John le Carré builds on his legacy of Spies

“I have always imagined that

Paradise will be a kind of Library”

Jorge Luis Borges


A Legacy of Spies by John le Carré (Viking):

A Legacy of Spies1It’s always a treat when a new John le Carré thriller makes its way onto your bookshelf and with a name like this one, which points to the kind of thrillers we first fell in love with like The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, expectations are high.

It’s John le Carré , no less and writing about Smiley, Peter Guillam and a gang of familiar rogues.

But that was quite some time ago and yet, Le Carré  manages to twist the past and the present together in a tangled web that takes serious attention to unravel.

Not only do you have to reach back a few decades when you last met up with all these characters but then you fast forward to not only a much older and craggier George, but his younger colleague Peter, who himself is retired on a farm in Brittany (he was half French and British), is the one who tells this particular tale.

And it’s some tale as you can imagine. It grabs hold of you right from the start and whirls you through another almost Cold War-style escapade that has you guessing from beginning to end.

It also takes you back to a time when the Cold War ended and everyone was wondering what would happen to writers like Le Carré who made that specific era their specialty. Not to worry though, he focused on that time because that was what we were living. But as astutely as he could dissect that period of time in the world, so he could move on to other issues that the powerful would latch onto as times moved on and political constructs shifted and changed.

John le Carre

At his age, (85!), it makes sense that he looks back but how smart to go to the past yet write about the current world. He pulls us back to a different time and place and points to the way time changes how we behave, what we think and how people and governments run their lives and their daily business.

Don’t think for a second that he lets the reader off the hook. If you were a fan of his earlier novels, you have aged with the author. You will have to grab hold of all those mental faculties to stay with this tale of espionage. It might come from a different age yet it is pulled quite abruptly into today’s world by two children who are on a path of vengeance for their parents who were killed on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall at that time.

It’s Le Carré genius. Not only does he give us the past and characters that we have met before, but it plays out today which gives him many different options to comment on the world as he sees it now. His is never a simple story to tell. There’s much more going on which keeps you on your toes and makes it even more intriguing.

So for those who wondered in the past whether he was going to have anything to write about post Cold War, he’s still at it and to my mind, even got to say quite clearly why Britain should be careful of breaking away from Europe.

This is not someone who has any problem with what or how he wants to write.

A Legacy of Spies is the perfect retro-hangover from someone who wanted to take leave of old friends. Fans will love it.



Swedish writers with something to say, do it with such clarity they grab your heart

“Books are a uniquely

portable magic”

Stephen King


The Scandal by Fredrik Backman ((Penguin/Michael Joseph)

Scandal cover

How can you resist a book that starts with the following sentence:

Late one evening towards the end of March, a teenager picked up a double-barreled shotgun, walked into the forest, put the gun to someone else’s forehead and pulled the trigger.

Some may be familiar with the writer, Frederik Backman because of his most prominent book thus far, A Man Called Ove , an intriguing look at a man who could not relate to the rest of the world and thus turned most away from him.

This is no different. Beartown is a small town in a large Swedish forest. It is in danger of losing any economic future it might have but there’s one shard of light – a tiny one – but it’s there.

The town, 99.9 percent of it anyway, are fanatical about their ice hockey team. We’re not talking the big leagues, it’s all about the stage that will take them there if they do well. So it’s small town, small odds, and small team. But this seems to be their only hope of not shrinking to a point of no return.

And they’re all set to go with the fighting spirit and the chance of the boys pulling it through. But then bad things happen to good people and good people aren’t always willing to do the right thing.

That’s how much of this story plays out as Backman peels and dissects this town like an onion, one nick at a time. It’s fascinating as he tells the story of generations in a town where everyone is linked to their sporting success in some way whether it is the local bar owner or the mother who cleans the ice rink.

The author has stacked the odds so that everyone seems implicated in a certain act that throws their every decision into question. Are your morals going to hold or are you going to bend them a little with the knowledge that individuals might be wronged but it would be for the greater good?

Haven’t we all wondered about certain people – on a small or larger scale – and how they live with their conscience? They must bend the truth a little to do what they do and get away with it – or so they believe.

All of these issues come into play in this story which affects everyone in the town on some scale.

Because of all of the issues involved, the fact that it is driven by sport, which impacts communities whether in a large city or small town. The author has cleverly reached far and wide to draw on a reading public.

In our family, everyone is reading or has read the book and loved it. It’s that kind of tale. It’s something that people can talk about, discuss and bring their opinions to bear.

