IN A TIME OF ISOLATION, GOOD BOOKS ARE YOUR MOST COMFORTING COMPANIONS

Some brand new, some around for a few months and all worth reading as writers watch and write about their world and develop the ideas that they think are worth turning into stories. DIANE DE BEER reviews:

TRANSCENDENT KINGDOM by Yaa Gyasi (Penguin Viking):

If you’re familiar with Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, you will know she has a unique voice. With her latest, Transcendent Kingdom, dealing with Gifty’s family journey, which takes them from Ghana to Alabama, you know it will be a story dealing in extremes. The two places are much more than continents apart.  And that is how Gifty’s family splinters apart, with each one of them trying their best to hold on to some kind of sanity. Halfway through the book, Gifty explains: “I miss thinking in terms of the ordinary, the straight line from birth to death that constitutes most people’s lives.” It’s not that the writer is dealing in the extraordinary – many families bump into this kind of hellish existence – it is Gyasi’s storytelling and the way she scratches around for deeper meaning reaching far wider than just this single immigrant family.

DIE HEELAL OP MY TONG by Anoeschka von Meck (Penguin):

Anyone who has spent any time with this author will know that much of her protestation  about this not being autobiographical will fall on deaf ears. It is as close to her life as is possible. And apart from the fact that she describes this as “bisaro-fiksie” which is directly translatable, she also dedicates the book to her father whose name an older generation might remember. But read the book. Von Meck isn’t only a gifted and imaginative storyteller, her way with the Afrikaans language is astonishing. “Die is ook die storie van Pa. ‘n Lagslimme Afrikaanse Al Capone, wie se innoverende sakeondernemings  hom soms gedwing het om sy kantoor van agter tralies te bedryf.” The author is on a quest to outrun her body, the baggage she carries from her past, and a life she tries to get a grip on – with not much luck. Personally, I felt she could have lost the italic bits at the end of each chapter dealing with another realm completely, but you need not include that in your reading. Her language alone will take you helter skelter on this gloriously madcap journey.

DIE ONGELOOFLIKE ONSKULD VAN DIRKIE VERWEY by Charl-Pierre Naudé (Tafelberg):

A mysterious metal monolith has appeared in northern Romania … reads a story in these past months as a number of these strange structures have been noticed around the world, only to disappear as soon as they are noticed.

Similarly, in Naudé’s novel, or the one written by a certain journalist named Hermanus Verdomp who has distanced himself from the manuscript, a certain building suddenly makes an appearance in a town on a previously desolate plot of ground.

And the ground is constantly shifting for the characters and the reader as you navigate this fascinating tale of a country which seems to exist in another universe.

Much has been written about this country’s horrific past, but when a writer finds a novel way to tell a story that everyone knows or think they know and navigates what many may view as tired territory in such a way that it grabs even reluctant readers, you discover something quite extraordinary.

This is the highly praised poet’s first novel and again, if you only read it for the language, the way sentences are constructed, the way the language creates its own pictures, the choice of a word or an idea and the characters who emerge with strong beating hearts, you will have a fantastic time.

But there’s even more. And while he’s dealing in horror, he deftly keeps you smiling most of the way.

AFTERLAND by Lauren Beukes (Umuzi):

I know this review is after the fact but the thing about Beukes is that she pre-empts life, and then it happens. She has this astonishing gift of tuning into the world and its zeitgeist in a way that’s quite uncanny.

She’s also a fabulous writer. Not only does she write about a world dealing with a pandemic but she also taps into #metoo and all the gender and sibling issues one could dream of. We live in a cruel world and she uses all those issues to tell a story of a mother who wants to protect her child from a world where the men have all gone – except for her young son.

But also trust Beukes to turn things on their head and make men the most sought after commodity – just as they are seemingly not that much in fashion.

It’s a grand romp and one that keeps you entertained throughout – bar the nuns who seemed to take up just too much space.

JOBURG NOIR edited by Niq Mhlongo (Jacana):

As good a writer he is, he is as smart an editor. In the foreword he explains: “Each time I read the stories, it seems that the whole history of Joburg and its diversity is brought to the fore. The best way to read this book then Dear Reader, is to imagine it was water – let your mind and body float with it.”

The diversity of the writers also play a part as their influence and experience is wide-ranging and determines the writing. But also the title, Joburg Noir lends itself to something quite mysterious and the writing plays its part as the stories truly – like the city – run wild.

Writer/editor Niq Mhlongo

The writing is extraordinary, the topics vary magnificently and the city, as the title suggests, plays a bigger role in some than others where it may simply be the backdrop. Not that the city of gold can easily be just a backdrop.

The way a short story book reads is especially handy when on holiday as you can simply read a story at a time without worrying when you open the book again and start with a fresh story. This is one to go back to but also to pass around to family and friends. A great selection.

TRESPASS by Rose Tremain (Vintage):

This was was first published in 2010 and reissued by Vintage this year (2020). While I knew the author’s name, this was my first encounter and what especially appealed was her storytelling ability. She grabs you from the start and her mind goes á wandering in most unusual fashion.

Speak about dysfunctional families, a topic that is never exhausted. Here we have two sets – two extremes. The one is a sister and brother who live in rural France. Aramon Lunel, an alcoholic with a violent past, lives in Mas Lunel with his sister Audrun, alone in her bungalow within sight of the main dwelling. It’s an uncomfortable if slightly mysterious co-existence.

Across the channel, a wealthy but weary antique dealer who is losing some of his celebrity shine, Anthony Verey, decides to visit his sister and her lover, whom he easily dismisses, in the French countryside. Glowing in his sibling’s attention, he decides that this is where he wants to reinvent himself – the French  countryside.

And then he visits Mas Lunel – but the bungalow is an eyesore. It’s an explosive run-up and the conclusion doesn’t disappoint.

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