Tag Archives: Wall of Days

One of our greats in the making: Alastair Bruce’s Boy on the Wire

Wall of DaysThe first one arrived in manuscript form for evaluation. I started reading it in bed in the morning and nearly didn’t get up until I was finished. The exhilaration of the encounter is still with me years later. I thought I was reading one of South Africa’s greats. Galgut or Coetzee came to mind – not a debut novelist.

My reader’s report glowed with praise. The novel was eventually published as Wall of Days (2010), locally and abroad, also in translation. The author turned out to be a young man from PE who moved to the UK. Last year, Alastair Bruce published his second novel, Boy on the Wire, and it is just as haunting as his first.

In the Prologue of Boy on the Wire, John Hyde walks cautiously through his childhood home in Port Elizabeth. In one of the rooms, he sees a man, “or he imagines he can see the man … He knows, too, he cannot touch him, cannot touch the lying man. If he even touched the tip of his fingers to the man’s forehead, it would all be over.” Nothing is “clear”. What is real, what is imagined? Everything hinges on the distinction. The confrontation with the “man who lied, who told the story, a wild, fanciful story, about the death of a child, a hard and unyielding story” is what the novel is about.

Boy on the WireThe narrative takes us back to a Sunday in the December of 1983 when John, his brothers Paul and Peter, and their parents travel to the mountains in the Karoo for a family holiday. But only four of them return home. And there are no real survivors. The tragedy literally plunges them all into an abyss.

Trauma disrupts time, memory and narrative. Storytelling can be one of the most efficient mechanisms of attempting to deal with it. In order to cope with the death of one his brothers, John tells a story. But his version of the events leading up to the tragedy has severe consequences for the family: “The death of a child – there’s no coming back from that.”

We encounter John again in his thirties. In his early twenties, he’d left his family and South Africa behind, making a clean break and emigrating. Alienated from his past, and from himself, he marries Rachel and makes a successful living in London. But one day he sees a figure outside his window which draws the illusions of his past into the fragile reality he has built around him, and he is forced to return to South Africa to confront the mystery of that fatal December day in the Karoo. But as Rachel will realise: “If you examine a mystery closely enough, for long enough, certainty will follow. Certainty, but not necessarily truth.”

Boy, Bruce can write! It is austere writing, but not without a certain lyricism. No words go amiss, all hit the target. At times, the narrative tension becomes relentless, even to a point of frustration. Bruce is a master of creating smokescreens for his readers. In both, Wall of Days and Boy on the Wire, you are never sure what the real story is, or who in the story is real or imagined. The beauty of his novels lies in the intriguing mind games – it is impossible not to want to know what happened. But Boy on the Wire is not a light, entertaining read. The novel is emotionally exhausting. It creeps under your skin.

Boy on WireWhereas Wall of Days was as close to perfection as a novel can get, I had some difficulties with the characterisations in Boy on the Wire. The portrayal of John and Rachel’s relationship after his return to South Africa wasn’t convincing enough for me. I could not relate to Rachel’s responses to the unfolding of the events and found the explanations of her behaviour implausible in a few moments. Furthermore, I am not sure that readers who are unaware of the effects of trauma on the mind will find enough narrative guidance in the story to read John’s mental states as plausible. I also found my suspension of disbelief tested when it came to the simple day to day logistics of inhabiting an inherited house.

Despite these reservations, which took very little away from the impressive impact Boy on the Wire had made on me, I can’t wait to see what Alastair Bruce will do next. Without any doubt, he is on his way to becoming one of our greats.

Boy on the Wire

by Alastair Bruce

Umuzi, 2015

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So far so good: Best of 2014 book giveaway

Best of 2014_1
For me, one of the best tests for a good read is whether I find myself wanting to share it with others. The bookshops I visit will testify to the fact that I often return to the same title over and over again when searching for presents. I don’t know how many copies of the original versions and their translations into other languages I have bought in the last few years of, among others, Mark Rowlands’ The Philosopher and the Wolf, or Carsten Jensen’s We, the Drowned, or Alastair Bruce’s Wall of Days, or Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved. The authors of these books must have enjoyed at least a bottle of really nice wine or bought a book or two by other authors from the royalties my book-shopping sprees have generated for them. And it makes me happy to think that this might have been the case. Cheers!

The last six months have been particularly plentiful in good reads. I’ve been lucky. There is nothing worse than finishing a great book and encountering a dozen duds before discovering the next good one (especially if you are like me and finish most of the books you’ve started). But 2014 is turning out to be a really satisfying reading year. Of the books I’ve read until now there are twelve that I have either already bought for or at least wholeheartedly recommended to others.