What Backman does exceptionally well, is hold your attention. Even if translated, it is tightly written but more than that, it is the way the story is told. Many different characters are brought into the game, to show what specific people do under specific circumstances. There’s mother of the wronged child for example or the father who has both his daughter and the sports team to consider.

It reminded me of the storytelling abilities of Lionel Shriver who takes a contemporary dilemma and pulls it apart by telling a specific tale.

It’s exactly what Backman does here. Whether in a snow covered Swedish town, or a Cape south coast village, the story that is told can unfold similarly which is why it is so enthralling.

If you want a good read that can be passed around the family with good results all round, this is it.

Much more than A Gentleman in Moscow












A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (Hutchinson):

Gentleman in Moscow

It’s always one of the rewards of reading when a book turns out to be so much more than its cover (or even the first few chapters) suggest.

I had been prodded by some remarks from two very different readers to have a closer look at this one, and I’m delighted I did.

More than a third into the book, I was thoroughly enjoying the sweet if sad tale but finding it slightly lightweight. Much of one’s affinity for the novel at the beginning is the main character (and narrator) who is just such a likable fella.

Count Alexander Rostov has led an extraordinary privileged life but it is now 1922, a new regime has taken over in his country and his circumstances are greatly changed. In fact, when he is marched out of the Kremlin across Red Square, this will be the last time he sees the outside world for quite some time.

Instead of his usual luxurious suite, he is taken to an attic room with a window which hardly allows him any view at all. Viewed as an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, he has been sentenced to indefinite house arrest.

That’s where we get to meet this affable man who seems to accept his lot quite graciously, simply gets on with it as we are taken into his inner circle as he shares his life henceforth.

But this is not any life and not the one he was accustomed to in his past life as an aristocrat. He is living in  one of Moscow’s most prestigious and historic hotels and while the clientele has changed as has the government, this is still the place to be seen. Yet as someone who took his daily rituals intensely seriously, a walk in the park, a morning coffee and some such, he is initially put out by this sudden inconvenience.

What starts out as seemingly a minor obstruction, at least for the ingenuous Count Rostov, turns into quite a madcap adventure as different people come into his life to show him new ways of navigating this peculiar and unexpected life-changing world. It’s fun and reads almost like a contemporary fairy tale but what adds substance and weight is the changing Russia that emerges with something new happening on an almost daily basis.

It makes sense then that the hotel becomes a leitmotif for what is transforming in the rest of the country.. While the Count cannot stick his nose outside, he is kept in touch with the reality by those entering the doors of this much revered establishment. It plays out in full to the extent that the identity of the next powerful leader emerges at a dinner that takes place in a sacred dining room and the way the seating arrangements unfold.

It is in the telling of the tale, the language (”of course, there’s now more canvas than cashmere in the room, more gray than gold. But is the patch on the elbow really that much different from  the epaulet on the shoulder?”), the way the characters spill out and over one another, the ages of the different participants and the changing of the guard that doesn’t have to mean the end of anyone’s expectations of inhabiting some kind of world, that keeps one intrigued.

It also reminds us – again – that the more things change, the more they remain the same.



Zakes Mda Tells African Stories that Resonate and Grow Stronger with Time

CION_Maqoma_0235Summertime and the living is easy. DIANE DE BEER kicks off this season of reading and catching up with all those books that were put aside during the year. She starts her holiday reading with two award-winning novels by the erudite Zakes Mda: one old, one new-ish, but both will take you into a world where you can lose yourself – while learning more about our people and this place:




Earlier this year, before I had the luxury of this blog, I had the chance to see the sublime Gregory Maqoma’s Cion at The Market – and very little has surpassed that experience this year.

He explains the creation thus: “I am drawn to Zakes Mda’s character Toloki the professional mourner from his beloved Ways of Dying as he further uncovers in his book Cion the story of the runaway slaves. In my interpretation, Toloki rediscovers death in a modern context, inspired by the universal events that lead to death, not as a natural phenomenon but by decisions of others over the other. We mourn death by creating death. The universe of greed, power, religion has led us to be professional mourners who transform the horror of death and the pain of mourning into a narrative that questions what seems to be normalised and far more brutal in how we experience death and immigration. I am creating this work as a lament, a requiem required to awaken a part of us, the connection to the departed souls.”

Nothing prepares you for the performance by Maqoma who has gathered a group of dancers, musicians and singers who mourn death in a way that both embraces and expunges the horrors of this world.

From the design to the dance to the magnificent music and singing, Maqoma transports you to a place of healing by tearing the horror apart step for step, note by note.

If you ever see Cion is being performed anywhere, don’t hesitate, just go. It’s world class and feeds the soul.



