MAGICIAN MARTHINUS BASSON PASSES ON HIS DIRECTING SKILLS TO FUTURE STORYTELLERS

When I first read the press release on the Klein Karoo National Arts Festival’s (KKNK) plans to present a theatre director’s course digitally with the support of the National Afrikaans Theatre Initiative (NATi) with acclaimed director/mentor/lecturer/designer Marthinus Basson presenting, I knew this was one where I wanted to be a fly on the wall. And this is how it played out …

DIANE DE BEER

With no aspirations as a director, I was keen to witness and write about this unique, almost year-long process which aimed to challenge and stretch theatre makers, those already in the profession and those who wish to learn. It was all about offering opportunities in the theatre world so hard hit by the pandemic yet looking at a future with hope and expectation as well as huge encouragement.

There was no doubt that for anyone attending, this was the chance of a lifetime. Just the reach of this director, one of the best in the business, and to add to his many directing accolades, a true love of teaching, which isn’t always a given. He has knowledge in abundance and a generous desire to pass it on.

Genius director and mentor, Marthinus Basson

And as I expected, that was exactly what I experienced class after class. As a theatre writer and someone who has spent many years watching theatre productions, this was a chance to dig deep and experience the process from start to finish. I was also  keen to see how this would work digitally, as Basson was very clear from the start that all this was new to him as well. He wasn’t sure whether the participants could benefit without working on stage (or in a room) – where he still hopes to fit in some real time with these students, when the future allows.

But even Basson has conceded that in many instances everyone gained in this novel process and there are certain instances that surprised everyone. Because live theatre wasn’t an option, once a few texts had been read and discussed by the group under the guidance of the mentor, the participants were given the task to take small sections from different plays, which they then had to stage – digitally.

This is where the fun and the creativity began. Not only were they now expected to use their directing instincts, but they also had to apply it in a way that was a learning curve for everyone. A few with film experience in the group had prior knowledge to help them navigate, but in most instances their imagination was expected to kick in.

I was reminded of a theatre practitioner who had experience of working here and internationally, who noted that because we have never had money for the arts, imagination plays a much bigger role – and often to the advantage of the production. It’s also not as if these artists were suddenly in a position of not having money to work with.

That has always been the case. In this instance, Covid was just another stumbling block. Watching them apply their instincts to tell stories digitally was quite something. From the start they used every trick in the book, some more successfully than others, but failure wasn’t an option. There’s also the credo in theatre that if you don’t fail sometimes, you’re not pushing the boundaries.

A selection of the most recent Basson productions

Following the screening of each session, everyone was given a chance to comment with Basson having the last word. His educational spirit is something to witness. He’s easy with both good and bad because either way, the participant can learn and grow and that’s the point of the exercise. This was a safe space to take chances and to discover what works, how to change things and how to work with space, players and words.

Listening to Basson speak about the way he approaches any new play was insightful. He advised the burgeoning directors to read the play as if they were performers. “How do I understand the text?” That was the first question. And then he gave guidelines and pointers to explain how they should break it down and start making notes for the planned production. You have to map the process from beginning to end which, as the conductor, helps you to know exactly what is going to happen every step of  the way.

He would make statements like: “The accent isn’t important, the meaning is what counts.” Always the text, always the story, and for those of us watching, if the director cannot get you engaged with the story, there’s no point at all. Once you have unlocked the text for the audience, they will be on board. It’s the big question about communicating to your audience, that’s why the text is what leads all the time.

“Never under-estimate your audience. But don’t confuse them, stimulate them.” That’s why they’re there – to experience, not to struggle.

And with every point he makes,  he also expands the mind as he skips off into a story about a memorable book, film, opera, theatre production, to illustrate a point. Knowledge is what informs everything he does.

If these fledgling students got only the grasp of this great man’s mind and how he never stops learning and searching for new productions that inspire – even starting with a couture clothes line for dolls to teach himself some rudimentary sewing techniques which could be applied to costumes in the future.

