is bottomless.” He has that in common with his creator. Khumalo is the author of four novels. His short stories have been considered for prestigious awards and featured in several magazines and anthologies. Talk of the Town is his debut collection.

The titular story of the volume is told from the perspective of a child who witnesses how his enterprising and hard-working mother sets their family apart by not having the furniture she buys repossessed by creditors. When her luck changes, the mother relies on her unsuspecting children to protect her from the fate of most of their neighbours.

Khumalo’s range of settings and characters is versatile. He moves between the apartheid past to the present, and between several countries. Water Get No Enemy and The Invisibles are set in present-day Yeoville, but the former moves back in time to the Liberation Army camps in Angola.

The stories of This Bus Is Not Full! and Learning to Love take place in the US, where two South African men end up living, but not entirely fitting in. The longest story in the collection is set in neighbouring Zimbabwe and has the feel of an abandoned novel in the making.

Reading Khumalo’s stories, one’s imagination and sense of political correctness can be both challenged to their limits, and it is to his credit that he can make us curious and care about even the least likable characters. At the same time, his stories can be poignant and excruciatingly funny. That is what keeps one returning for more.

Talk of the Town

by Fred Khumalo

Kwela, 2019

Review first published in the Cape Times on 19 July 2019.

Review: Experiments with Truth – Narrative Non-fiction and the Coming of Democracy in South Africa by Hedley Twidle

Experiments with TruthA seminal step in the right direction

Hedley Twidle’s new book is an academic but highly readable reflection on modern SA that eschews jargon

Nonfiction sells. It’s a well-known fact. No wonder; the need to have our complex, shifting, and often absurd reality “puzzled out” is enormous. It’s impossible to remain unaffected. We also want to understand the past and where we are heading in these times of growing unpredictability. In SA, apart from being a sanity-preserving mechanism, nonfiction literature contributes to the nation-building project. Just think Khwezi by Redi Tlhabi or The President’s Keepers by Jacques Pauw. Texts like these are, says Hedley Twidle, linked by “a sense of narrative and intellectual pressure, a communicative passion or compulsion to make sense of a fractured country” …

Continue reading: Sunday Times

Experiments with Truth: Narrative Non-fiction and the Coming of Democracy in South Africa

by Hedley Twidle

James Currey, 2019

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…

Continue reading: LitNet

Review: The Dragon Lady by Louisa Treger

The Dragon LadySouth African-born Louisa Treger used to work as a classical violinist before she turned to literature, first gaining a PhD in English at University College London and then trying her hand at creative writing. Her academic research focused on early 20th-century women writing and eventually resulted in her first novel, The Lodger, which told the story of Dorothy Richardson, a British author and journalist who was one of the earliest modernist novelists and, in her heyday, was considered among the greats of the era, but was subsequently neglected by readers and critics alike.

Remaining within the realm of the historical novel, Treger went on to write her latest offering, The Dragon Lady. Blending fact and fiction, the novel chronicles the remarkable life of Lady Virginia Courtauld, or Ginie, most famous for her – at the time considered outrageous – tattoo of a dragon on her leg.

The novel opens with the shooting of its protagonist on La Rochelle, the Courtaulds’ Rhodesian estate, in the 1950s: “At that instant, a loud noise splintered the air… Her body tensed and convulsed, her limbs sprawled gracelessly, blood spilled onto the ground. For a few moments, there was an unearthly stillness.”

Narrated from various perspectives, The Dragon Lady takes us back and forth in time and place to record the events and achievements in Ginie’s extraordinary life story. Unconventional, daring and visionary, Ginie was a woman way ahead of her time. We follow her life from Italy at the beginning of the previous century, via England and Scotland of the 20s to 40s, to Rhodesia at a time of great social and political upheavals. It might be Treger’s musical training that allows her to capture all these setting in a language that is so evocative, it enables readers to experience them as if they had been there themselves. And because some of the places the Courtaulds built or restored in their time still exist today, you might find yourself longing to visit their Eltham Palace in south-east London or La Rochelle in the Imbeza Valley in present-day Zimbabwe.

Lady Virginia Courtauld fascinates in her own right. She was a divorcée and a foreigner when she met and married Sir Stephen Lewis Courtauld, upsetting London society’s ‘delicate’ sensitivities. When they relocated to Africa, Ginie’s and her husband’s progressive views did not endear them to their white neighbours, dead-set on maintaining their privilege in a segregated society.

Treger depicts the vast socio-historical changes taking place at the centre of Ginie’s life with exceptional skill, weaving them into the intimate love story of the Courtauld couple. Throughout the narrative, she also keeps us guessing as to the origins of the mysterious dragon tattoo and the identity of the person who fired the gun at the beginning of the story. Immaculately researched and told with passion, The Dragon Lady enchants and intrigues long after the last page has been turned.

The Dragon Lady

by Louisa Treger

Bloomsbury Caravel, 2019

An edited version of this review was published in the Cape Times on 28 June 2019.