A long time ago, behind seven mountains and seven rivers… That is how fairy tales begin in Polish. The words make me think of the time I met Alex Smith when she was looking for people to translate her Orphan’s Lullaby. I did the Polish version and we met for coffee at the Book Lounge to discuss the project and to get to know each other. It’s hard to believe that this already happened six years ago. Since then we have become friends and have supported each other through the ups and downs of writing careers.
We share a deep love for literature, even if our reading tastes often differ and the kind of stories we tell are sometimes worlds apart. The one thing which has always stood out for me in Alex’s work is her powerful, versatile, irresistible prose which has few equals in contemporary South African literature. I once told her that I would even read the history of toilet paper, if she were to write it. Her prose is like a cup of delicious tea, like a favourite bar of chocolate, like a warm breeze on a perfect day on the beach. One wallows in it with pleasure, no matter what her subject matter.
My absolute favourite of Alex’s books until now is Drinking from the Dragon’s Well (2008), a quirky travel memoir about the time she spent in Asia. I will never forget the kettle falling scene. Simply wonderful, like the rest of the book. I reviewed it along with her Four Drunk Beauties (2010) for ITCH.
Alex contributed a funny, moving story to Touch: Stories of Contact. She has been shortlisted for the prestigious Caine Prize. One of her more recent stories features in the Adults Only anthology and I am told that it is remarkable (can’t wait to get the book just to read it). She has been recognised for her work with the Nielsen Booksellers’ Choice Award, has been short-listed for the SA PEN Literary Award, won a silver award in the English category of the Sanlam Prize for Youth Literature, and was shortlisted for the international Rolex Mentor & Protégé Arts Initiative. And I believe even greater things are to come for her.
Her latest novel, Devilskein & Dearlove (published by Umuzi locally and Arachne Press in the UK) is about to be launched at the Book Lounge next week. Alex will be in conversation with the amazing Versuhka Louw. We are in for a real literary treat.
“Young Erin Dearlove has lost everything in a violent attack on her family. She now lives with her bohemian aunt Kate in a run-down Cape Town apartment block. Locked into a fantasy of her previous life, she shuns all overtures of friendship from her new neighbours, until she meets Mr Devilskein, the demon who lives on the top floor… and opens a door into another world. Just as Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book reworked Kipling’s The Jungle Book for a modern audience with a liking for the supernatural, Devilskein & Dearlove is a darker, more edgy, contemporary reworking of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic The Secret Garden. An orphaned teenager is taken in by a reluctant distant relative, and in her new home makes an unexpected friend and finds a secret realm. It has shades of the quirky fantastical in the style of Miyazaki’s (Studio Ghibli) animated films like Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle (originally a novel by Diana Wynne Jones). Alex says ‘As a child The Secret Garden was one of my first favourite novels – one of the first I relished reading by myself. Although Devilskein & Dearlove is very different, it was inspired by that novel and its themes.'” (Arachne Press)