That’s what you do when money is an issue. You add as many skill sets as possible and you do this whenever you find the time. Artists will know, that theirs is a calling, not a career. If passion isn’t involved, chances are you won’t stay the course.

Something that has always impressed me about Basson’s productions is the casting. And he explains: “I want people who will feed one another. Casting can make or break a production. Clever direction helps the audience,” he explains. And that includes casting.

He points out that directors have a toy box in their hands to play with and how they apply that is where the work starts. Every decision has to make sense, be logical.

And even in these times with money even more absent than usual, keep dreaming. Never stop. The fact that you can’t get there does not mean that you have to stop trying. If you think of some of the productions you have seen at festivals and with how little they have achieved so much, that alone should inspire.

In another insight, he underlines that if you don’t put in the work, you won’t get the results. If aspiring directors only hold on to that, they have already grasped the essence of the things that matter in life.

I could go on and on … and the fortunate and willing participants who were present all the time would have mined this opportunity for all its worth. They will also have the future support of this genius director, who will never give up on artists who need his help.

This was such a clever concept and will reap benefits. Here’s hoping that it can have a future in some kind of form … thanks to KKNK and NATi.

SASOL NEW SIGNATURES 2021 CELEBRATES ARTISTS WHO STAND UP FOR WHAT THEY BELIEVE

Only after I engaged with the winner and runner-up statements following the award ceremony of the Sasol New Signatures 2021, did I realise what stood out most in this second pandemic year was that many of the winning works – especially these two winning pieces – were equally issue-driven and creatively excellent.

What seemed to inspire many of the artists was their engagement with particular issues and ideas that are important to them. 

DIANE DE BEER

New Signatures winner Andrea du Plessis with her winning work Paloceae Lupantozoa

For example, the winner, Andrea du Plessis, is especially inspired by the natural world at a time when heated discussions about climate change are dominating universally. It’s as if someone has flicked the switch and the world’s leaders are taking it seriously for the first time.

And part of this awareness is the result of not only the young but also the artists around the world who are using their creative voices to focus on this particular narrative. As the winner, Du Plessis walks away with a cash prize of R100 000 and the opportunity to have a solo exhibition at the Pretoria Art Museum in 2022. 

The runner-up, Dalli Weyers, describes himself as an artist/activist and his manifesto has been activated to draw attention to the gross inequality (and everything which follows that) in the world today. He won R25 000.

No one can be happy with the absence of humanity seen everywhere we turn. Often those in power are all about greed while ignoring the people they were elected to serve. It’s as if there is a lack of understanding of why they were given the power. But more and more people are standing up for what they believe is right – and at the forefront are the artists.

For this year’s winner, it was her fourth attempt at entering the prestigious competition and, with her work being selected for the first time, she grabbed a win.

But then, Du Plessis’s narrative about her life and her art points to determination and drive. Not only could she not finish her fine arts course at the University of Pretoria because of financial problems but she also suffered from clinical depression.

Andrea du Plessis’s winning work Paloceae Lupantozoa

For seven years after dropping out, she had very little interest in making art. Yet during this time she decided to travel to the UK where she worked for four years and also enrolled for a course in art therapy which slowly pulled her back into making art.

She returned to South Africa in 2010 (to Pretoria, where she was born and spent most of her formative years) and later enrolled for a degree in Multimedia Digital Visual Art at Unisa.

In 2015, she moved to Cape Town where she works from her studio as a freelance designer, illustrator and multimedia artist.

Describing her winning work, she says Paloceae Lupantozoa is part of a body of work called Supernature. “It was created in 2020 as part of my final year work for Unisa. It is a personal response to being in lockdown, which triggered a deep questioning and exploration of our complex relationship with nature in an augmented age, and how our access to the natural world has changed over the centuries.

“The work aims to create a link between art historical representations of nature (18th century, Romantic landscape painting) and contemporary representations of nature (new media such as augmented reality and artificial intelligence).The work is multi-faceted but, in short, I wanted to work with the notion of the sublime (experienced through nature and technology) and interconnectedness (in both the natural world and digital media).”