The twelve titles in no particular order:

Ash WednesdayAsh Wednesday by Ethan Hawke (2002)
My dear friend Isabella and I have been fans of Ethan Hawke, the actor, since high school. I will never forget how we saw Great Expectations with him and Gwyneth Paltrow at a student cinema in Łódź – the screen was made out of three bed sheets and we sat on ordinary kitchen chairs in the audience… When we found out that Hawke was a novelist, too, I bought Isabella his debut novel as a present, and ever since then I have been meaning to read one of his books myself, but somehow never got around to it. But then earlier this year, I accidently saw Reality Bites again and thought of Isabella and decided to make up for lost time. Ash Wednesday was a real treat: Jimmy and Christy are in love, pregnant, and want to get married, but nothing is simple when you are young and life with all its choices looms large around the corner. On a road trip across America they confront their secret dreams and hidden fears, risking everything for what they believe in. Ash Wednesday is written in a crisp prose that carries you across the page like a good old Chevy Nova across an alluring landscape. It has turned me into a fan of Ethan Hawke, the novelist.

The Last Man in Russia by Oliver Bullough (2013)
I was asked to write a short review of this book for the Cape Times. The book broke my heart because it resonated so much with my memories of my native Poland. It saddens me that the one characteristic that Russians and Poles are (in)famous for in the world is their heavy drinking. Alcoholism is a plague which has taken a heavy toll on both countries. I believe that things are changing in Poland, at least that is what my family and friends assure me of, but it will take at least a generation or two for the new ways of life to have real impact on society and to begin to heal the wounds. Bullough explores the historic trauma at the root of the pandemic with incisive insight. Anybody interested in understanding that part of the world will be wise to read The Last Man in Russia. It not only throws light on the past of the region but also its current situation.

A Sportful MaliceA Sportful Malice by Michiel Heyns (2014)
I brought this book back from the FLF. It is the funniest novel I have read in the last few years. I take books with me wherever I go and I found myself reading this one in a few public places where I got a lot of curious stares from strangers because I couldn’t stop laughing while reading. Every page brings a smile to one’s face, and some of the humour is truly and deliciously dark. A Sportful Malice takes the reader to Tuscany via London Stansted on a nightmare Ryanair flight which turns out to be the least worrisome aspect of Michael Marccuci’s trip. Micheal is a gay South African literary scholar. One of his many Facebook contacts offers him a house for rent in a small Tuscan village where Michael plans to finish the book he is currently working on. On his trip, Michael encounters the obnoxious Cedric, a clumsily inexperienced but not unwilling Wouter, his eccentric (to say the least!) landlord and his wife, and the irresistible Paolo. But nobody and nothing is as it seems. Full of himself, Michael is too blind to realise that he is not entirely in charge of his fate. The novel is told in a series of Michael’s letters to his lover back home. As always, Heyns’ prose is pure pleasure, and the humour of A Sportful Malice is sheer delight.

Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut (2014)
I had the honour of reviewing Galgut’s latest for the Cape Times. I read an advance proofs copy but have bought the strikingly pink hardcover edition for a young friend who is discovering and exploring his sexuality. A lot has changed in our society since the days of E.M. Foster, but despite our amazing constitution, there is still so much hatred and bigotry around that it makes one desperate. It is such a precious gift to find that other person who shares your dreams and longings. What sex or gender that person is shouldn’t concern anybody else but the people doing the searching and the finding.

The Maze Runner by James Dashner (2009)
While reading up on the touching and wise film The First Time, I accidently stumbled upon the trailer for The Maze Runner. It intrigued me and when I realised that it was based on a novel I decided to read the book before the movie came out later this year. It didn’t disappoint. Fast-paced, the novel itself is like a maze. You have no clue where you are going to end up turning the next corner. And the ending just makes you want to read more. I was relieved to discover it’s the first in a series. I’m a sucker for stories about friendship (one of those got me hooked on the writer whose book is next on my list here!) and I liked the portrayal of the dynamics between the characters in The Maze Runner. The thrilling action all around was a bonus.

Die DreiThe Three by Sarah Lotz (2014)
I’m supposed to review this novel so the proper review is pending. For now, I would just like to confess that I am a Stephen King virgin. I remember Isabella devouring King novels but I’ve never really felt that they were something for me. I have seen some of the films based on the novels, enjoyed Carrie and Misery very much, and my favourite TV series at the moment, Haven, is based on one of King’s short stories, “The Colorado Kid”, and yet I haven’t felt tempted to turn to the books. I did buy a King novel for my brother on his 30th birthday (the novel was published the same year as he was born). But still, no King for me. Until now that is. After reading Lotz’s The Three – brilliant, riveting – and seeing King’s endorsement on the back cover, I have decided to give the man a chance since he has shown some really good taste there. I bought The Shining yesterday. Incidentally, it was published in the month and year of my birth. And JohaN from Protea Bookshop informed me that the sequel is out. Fortunately, unlike other readers, I won’t have to wait 37 years for it!

