“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
Diane de Beer reviews a a few fascinating reads:
The Zulus of New York by Zakes Mda (Umuzi):
It’s a remarkable story that Zakes Mda has unearthed here.
He knew just how to approach the telling of it in a time when finally it seems there’s more awareness in the world of problems in the past that have never been acknowledged. It meant that these persist in exacerbated form to this day. And with people like Trump and Johnson leading powerful nations, it only gets worse.
Nevertheless, just the title should pull you in. Who would have thought? In New York and paraded in all their powerful mysticism of the time, yet naturally, at their cost. They had to play the savage because that’s what gawkers came to see, hearing the stories of the infamous King Cetshwayo. And in the process, the performers were losing their souls. Until a love story of sorts unfolds in all this darkness and brings some light.
Mda has a magical touch and a way of drawing his readers into a world that might not be familiar. And then he punches you in the gut as he holds up the mirror of what people do to those they don’t recognise as themselves.
Theo and Flora by Mark Winkler (Umuzi) which has just been shortlisted for the Sunday Times fiction list:
It’s an intriguing tale and really reminds me of the idiom to spin a yarn. With novelist Charlie Wasserman left by his investment-banker wife with the means to stay on in their home, he discovers a box of her family letters written between 1940 and 1944. The letters reveal a love affair between her grandfather, a 40something lawyer at the time and Flora, a much younger journalist.
Even though Wasserman’s former wife instructs him to destroy the letters, he has found a way to revive his somewhat slumped writing career. Interesting characters wander in and out of this novel tale which keeps you engaged from beginning to end.
It’s an addictive yarn.
Milkman by Anna Burns (Faber&Faber):
This is a book that probably accidentally came in a time of #MeToo and Brexit which compounds the meaning in a story that is set in an unnamed Irish city where the aim of living is to blend in.
To be noticed is not only damaging but dangerous. Middle sister is leading a life of terror and it is all exacerbated because she tries to keep it quiet that she has a maybe-boyfriend and that she is being terrorised by a very scary character called Milkman.
If you want to know what it feels like to live in a world where people are terrified to breathe yet some are determined to live their lives in spite of a rumour mill that can destroy the little you have, this is one, hand-in-hand with Margaret Atwood’s television adapted Handmaid’s Tale, to immerse yourself in.
Then re-look the life you have been gifted and smile.
Cul de Sac A Memoir by Elsa Joubert (Tafelberg):
A moving farewell from one of our great writers. That’s JM Coetzee writing about this memoir and indeed it is that – moving.
But what it also reminded me of was the different ways people approach any stage of their life.
In her 95th year, she explores the continent of old age says the blurb on the back cover. And that plays a role – her age. A few decades ago, not many people were reaching their 90s, but now with modern medicine and more emphasis on health during your lifetime, it’s possible.
But she lost her life partner and with that her independent spirit – somewhat – which rather colours her perspective it seems.
Also, the choice of where she lives and how she copes with the devastation of a diminishing world, even with caring family around, is quite harrowing. “That’s why they have this big, long lift, to take out the coffins at night when we’re asleep,” she writes.
I found it moving and admirable that she is still determined to tell her story, a life so great and so rewarded, and so magnificently captured.
And yet, I’m still determined to go out singing!
Transcription by Kate Atkinson (Doubleday):
This is another of those writers you don’t want to miss. From her early writing to the present, she keeps swinging with stories that surprise and delight.
Atkinson has a specific smartness about her writing which always keeps you engaged. I recall years back when reading the description of Life after Life and wondering how she would pull me into the lives of people whose lives kept turning on the same dime, but in different directions – and she did – masterfully.
It was simply a masterpiece. Perhaps following that one and the companion, A God in Ruins, she should have turned away from War stories to something completely different. Think of this as an adventure, one of the characters say at the beginning of what turns out to be a rather pedestrian spy story.
If not even Atkinson can light a fire under a Girl’s Own type of adventure, perhaps it’s not to be. It doesn’t grab you and neither do the characters who all seem a touch lukewarm – as do their actions.
I didn’t think it possible to feel indifferent about an Atkinson story – sorry – but about this one I do.
The Distance by Ivan Vladislavic (Umuzi):
Anyone who has read this author will know you can drift on clouds in his words. He just has a unique way.
Similarly, with the topics he tackles and the stories he tells. While it might feel as if it is about one thing, there are different things going on.
This one is ostensibly about siblings and their life stories. Is one voice more important that the other, who remembers the truth and who decides about that?
These are some of the questions posed. But he also spotlights the country and the time we live in, and the harshness of our lives while living in a time when life isn’t valued. Yet with the number of refugees battling out there in an unwelcome world, is it even possible to think of more ordinary lives in this way?
Everything begins with a young Pretoria boy’s obsession with Muhammad Ali. Now, as an adult, he turns back to the scrapbooks of his youth, asks for help from a somewhat unwilling brother but also tries to unravel the mystery of writing, how it happens and why he does it.
It’s simplicity itself and yet there are underlying streams that keep popping into the story and strangling any thoughts you might have had about what this story is about and why it is being told.
And that is precisely this astonishing writer’s strength.
There Goes English Teacher A Memoir by Karin Cronje (Modjaji Books):
As a huge Korean fan, having visited the country twice as a guest of the government, I was hugely intrigued by this book which deals with someone teaching English.
We all know South Africans who have done that but in Cronje’s case, she’s slightly older than most graduates who almost use this as a gap period. For her, it was is a gap year while ageing and coping with major life changes that had her almost gasping for life.
Perhaps that’s not the best time to jump into this kind of adventure. A third into the book, I almost put it down which isn’t something I often consider, choosing my reading matter carefully.
Nevertheless, I decided to keep going because while I found her writing frustrating in many instances, I was also enchanted by others.
I still feel that it needs a strong edit which would (for me) turn her into the brilliant writer she is some of the time. Too often, it was just too much, she had made the point clearly. And yet, there she goes on again… and again.
But then again, it might just be me.