It’s a complex work that has to be experienced in real life to fully understand what she’s playing with. It’s also a response to the pandemic and lockdown, which had a huge impact on her and her work. “I’m privileged to have had a little garden to hang out in during lockdown and this really became a sanctuary as I began noticing all the insects and birds going about their day.”

While she was uncomfortable because of the isolation of lockdown, she also views the time as a “necessary metamorphosis” for which she is now grateful. “My research also involved biomimicry and I was reminded of the fact that nature is the ultimate engineer. As a ‘superior species’ we have so much more to learn and discover. We don’t exist on this planet in isolation. Everything is interconnected. That is the message I want to bring through my work.”


She describes herself as a multidisciplinary artist because she enjoys working with a very wide range of traditional (painting, sculpture, drawing) and new media (videoart, augmented reality and AI-generated art).

“I find it difficult to choose and specialise in only one medium. I need variety, and each medium carries its own meaning conceptually. My process is usually very layered and I like to combine several types of media into something new.” 

Thinking ahead with her eye on next year’s solo exhibition as part of her prize, she is researching flower anatomy, metaphysics and virtual reality. “Hopefully 2022 will offer new possibilities to produce and exhibit my work,” she said before knowing she was the winner.

Well, it certainly will, and for her solo exhibition she envisions something immersive, meditative and surreal. In the world she creates with her art, that certainly predicts something extraordinary and exciting!

For the runner-up, Dalli Weyers, it was also a long and winding road – this was his third attempt. 

And viewing the work, his voice was the one I was intrigued to explore. He explains best: “To date, my professional career can be characterised by a tension between my creative impulses and my commitment to social justice and progressive activism. I’ve consistently looked to find ways in which to bring these seemingly disparate elements together and to further my appreciation of, and to make concrete, the role and contributions creative voices and my own creativity can make to society.

“In the words of James Baldwin, I am at this point in my artistic journey because I believe ‘… the role of the artist (activist) is exactly the same as the role of the lover. If I love you I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see’.”

Influenced, encouraged and supported by friends, this activist/artist “rails against the crass individualism that has come to define so much of our politics over the last few decades and the concomitant loss of community of intent, purpose and inclusion. 

“My politics appreciates the need for commonality to be found and fostered in order to rally progressive causes. The piece I created serves to start a dialogue around a clear set of principles that a community of creative voices needs to articulate in order to chart a course to a more just and equal society.”

Working during the pandemic by using unconventional materials readily available at home, his art practice under lockdown resembled a cottage industry. His intent was also to attempt to avoid an idealised, romanticised picture of scarcity and of individual, privileged domestic idyll. 

“My anxieties often manifest in visions of apocalyptic doom. This work is in response to a world that was already on fire prior to the pandemic and to which the pandemic has simply been fuel to fire.”

The use of plastic bags can be traced back to previous works in ceramics where the relative fragility of ceramics was highlighted through the use of various plastics to bind cracked and broken ceramic pieces.

 “I’m weary of using mediums in my work that on their own do not convey a sense of the moment we find ourselves in. In my mind, ubiquitous plastic bags stitched together, fragile and in a way impermanent (they disintegrate but do not decompose), are illustrative of the real world and the social conditions we live in that are a product of history and our intent in this moment.”

In these crazy and troubled times, Weyers is determined to make his voice heard. He believes his work has impact because it touches on the notion of the art of innovation both in the cultural sphere and in the broader society. “I believe my use of plastic bags as  the sole medium is innovative and that it is furthered because the plastic is enlisted to embroider.” Again it is a work that has to be seen, and the manifesto read slowly to let the message seep in, and then look at the work and the way it was made.

And for me, that is really what these two winning works capture – innovation in a time of lockdown, which was both challenging and seemingly a great source of inspiration and innovation.

Hot Conversations by Patrick Rulore, 2019’s winner and this forms part of his Stage 4 Moments series.

