Tag Archives: thriller

Review: Losing the Plot by Leon de Kock

losing-the-plot-coverLosing the Plot might seem like a book for academics and students of literature only, but I am certain it will appeal to anyone with an interest in contemporary South African writing. Leon de Kock – academic, translator, poet and novelist – has been a defining presence on the local literary stage for many years. In his latest book, he concentrates on a specific aspect of postapartheid writing: how it “pivots around a continuing problematised notion of transition”. He reads the literary output of the last two decades in the light of the “initial wave of optimism, evident in the early phase of the upbeat transitional ferment,” and the disillusionment which followed.

Desperately, we are all trying to make sense of the reality around us, and most of it is too much to handle. De Kock points out that “the boundaries between right and wrong have blurred”. Readers turn to writers and intellectuals for guidance on how to deal with the confounding state of our lives. We are confronted with such staggering levels of pathological behaviour in the country (and beyond) that it is difficult to know where to search for meaning, and some sense of safety. It is no wonder that “the quest to uncover what’s going on in an obscured public sphere became a consuming obsession for many writers.”

In the seven incisive chapters of Losing the Plot, de Kock outlines general trends in postapartheid writing and focuses on a variety of its proponents such as genre fiction, life writing and creative nonfiction, but not exclusively. He returns to earlier seminal texts such as Zakes Mda’s Ways of Dying or Antjie Krog’s Country of My Skull and shines a light on more recent ones which are bound to become classics such as Imraan Coovadia’s Tales of the Metric System, Lauren Beukes’s Zoo City, or Jonny Steinberg’s A Man of Good Hope.

Crime writing “may have come to stand in for what used to be seen as political or engaged fiction,” de Kock suggests. Let down by institutions and society, we crave to see justice at work, even if it is only in fiction. Through crime thrillers we identify the good guys and point fingers at evil. This begs the question of how much of what literature is doing post-1994 is actually new? De Kock also considers our haunting past and how the “reality hunger” of the twenty-first century impacts present-day South Africa. He does not shy away from hashtags and the complex issues leading up to their prevalence. The most illuminating section in the book is on the Marikana massacre. There is no denying the woundedness we grapple with, the challenges we are facing as individuals and a society.

What shines through in Losing the Plot, however, is the restorative capacity of storytelling, especially the possibility of the “restitution of dignity via the power of narrative”. One should never underestimate either. The key to both is compassion, nourished by our imaginations. Not all is lost, yet.


Review first published in the Cape Times, 30 December 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 mark: The Snowden Files – The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man by Luke Harding

The Snowden FilesThe Edward Snowden saga is one of the most important stories of our times and Snowden himself a modern hero, despite his adversaries’ claims to the contrary. Luke Harding’s rendering of Snowden’s ordeal since his decision to become a whistleblower reads like a dystopian thriller. It’s George Orwell’s 1984 delayed by three decades, bigger in scope and horror.

Snowden risked his life to bring the worldwide mass surveillance authorised and conducted by so-called national security agencies in the US and the UK to the world’s attention. We live, he says, “under a sort of eye that sees everything, even when it’s not needed.” It is an assault on our most precious human rights. Harding’s book chronicles the timeline of Snowden’s revelations, their background, their consequences for all involved, and the global debate they sparked.

The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man
by Luke Harding
Guardian Books/Faber and Faber, 2014

First published in the Cape Times on 10 October 2014.