What he left me with, amongst other things, is a realisation that I had never read Ways of Dying, but I had put the book aside for just this kind of timing. Telling the story of Toloki, the professional mourner that so inspired Maqoma, Mda has created something that deeply touches the soul – on every level.

Toloki is a man who spends his life mourning the lives of others while trying to define a life of his own. It’s a story of sadness, of seeing yourself through the eyes of others, but living with a purpose that keeps you going as you bring some reason for hope to the lives of others.

“Death lives with us every day. Indeed our ways of dying are our ways of living,” says Toloki capturing the essence of this haunting tale.

Then Mda highlighted his year when running off with the Sunday Times fiction award for Little Suns (Umuzi) which meant I could simply stick to this amazing author having delved into his past writing and now encouraging him to delve into his family’s past.

It is a love story embedded in a history lesson of sorts. While he seemingly writes about a lame and frail Malangana who searches for his beloved Mthwakazi, Mda writes a searing revision of the past as it was told by the strongmen of that time.

What can you expect from history when the vanquished were not allowed a voice?

He is scathing in his account of colonialism (as he should be), discovering this intriguing tale as he set out to investigate his own roots.

The story is as intriguing as the writing and the characters who take you on this wild ride.

And if you have been hooked, which is a high probability, you might as well close off this chapter with the illuminating Heart of Redness, from a writer who always has the African soul at heart.


Khwezi reclaimed by Redi Tlhabi

We’re halfway through the international campaign, 16 Days of Activism, and today is World Aids Day. Both pertain profoundly to journalist and author Redi Tlhabi’s book about Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo, better known as Khwezi. If you haven’t read it, do it now, writes DIANE DE BEER


Khwezi: The Remarkable Story of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo by Redi Tlhabi (Jonathan Ball):

khwezi front cover final


Redi Tlhabi showed with her first book, Endings and Beginnings: A Healing Story (Jacana, 2012), that she knows why some people’s experiences cannot go unshared. She also revealed how a journalist can add their own value to something; while personal, their view can also be universal.

In this case, it was clear that Kuzwayo’s story deserved its public frenzy, but that the issue of rape should remain in the international headlines.  It’s an ongoing, horrific tragedy – everywhere.

Yet in conversation, you find that many are still puzzled. Why don’t all women who have been raped come forward? Why, in 2017, does nothing much seem different in the way of hostility, all round? After all, this only prolongs the rape as an ongoing nightmare for the survivor.

M-Net recently broadcast a conversation with director Ryan Murphy (The Feud: Bette and Joan) in which he explained that he was saddened, when speaking to Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange, to realise exactly that. Indeed, not much has changed since the Hollywood studio era when Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were the stars of the day.

Women aren’t surprised by that. We live with it daily. And Fezekile Kuzwayo represents so much of why that is so. She surely didn’t fully grasp what would happen once she went public about her rape.

That might have been because she had accused one of the most powerful men in the land. But many women living in a country where rape is endemic find the same outcome – in their villages, their churches, their offices. Going public or even speaking about being raped, and, particularly, naming your rapist, is taboo.

In Kuzwayo’s case, she was also confronted by women who, some believe, effectively collaborated against her. Many were shocked and saddened by the ANC Women’s League’s support of Zuma during his rape trial, but few were surprised. The fact of other women not giving support is a painful truth for all too many rape survivors.

702 Redi 2-138ap
Author Redi Tlhabi

Tlhabi’s book is, thus, remarkable for many reasons. One is that it properly situates Kuzwayo for us as it deals with her past, going a long way to explain why “Khwezi” finally decided to claim her life back.

She tells of how, when she was a child and then a young woman living in exile in the ANC camps, she was raped by “uncles” who were supposed to look after her best interests. And while this is an issue that has also been in the public domain, it hasn’t really been fully addressed. This seems to be because of a belief that those who have been “wronged” – in this case, some soldiers of Umkhonto we Sizwe who gave up their lives to fight apartheid – cannot do any wrong themselves.

Kuzwayo tells a very moving story about our world.

I remember reading Tlhabi’s first book and being left open-mouthed that she was writing about 11-year-old girls scared of being raped. At that age, children should be children, but of course, not many live in that protected world – ever.

To make matters worse, once the rape of a child occurs, her whole life is devastated – not as the survivor, but as the someone who can be blamed. This is because not all communities deal appropriately with rape.

It’s something that is explained in great detail in Pumla Dinedo Gqola’s brilliant book A South African Nightmare: Rape, a book that Tlhabi also references and honours.