The Sasol New Signatures Art Competition exhibition, featuring the work of the 2021 winners and finalists is currently underway at the Pretoria Art Museum until 9 January 2022.  A total of 123 works in a multitude of mediums can be viewed – from traditional painting and drawing to mixed media works, sculpture, installation pieces and video.

The 5 Merit winners were:

Nico Athene (Cape Town)

Cultivating our Unbecoming:  with Gabrielle Youngleson and Johno Mellish (2021)

Diasec

Michèle Deeks (Pretoria)

Pandemic

Mixed media

Sibaninzi Dlatu (Umtata)

A story of resiliency

Fired clay (bisque)

Eugene Mthobisi Hlophe (Durban)

The new crazy normal

Photography

Monica Klopper (Pretoria)

Choice

Shed snake skin and epoxy

Each Merit Award winner received a R10 000 cash prize.

Alongside the exhibition, the 2019 winner, Patrick Rulore’s solo exhibition, Stage 4 moments is also on show. His exhibition captures typical moments in many South African households during load shedding. The series explores human connections against the backdrop of an ephemeral world of light and shadow.

Pretoria Art Museum
Corner Francis Baard and Wessels Street
Arcadia Park
Arcadia


Tel:  012 358 6750
Email:  artmuseum@tshwane.gov.za

Museum Hours
Tuesday to Sundays:  10am to 5pm.
Closed on Mondays and public holidays

Both exhibitions can also be viewed virtually on the Sasol New Signatures website.  This virtual 3D platform gives you high definition 360 degrees access to all the artworks from wherever you are.

DIRECTOR MARTHINUS BASSON PULLS TOGETHER TWO MAJESTIC PRODUCTIONS FOR THE KKNK FOR LOCAL TELEVISION THIS FESTIVE SEASON

2021 has been a good year for director/mentor Marthinus Basson. He has been involved in mentoring many theatre productions, presented a 9-month long digital directing course and was also responsible for the filming of two of his theatre productions, Koningin Lear by Tom Lanoye (translated by Antjie Krog) and Reza de Wet’s Asem (Breathing In, translated into Afrikaans by Basson). DIANE DE BEER reviews:

Heightening the stakes for both productions  ̶   as well as the audience  ̶  is the fact that the two plays are so different. And yet, in both instances, the lead is played by the towering Antoinette Kellermann, showing her staggering stage craft magnificently with the extraordinary Edwin van der Walt also present in both, with equal aplomb.

Koningin Lear, first staged in 2019 at the KKNK’s 25th anniversary, is a re-imagining of Shakespeare’s King Lear with Krog’s translation localising the text to establish the power hungry family led by the mother (Kellerman) as the head of the family empire with her three sons (Wilhelm van der Walt, Neels van Jaarsveld and Edwin van der Walt) and their spouses (Rolanda Marais and Anna-Mart van der Merwe) as well as a family advisor (André Roothman) and a care-giver (Matthew Stuurman).

It’s a majestic work with Basson envisioning a contemporary landscape with a boardroom almost in the sky, out of the reach of ordinary people with a dynastic-driven family at loggerheads from the word go. There’s enough that’s familiar from the King Lear story to pull you into the text  and then all the most pressing issues of the 21st century coming into play – greed and grandiosity leading the pack.

With the genders turned upside down from the original, three sons are asked by their ageing mother to declare their love so that she can allocate their positions in the hierarchy of the company as she steps down.

Alma (Rolanda Marais) and Henry (Wilhelm van der Walt) as the power couple.

When her youngest and his mother’s dearest disgusted by his two older siblings’ fawning and feigning, declares the fullness of his love by walking away, excess becomes the motivating factor for everyone left behind. With the two hustling wives the power behind their husbands’ self-grabbed thrones, the eldest, an ill-fitting Greg (Van Jaarsveld) with his brassy Connie (Van der Merwe), an OTT shopaholic and the younger but smarter Henry (Wilhelm van der Walt) and his wimpering and damaged Alma (Marais) from the wrong side of the track go into full attack to embellish their empire while everything that is or comes into their orbit is destroyed and ruined.