Bare and BreakingBare & Breaking by Karin Schimke (2012)
Schimke’s collection also came back home with me from Franschhoek. I haven’t felt so excited about a volume of poetry since Tracey K. Smith’s Pulitzer-winning Life on Mars (2011). I read Smith’s collection a few weeks before the prize announcement (which made me jump up and down with joy) and was simply bowled over by the power and wisdom of her words. Schimke’s volume has similar qualities, but it exhibits an intimacy and eroticism that I haven’t encountered in contemporary poetry for a long time. She writes skin and desire, allowing the reader to get lost in both. In simple images she captures the miracles of a couple’s everyday life, how those little wonders remain hidden from others but never cease to amaze those who experience them. The violence of desire explodes on the page and splits you open. Bare & Breaking echoes those moments when you face the inevitable, when loss threatens your sanity, when you can’t help longing for all the wrong reasons. And when you get to the last poem in the volume you will be struck by the quiet after the storm. Poetry can be so satisfying!

And speaking about ‘quiet’, next on the list is:

Quiet by Susan Cain (2012)
The book made me properly understand something about myself that I have always known only intuitively. It probably is such a bestseller because it resonates with a lot of people. Life has become somehow simpler for me since reading Quiet. It helped me crystallise certain ideas on how to stay in tune with my inner qualities. In the words of Ruben, the protagonist of André’s The Rights of Desire, “I don’t like shouting.”

The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt (2014)
Hustvedt is one of only a handful of writers who have never disappointed me. A friend introduced me to her work and I have read every single title she has published. Every time I open one of them, I know I will be challenged, enriched and entertained. I bought a copy of The Blazing World for a friend even before I read my own, because I knew that one couldn’t go wrong with a novel by Hustvedt. I am waiting for the translations into German and Polish so that I can share the book with friends and family abroad. I reviewed The Blazing World for the Cape Times.

Road of ExcessThe Road of Excess by Ingrid Winterbach (2014)
Translated from Afrikaans, The Road of Excess was a wonderful companion read to The Blazing World. They are both set in the art world and deal with the insecurities of creativity and fame. Aaron Adendorff is a renowned painter recovering from cancer. After more than two decades of prosperous collaboration, it seems that the owner of the gallery where Aaron usually exhibits is threatening to drop him. Inexplicably though, he sends two new darlings of the art world Aaron’s way and asks him to assist them. All this time, Aaron is getting the weirdest messages from his brother, a recovering alcoholic, intent on confronting some uncomfortable truths about their family past. To make matters even more disturbing, Aaron’s home is invaded by the unforgettable Bubbles Bothma, a neighbour from hell, who is threatening to save Aaron from all his demons, if she doesn’t accidently get him killed first. A profound and funny read which lingers in one’s mind long after the last page is turned. I have now read all of Winterbach’s novels available in English and am hoping that my Afrikaans will be good enough one day to enjoy the ones which remain untranslated. Her work is extremely versatile, engaging, and her supple prose shines through even in translation.

Breyten Breytenbach, A Monologue in Two Voices by Sandra Saayman (2014)
My short review of this title is being processed for publication, but I can say here that this book simply as an object offers the reader a gratifying aesthetic experience. It is beautifully and carefully produced, includes a variety of reproductions of Breytenbach’s artworks, and encourages the reader/viewer to perceive them in context.

Bloody LiesBloody Lies: Citizens Reopen the Inge Lotz Murder Case by Thomas and Calvin Mollett (2014)
My review of this bold book should be published in the near future, so I won’t repeat myself here. I can just urge anybody interested in the history of the case to read Bloody Lies and to look at the Molletts’ website: Truth 4 Inge. If you are following the Oscar Pistorius trail, this book might also be for you. Bloody Lies is a highly informative, page-turning read.

I would like to invite other readers here to tell me which books have made such an impact on you in the first half of this year that you wanted to share them with others. At the same time, please let me know which of the titles I’ve mentioned above you would be interested in reading yourself. From your comments, I’ll draw one name at the end of July 2014 and send you the book you have chosen from my list of twelve titles. I will include my own Invisible Others in the parcel.

Happy reading & sharing everyone!