Yet some men still refuse to take responsibility, or even deal with their accusers. Some flee to “rehab” centres for so-called sexual addiction, while locally, silence and then denial seem to be the preferred route.

Following the unsuccessful trial, Kuzwayo felt she had no choice but to go into exile – again  -where she and her mother were embraced by an empathic community simply not available in her own country. She wasn’t only blamed by Zuma disciples. The media here didn’t treat her much better.

In court, too, the defense implied that a five-year old girl could be implicated in her own rape. What does that say about the society we live in? Please don’t tell me that lawyers are compelled to do “everything” they can to defend their client. There are limits.

That is truly the state of the world we live in today. Women have to explain why and how something happened, what they were wearing and why they were at a certain place at a certain time.

The onus is still on women to explain why and how something happened, what they were wearing and why they were at a certain place at a certain time.

I was recently walking with a young woman when an elderly man made a remark that only she understood. But she retorted in English so that everyone could get her meaning: “Wow, you could be my grandfather. Would you speak like that to your granddaughter?”

I hope he will now think twice about commenting that glibly, and that publicly, in future.

Importantly, her approach also showed there is a new awareness among millenials. They are willing to take the battle on, and to speak their minds.

That is why #MeToo has had such impact, and that is why this book will have relevance for years to come. It speaks about how power relationships are used at the cost of the vulnerable. And that is what Kuzwayo was in so many ways.

Not only did she regard Zuma as an “elderly uncle”. He knew and had honoured her father,  and could tell her stories about the man who “Khwezi” had lost too soon in her young life. She needed that first-hand knowledge about her dad. And so it was a matter of trust that was shattered in several ways too tough to disregard.

It is true, however, that this is also how she found the strength. It was enough. It didn’t matter who had done what to her. This would be the last time. But the other truth is that her “enough” would also shatter what was left of her life.

Meanwhile, the man who she accused of violating her, took a shower.




Nostalgic Food for Friends and Family


For Friends & Family

For Friends and Family by Nicky Stubbs (Human and Rousseau):



Everything about this book screams nostalgia and when you ask Nicky Stubbs about her love for food, she points to the Elisabeth Luard quotation at the beginning of her book:

Meanwhile I have discovered no panacea for the troubles which afflict humanity – unless it is that a meal shared round the kitchen table serves both as a celebration of the good times and a comfort in times of trouble. At the end of it all, I can only echo the words of wise clergyman, the Reverend Sydney Smith (now there was a man for good advice): ‘Take a short view of life. Look no further than dinner or tea.’

– Elizabeth Luard, Family Life –

Nicky Stubbs Credit Philippa Hetherington
Author Nicky Stubbs. Picture Philippa Hetherington

And this book in particular happened when the author was sifting through a lifetime of recipes to gather them all in one place. “I was missing my parents terribly and found it comforting to immerse myself in the recipes that I grew up with.” What she thought in the process of sorting, was that this was a cookbook she would love to have.

Hence For Friends and Family. She  wanted to achieve a book that would be helpful, useful and practical for all cooks, from beginners to specialists – the family’s go-to cookbook in fact!

The book fell into a natural order based on solid useful everyday recipes with special recipes for high days and holidays – which is exactly what she had wished for.

It’s a book with equal emphasis on family and food. “The family photos, food photography and beautiful layout and cover still take my breath away. It appeals to children as young as six and to the best cooks I know,” she notes.

Because she was so clear on what she wanted to achieve, the book was written in a two weeks during a family holiday where she would wake up at 4 in the morning to write until the family woke up. She then handed the manuscript to a remarkable design/editing/cooking/styling team to turn it into what is her dream cookbook.

family and friends

“All the crockery and cutlery used in the food shots are mine, the photos are family archive pics taken by my mother and the contemporary mood shots were taken by my sister. The end papers are taken from paintings I inherited from my uncle,” she says which explains why this is a book that reads and feels like a family love letter.

From start to finish, Stubbs has not only selected the recipes from her family and friends, but also infused the book with the way she feels about the people around her. It’s memories she shares with the world and something all of us recognise.

The recipes naturally have a South African flavour with milk tart and bobotie and many other familiar local favourites even if not always strictly from here. But as Stubbs desired, she now has all the best recipes gathered and bound in one book.

“I suppose in a way, South African cuisine is fusion cooking at its best,” she explains. “It’s a fusion of ingredients, cooking cultures, proud communities, abundant fresh and seasonal ingredients woven together.”

And the recipes she selected for this book are those she can’t live without when travelling and the recipes which are the most crowd-pleasing.