There’s no insight and the desire for dynasty drives and determines their dastardly and often dumb decisions.

This is one of those plays where everything comes together – the words, the translation, the cast, the direction, and most of all, the vision.

Krog, who has already received all the accolades with her translation of Lanoye’s Mama Medea, is masterful as she captures the time, the place and the way language can be used to capture character as well as period and place. With Lanoye’s original and Krog’s translation of text and texture, it’s worth cherishing every nuanced word.

And then the casting. With Kellermann in command, the tone is set as she delivers in stature as the powerful matriarch who, while handing over her wealth and with that her power, is also battling dementia. Her fickle family turns on her in their rush to the top and, in the event, toppling everything they have been handed on a platter.

Family portrait: From left: Matthew Stuurman, Wilhelm van der Walt, Andre Roothman, Edwin van der Walt, Neels van Jaarsveld Front: Rolanda Marais, Antoinette Kellermann, Anna-Mart van der Merwe

This is a family concern, which means it isn’t necessarily the best who step into the leadership position, especially when bravado rather than brains comes into play.

Marthinus Basson in rehearsal during the earlier Koningin Lear.

With Basson the conducter, it’s a play that sings from start to finish and in this transposition from stage to screen, it is the close-ups, some sleight-of-hand tricks and the collective talent that truly shine.

It’s a rare gift that this extraordinary work has been given new life – and I’m hoping a much wider platform.

Thenb prepare yourself for Reza de Wet’s Asem, a play Basson translated and staged to honour his late friend.

As someone who is intimately connected with this insightful playwright’s work, his is usually the definitive production with Kellerman again stepping in as a mother – but this time she couldn’t be further removed from the powerhouse business virago of Koningin Lear.

Tinarie van Wyk Loots, Edwin van der Walt and Antoinette Kellermann in the background.

What they do have in common is their strength and here it is the manipulative monster that comes into play as she spins a trap for any man who might find himself in the presence of this formidable yet deceptive mother-and-daughter (Tinarie Van Wyk Loots).

While Koningin Lear was shot on stage, this production was transferred to a farm stable at the Worcester Museum. And yet, reflecting on the stage production, Basson clevery created a most realistic stable on stage as well.

The cast also includes Stian Bam (right) as the badly wounded general while the young Edwin van der Walt (left) has come to check on the wounded warrior left in the care of these seemingly caring women.

But there’s a frisson of an almost haunting mystery in the air. Everything isn’t as it seems and, as always with De Wet, she plays with her female and male characters in way that constantly shifts the power structures.

You might think you know who is leading the charge, but don’t underestimate a woman (and her groomed accomplice) who has been cornered in an inhospitable world where their presence is hardly tolerated.

Edwin van der Walt and Antoinette Kellerman, both who appear in both plays.

Both these plays are challenging, insightful and staged brilliantly with casts that mesmerise. Even with dangerously little time in hand, Basson has managed to transpose these plays from stage to film, giving those of us who feel deprived because of the absence of theatre a chance to see the best.

They might not be easy to watch and demand that you have your wits about you to follow the story or just appreciate the juxtaposition of the words, but Via should be celebrated and congratulated for taking the chance.

Don’t let them regret it. This is something we should cherish and hope becomes part of our viewing schedule on a more regular basis.

Congratulations to the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees (KKNK) and VIA on DStv for broadcasting these memorable productions during the festive season. It holds great promise for the future of theatre and how hybrid productions can reach much wider audiences – and in that way, save the day

  • Asem: 26 December at 9pm with re-broadcasts on 3 January (9pm) and 6 January (9pm).
  • Koningin Lear: 1 January at 9pm, with re-broadcasts  on 5 January (9pm) and 8 January (9pm).