When paging through, it is a book filled with the warmth and love of family food from stewed fruit (remember those?) to oats and Maltabella, French toast (each family has its own version), kedgeree and sweetcorn fritters, and … wait for it: macaroni cheese.

All of these would have been part of a white South African family table of a certain time.

It’s fun to check them out, see these particular versions and explore the unfamiliar or twists to recipes that are part of most repertoires. From Sunday lunches to heirloom recipes, childhood favourites and old-fashioned classics, it’s all here from the crème brûlée to the irresistible fudge, pears in red wine (which seems to pop out as a classic each alternative decade), profiteroles, meringues, rocky roads, and brownies.

It’s yum!

A rich Heritage uncovered: An Untold Zulu Story by Nomavenda Mathiane


An Untold Zulu Story: Eyes in the Night by Nomavenda Mathiane (Bookstorm)

Eyes in the Night

It’s been fascinating in the world of books, especially of late, to watch people find their voices to tell their stories. It’s about taking ownership of something that has always been their own but for some reason, was told by others.

That’s why the lead-in title to this particular book, is such a fascinating one: An Untold Zulu Story.

Nomavenda Mathiane is a journalist and that’s probably why her mother gave her daughter, hér mother’s pass book and asked her to reconstruct the photograph because it was the only picture she had.

Being a journalist, Mathiane did much more than that. At her mother’s funeral, she asked the firstborn in the family, Sis Ahh (short for Albertinah) why her mother had never talked about their grandmother, her mother? “It’s because her mother’s story was filled with too much drama, regret, guilt and finally, triumph. That’s why she didn’t speak about her mom,” said her sibling who, because of circumstances, had been raised by her grandmother.

Naturally that piqued the journalist’s news sense and her book was launched. But that makes it sound simple.

Making her task even more difficult, she expected her elderly sister to remember their Gogo’s exact words – no mean feat. “So I wrote as best I could, sticking to Gogo’s voice as told by my sister,” she explains the process.

It’s a remarkable story. It is the year 1879, when her gogo was forced to grow up faster “than she could shout her name. That year was the one in which we experienced events and encounters that no one, particularly a child, should ever witness. It was also the year my people lost everything – their land and their fields – and were reduced to being vagrants   and beggars in the land of their birth.”

And with this her grandmother’s story begins: “I am the daughter of Mqokotshwa Makhoba, one of King Cetshwayo’s generals.”

It captures a time and a place where most (if not all) of the stories are told from the men’s (those fighting) point of view. So we will know the names of the Zulu kings and the British generals but not that of the women and children who simply slipped through the cracks – with their stories untold.

And talking of the battles, her gogo wasn’t exactly there, so these were muddled says the journalist. “I would have to refer to historical books to see which battle could have been fought in mid-winter for example,” she explains. “So oral history has its challenges.”

Nomavenda Mathiane
Journalist/author Nomavenda Mathiane

But that is also why this story is so important. It gives Mathiane and thus her readers an opportunity to learn about Zulu history as told by the ordinary people she and her sister met as they tried to piece together the information. They also learnt about the grand life Zulu people lived in those days. “Can you imagine an ordinary person owning 60 cattle and 100 goats. Someone described one of King Cetshwayo’s generals, Sihayo, saying his homestead sprawled as far as the eyes could see.”

She learnt more about the trials and tribulations of kings such as Cetshwayo, Mpande and Dinuzulu. “So much is written about King Shaka and very little about the other kings. It makes my blood boil. But then, come to think of it, how much do we know about King Sekhukhuni who was a powerful king of the BaPedi people who lived around the same time as King Cetshwayo? Black writers have a job ahead of them of writing about our past,” she admonishes.

She’s right. The way she tackled this particular story gives insight into a woman and a time that is invaluable and probably impossible to find any other way. Her grandmother was an ordinary woman, a child, when the war began. She and her family lost everything  and she eventually had to make her own way and a new life in an extremely hostile world. Few of us would have survived, but she did and lived to tell the tale – gloriously.

Without this being a book about land issues, it is underlying throughout and for those who have never had to deal in this kind of loss, it is a very personal account of how it affects people, their lives, past, present and future. In today’s world, this is invaluable information, we all need to embrace.

When Mathiane sent her story to publishers, they initially said the writer’s voice was missing, and while she at first resisted, it meant that to rectify this, she introduced chapters of how the story was in fact recounted and written, how she quizzed and teased the information out of her sister, and why she says oral histories are problematic.

That they might be, but in this instance, it worked miraculously. Her mother obviously knew what she was doing when she sowed that little seed because as a journalist, Mathiane didn’t only know how to write the story but also knew how to get to it.

That’s the glory of this amazing tale of a young child ripped from her home and later her family and what it took for her to survive. And then, have a granddaughter who shares her story with the world.

What a rich heritage she has uncovered.

Teju Cole, an Embracing Writer

Known things bk

Diane de Beer


Teju Cole: Known and Strange Things – Essays (Faber and Faber):

I was smiling from start to finish.

Not because it is all that funny, it seldom is. It’s the way the writer writes with such authority of both subject and language, his frame of reference that stretches wide, offering both the familiar and something else to take a closer look at, and the way he views life through the prism of art whether poetry, photography, film, books and more.

But then he also tackles a wide variety of subjects in a way that’s novel (on paper), brings a point of view that’s confidently his from a lived experience and explains a way of  being experienced by others and thus experiencing the world differently, simply because of a colour of a skin. Many of us yet have to face that dilemma. The world always comes from a particular point of view – or so it seems – ours.

Teju Cole was born in the US in 1975 to Nigerian parents, and raised in Nigeria. He currently lives in Brooklyn and is the author of four books. His bio describes him as a writer, art historian, and photographer, a Distinguished Writer in Residence at Bard College and photography critic of the New York Times Magazine. He brings all of that to bear in this brilliant book.

Explaining in the epilogue, this collection of enlightening and enlightened essays, he notes that in the 8 year period these essays were written, he thought a great deal about poetry, music, and painting, traveled to dozens of countries  and engaged with many interesting artists whom he didn’t write about.

“This book contains what I have loved and witnessed, what has seemed right and what has brought joy, what I have been troubled and encouraged by, and what has fostered my sense of possibility and made me feel, as Seamus Heaney wrote, like ‘a hurry through which known and strange things pass’.”

It is all of this that engages, brings both joy, sadness and understanding of something you didn’t know. That’s not what he is trying to do though, it’s simply a reading of the world which comes from a different life than yours.

He, for example, follows James Baldwin to Leukerbad and notes that it gave Baldwin the way to think of white supremacy from its first principles. It was, writes Cole, as if he found it in its simplest form here. “The men who suggested that he learn to ski, so that they might mock him, the villagers who accused him behind his back of being a firewood thief, the ones who wished to touch his hair and suggested he grow it out and make himself a winter coat…”

Cole’s visit to this same Swiss village is decades later and his experiences come from a different time but the way he chooses to look at particular dilemmas is far reaching and takes you into many different places.

That’s the magician in this creative man. It’s not only what he writes about, it’s how he approaches everything, the way he looks at it,  how art dances constantly through his being – simply who he is and how he puts that across.

In a chapter about the poet Tomas Tranströmer he writes about his compulsion: “The new century has been full of dark years, and I have returned again and again to poets. They kept watch over me and to adopt a phrase of Tranströmer’s, I survived on milk stolen from their cosmos”.

Writing about theatre and what it can do for you, he quotes Annie Carson who explained in the introduction to Grief Lessons, her translation of four Euripides plays: “Grief and rage – you need to contain that, to put a frame around it… Do you want to go down to the pits yourself all alone? Not much. What if an actor could do it for you? Isn’t that why they are called actors? They act for you.”

It’s the way he encapsulates exactly what you have wanted to say for so long. And then he uses language that’s arresting. It’s not unfamiliar but it is the choice of particular words, or swinging a familiar phrase around, that makes you see something so differently or simply see it.

The one thing that he does is to make any writing you might attempt feel completely inferior and writing about him, madness. But I have to share the obsession that has gripped my world for the past few days.

It’s too rare a pleasure not to.


A few book options, old and new:




Petina Gappah: Rotten Row (Faber & Faber):

rotten rowThis is her Petina Gappah’s third book. The other two titled An Elegy for Easterly, her debut and also short stories like this latest one, followed by The Book of Memory, her first novel which tells the story of a woman incarcerated in a very harsh (are there any that aren’t?) prison in Zimbabwe.

The titles alone would have turned my head, but with this author, it is where she comes from and her writing that grabs you. Why would we not want to read about a neighboring country from someone who has found a unique way of telling her stories and speaking her mind.

Just some bio: She is a Zimbabwean who works as an international lawyer in Geneva and while she doesn’t want to be defined as a specific writer for anyone, she is telling stories about her people and her land. She doesn’t live there full time anymore, but she returns to write and it is obvious in her writing where her heart lies.

It is her extraordinary insight, her obvious fascination with human beings and what they do, her protective nature of her country and its people and the way she shows us their lives that is so appealing. With so many people from across our border working in our country, one has to wonder about their lives back home, how it feels to have to leave your homeland for different reasons but with the same outcomes, and what hope exists to one day return to a country that is home?