WRITING THAT HAS YOUR HEART BEATING IN YOUR THROAT

When two books by young black authors were sent to me by two different publishers, I felt there was a reason and got up close and personal with two stories that are both unexpected and enlightening.

DIANE DE BEER reviews:

Nine Hours by Lukhanyo Sikwebu (Kwela):

The author notes in the book and a quick google search alerted me that this was no ordinary first-time writer. He is a film director, photographer, screenwriter and novelist. But that only captures half of it – google and you will see. That’s why he pulled off the action thriller Nine Hours with such aplomb.

Described as a Naomi Mandisa Nel story, this particular heroine leads a secret life as a vigilante assassin, making sure justice is served where the system has failed to make the criminals pay for their horrific deeds.

Not even her policeman fiancé knows about this side of his woman. He is suspicious, though, but he thinks she has other lovers  ̶  not another life. But what most intrigued me about this book was the story it captured and the way it was told.

Firstly, while men play their part, a woman is the one that drives the story and takes you along on the adventure. And we are right in the middle of what is happening on the continent, with a group of young girls abducted by a rebel/terrorist group and their nightmare camp is set on the northern border of Mozambique.

Both of these are real issues, even if the situation has been pulled together to create some semblance of truth without dealing in facts.

Possibly, if you gave my credentials to the author, he would not think of me as his kind of reader  ̶  old and white  ̶  and yet, I was drawn in right from the start. I can just imagine, when too few of these type of novels dealing in adventure and set on the African continent with a mostly black ensemble of players are available, that if I were really in the target group it would have been a great discovery.

We need to see ourselves, at least some of the time, in the novels we read. Only then can we easily move on to more foreign terrain.

What makes this one a winner is that the story is well told. It’s filmic, there’s enough that’s familiar to make it believable and it’s a joyous if emotional ride. This isn’t all fun and games, but Sikwebu has a good balance of good and bad, hectic and wholesome, fast and furious yet with a strong message throughout, to make it work.

He has obviously found a genre that, for the time being, works for him and there are not many around with whom to compete. But it is going to be fun to see how he develops and where he goes in this latest endeavour. Now it’s time to go and see how he fares with his movies. Many would be thrilled with one of his accomplishments, but fortunately, his gig is to move in between all the many artistic endeavours available.

JUNX by Tshidiso Moletsane (Umuzi):

This one is a much tougher ride but equally worth reading, because of the story and the way it is told. I have always thought that theatre was my way into the lives of fellow citizens because of the stories being told.

Similarly with these kinds of books. It is the first in a series created by Umuzi titled Trailblazers and described as short works of high-quality fiction that break new ground in terms of content, style and/or form and written by authors from South Africa, other African countries and the African diaspora. The stories have to spark insight into what it means to live on the continent.

And as Koketso Poho writes in the foreword, “Black life is a juxtaposition. The condition of our lives, our futures and our past are such that we have been struggling to be seen or heard.”

We know that  ̶  certainly in this country  ̶  that remains true. Hopefully with Black Lives Matter things will keep changing and with more of my fellow white citizens becoming aware of the full weight of the artistic talent out there in this country, we will all be enriched by listening and reading one another’s stories.

Junx tells a story without holding back of someone who believes he will be published, yet in the meantime he is chasing whatever is handed to him on the day. Again Poho captures it best: we wake up every day chasing an elusive thing, chasing happiness and laughter that never lasts. We try to numb ourselves  to our realities through hedonism and callousness. But deep down (and that’s the nub) inside we are empty, we are jobless, homeless, debt sits on our necks like the Chicken Licken monkey, and, most importantly we are expressionless, without words or language to even begin thinking about our problems.

Read and learn. Ours is a divided country and because of the past, much of the terror and hunger can be ignored by the rest of us, because apartheid and the way we live have allowed us to turn away. In fact, we have to seriously pay attention if we truly want to embrace this new world.

Because of the unemployment numbers it is becoming difficult to ignore and even the tiny things that don’t bring that much money are worth stealing, so few lives are not affected, but still many of us sit quietly in our historical comfort.