She gives us an inkling of that; The life in the ordinary lives of people trying to function in an abnormal situation. Sound familiar?

She introduces the title of this latest book thus: “It is a street redolent with remembrance.” It represents the start of colonialism in that country, but also houses the headquarters of ZANU PF yet the place that most people think of when they hear the name Rotten Row , is the criminal courts. It is all these elements that permeate her stories that are linked by a certain humanity that is a part and party to every life she tells of.

Gappah allows her writing and her stories to show what she doesn’t necessarily want to scream about. In that way, the impact on everyday lives, how people survive, what they have to do to simply get the ordinary done, also shapes her world and the one she wants us to understand.

It’s not about hardship, it’s about life and from Gappah’s point of view, it is always filled with laughter. She knows that this will keep us moving on as we start understanding each other, see one another and view people in a very different light – without judgement.

She is so obviously from this continent, and there’s a writing that bristles with her own sense of place and who she is. And probably because she has distance, it is the sharpness of her gaze that catches the reader unawares.



The following three books all deal with race but with such an individual perspective, it’s compulsive reading. It’s as if individuals have suddenly found a voice and a way of telling their own stories. Perhaps this is a time when it is simply too painful not to speak:

Paul Beatty: The Sellout (One World):

selloutNot knowing much about this book but that it is listed as the Man Booker Prize winner of 2016, I wasn’t too keen to read a novel about modern day slavery, not reports as we see on the news daily, but fiction.

It was only when starting to read and encountering Beatty’s evil sense of humour and the approach he has taken to telling a very specific race story, that my hesitation turned into delight.

I’m not the laugh out loud kind of person even when I think something is funny, but with this one I couldn’t contain the laughter.

Writing about a slave called Hominy, his master tells of the slave’s movie bio: “…from the ages of  eight to eighty, including most notably Black Beauty – Stable Boy (uncredited), War of the Worlds – Paper Boy (uncredited), Captain Blood – Cabin Boy (uncredited), Charlie Chan Joins the Klan – Bus Boy (uncredited). Every film shot in Los Angeles between 1937 and 1964 – Shoeshine Boy (uncredited) Other credits include various roles as Messenger Boy,  Bell Boy, Buss Boy, Pin Boy, Pool Boy, House Boy Box Boy, Copy Boy, Delivery Boy, Boy Toy (stag film). Errand Boy and token  Aerospace Engineer Boy in the Academy Award-winning film Apollo 123.

It’s this kind of writing, showing how it is done, bringing in real names and real incidents that keeps you racing through this one with enthusiasm. We live in such different worlds, where we are born, what colour or race we are, our class designation, that often, we are impervious to the needs or wants of others.  Entitlement encourages many to misunderstand the lives of others. How can you know if you’ve never been in that place, never been aware that it even exists. With our past, we know that when the other is hidden, it is easiest to ignore.

That is what Beatty has done so successfully but with such flair. He is determined to put it all out there but in such a way that while it hits you over the head, it is so cleverly done you are sucked in.

Very few reviews don’t use the word brutal, and that’s true. But then that’s the subject he is dealing with. It’s the year 2017 and we’re still talking about the basics of race here. It is about time that human beings start telling their own stories and tell it the way they want to get it out there.

Paul Beatty has decided to do it with hysterical laughter and he does it magnificently. In the end, when all the noise is silenced, it is excruciatingly entertaining and painfully funny.

How can it not be? And how can anyone resist?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: The Sympathizer (Grove Press):

sympathizerThink about the Vietnam War and the stories that have emerged following the American participation and their final withdrawal.

It’s exactly those stories, told from the vanquished’s point of view while shaping the narrative that compelled this Vietnamese-American writer to come from the victor’s vantage, a story he believed had never been told, not from this particular point.

The narrator is a communist double agent which in the Vietnam scenario already plays all the odds. He is a man “of two minds” says the blurb, “a half-French, half-Vietnamese army captain who arranges to come to America after the fall of Saigon and while building a new life with other Vietnamese refugees in Los Angeles is secretly reporting back to his communist superiors in Vietnam”.

Well that’s the gist of it but of course, there’s much more to this particular story which romps through the American post-war landscape from a chillingly cynical point of view – but one that knows from experience.

One of the devices he uses to expose the way refugees, their lives and their countries are dealt with is to have the narrator act as an adviser on an American film on the Vietnam War. Without naming the film, he picks the one that’s most memorable if you think back to your own experience of the big movie experience of that particular war.

It’s the way he tells the story, the way there are many different hooks that hitch a ride in the contemporary world. Think refugees for example. Nothing has changed from the days that the Japanese were interned during WW2 – and before of course.

Why would the (western) world suddenly react differently. In their world nothing has changed except this horror of people whose lives are being threatened trying to find safe havens. We’ve been there before many times.

It’s as if suddenly people have found a voice, a way of speaking about prejudice and the way they and their people have been trteated without shame for ever.

But the real key to these voices is the way the stories are told. It’s not a guilt trip per se. It’s telling a story with such hilarious fanfare that one cannot resist the ride. The writing is superb, the story opens new windows, has you thinking and understanding in a different way or simply reminds one that everyone is not treated the same in this world not even or especially not in the US of A.

It is a story that needed to be told and one you want to read especially in this world today where we need to turn towards rather than away from one another.

It might not sound that way,  but it’s a fun read – and then it flips your world.


Colson Whitehead: The Underground Railroad (Fleet):

railroadIt’s the kind of book that has similar impact to Tarantino’s Django, he could get away with what he was doing because of who he was, what he had done before and because it was a movie.

It feels as if this novel has also found a new voice, a way of telling the slavery story which is familiar but would make people stop and listen to this particular tale. It might feel like it’s not real, what with an underground railroad (almost Harry Potter-style) that mysteriously disappears and has guards watching out for it and allowing slaves to vanish into a world where they couldn’t be found.

But that’s what it took. How could you get away in a world that belongs to those who are keeping you in chains, where their punishment is the only way that wrongdoing is treated and where their laws are applied in the way that suits them.

Think about living on the other side of that protected curtain or perhaps you do. It is the thought of losing that protection that so many strange things like Brexit and Trump are happening , but that’s a different story.

The way we look at the past is what fashions our future yetmany haven’t been given that right, and it has resulted in enslavement for future generations as well. It is those who have been victimised who have to keep telling their stories the way they want to.

And this is exactly what Whitehead has done here. He has imagined a story that allows him to capture all the horror of his people in the past, and he has in this way inhabited his history in way that unfolds a unique perspective on the past.

As Cora, a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia dreams of escape as her mother has done before her, she also battles with the way she was discarded by the one who should have protected her. But then she hears about the Underground Railroad, and she knows it is her time to run.

It is a thriller in the real sense of the word, but one is constantly reminded and Whitehead never lets his reader off the hook, that we are dealing in reality here and one that has reverberating repercussions in the contemporary world which is there daily for us all to witness.

It’s brilliantly written, draws you completely into the story but also reminds us like a drumbeat that all things aren’t equal – not in this world – never.


Tim Winton: The Turning (Picador):

turningA few years back, I placed a few Tim Winton books on my bookshelves because I could only manage urgent reading of books that had to be reviewed and could not find the time for these particular books in-between. I knew I wanted to read them but they would have to wait.

What was more dire at the particular time probably local books (from here and the continent) which I’m always partial to and often needs being talked about more than their international counterparts.

With the Hay Book Festival featured on DStv’s BBC World recently, Winton popped up as one of the featured authors and my interest was tweaked – also reminding me of the three Winton  titles on my shelf. Described as a literary Aussie writer, his story was intriguing. The son of  a copper, in fact a traffic cop who dealt mainly in accidents, Winton describes his childhood home as happy and warm but with a strong dose of trauma. This has obviously influenced his work.

I selected The Turning as my first dip into this writer’s storytelling, a collection of short stories yet strongly bound together by particular milieu, characters popping up in more than one tale and a strong sense of place.

This is a mainly white, working class, mostly small town world with the sea as a strong backdrop. There’s a feeling of characters trying to find their place in the world, sometimes turning their back but as often, turning their lives into something quite unexpected.

Almost more than the storytelling itself, it is the way Winton writes that makes you both wince at and wallow in the lives of others. It is recognisable but more importantly, there’s something addictive, almost mesmerising, about someone painting people and their place, both physically and emotionally, in such a discerning and detailed fashion.

The language is seamless yet completely from a novel place as Winton uses everything around him to sketch his characters in full colour. None of the subject matter appealed to me in particular and the book is probably more masculine than feminine or even neutral in nature. Yet, I couldn’t stop reading and it was the kind of book I wanted to pass on to everyone simply because it was such an entrancing read.

Bring on more Winton, both those on my shelf and more. And at the Hay Festival he was talking about his latest book, a kind of memoir (The Boy Behind The Curtain), which is a no brainer.

You like the writing, why would you not get to know the man?