But, says our hero, step into his world for a moment and he will take you there.  He has dreams but because of instincts, he mostly grabs any opportunity coming his way, whether an all-night party or a funny-speaking white dude who hands him the keys to his rented BMW and R1 000 cash to get some weed or anything above or below.

And we’re off for the time of our lives that most of us will only experience when reading this story, while many out there will be trapped in this particular nightmare  ̶  day in and day out.

FOOD IS THE FADDIEST THING AROUND BUT WE CAN FIGHT IT SAYS A WISE TIM SPECTOR IN SPOON-FED

Oscar Wilde

I HATE PEOPLE WHO ARE NOT SERIOUS ABOUT MEALS. IT IS SO SHALLOW OF THEM.

The Importance of Being Earnest.

DIANE DE BEER

Spoon-Fed: Why Almost Everything We’ve been told About Food Is Wrong by Tim Spector (Jonathan Cape)

I’m a huge fan of chef Andrea Burgener and when I read that she recommended this book, I was onto it immediately.

She’s smart about food (and many other things, I suspect) and we need to listen to someone who knows what they’re talking about.

Food is probably one of the faddiest things around. If you’ve lived as long as I have, you would also have gone through periods in time where the goodness of avocado pears and bananas, for example, was completely forbidden. I was so thrilled when sitting in on an interview with Juliet Prowse, who amongst other things, was known for her fantastic figure, and she said that she had an avo a day! Yippee, that was the best thumbs up for me and ever since it has been one of my favourite superfoods!

But it is that dithering about what is good and what isn’t, which seemingly changes with the times, that drives those of us who are keen on good nutrition, dilly. As soon as I am told, have as much coffee as you want, someone else says NO!

So to cipher through the mountains of info and what to believe, I was delighted to find a new voice of reason with all of his facts based on science, something we now know isn’t common sense anymore.

What Tim Spector discovered in researching certain food beliefs is how shockingly little good evidence there is for many of our strongest and most deeply rooted beliefs about food. In the introduction he states that we learn most of our food myths as children.

He explains that he was told certain foods would make him grow more quickly (milk and cereal), make him more brainy (fish), give him acne (chocolate) or give him big muscles (eggs and meat). But he wasn’t told about the benefits of lentils, broccoli or beans, and was told nuts are an unhealthy snack because of the cholesterol.

He was told to eat breakfast religiously, that there was nothing wrong with mouldy food and leaving food on your plate was unacceptable. Sound familiar?

Other unquestioned advice included never swimming within an hour of eating, never eating just before bedtime and the importance of exercise to lose weight. All of these were common “facts” growing up for me too.

But, says Spector, none of these is backed up by science; in fact, many of them are categorically wrong. With all these rules around, we should all be healthy specimens, he believes, and yet since 1980, rates of obesity, food allergies and diabetes in most countries have rocketed, along with unexplained rises in dementia.

His own scientific research has focused increasingly, he writes, on nutrition and food-related questions in recent years. “I have been astonished how much of what we were told about food is misleading, and at worst, downright wrong and dangerous to our health.” And that alone should encourage reading of this wise man’s findings.

He asks insightful questions, like how did we get into this mess where unqualified people dictate the best ways for us to eat? He points the finger at three culprits: bad science, misunderstanding of the results, and the food industry. And I can see all of us nodding our heads…

Reading about his findings, I am reminded of hearing from an ophthalmologist that GPs really know little about eyes, and how a specialist recently pointed out that everyone is specialised in very specific areas. What that means is that those who know how little they know, are reluctant to give advice in areas outside of their expertise.

But if you think about it, that’s not the case with nutrition.  And Spector underlines that the study of food and health nutrition is one of the newest sciences, which appeared in many countries from the 1970s in response to the growth in the processed food industry.

He follows that with a detailed analysis of why we should be suspicious around food-related studies, the cost of comparing one diet with another, for example, and then he says something that we should all pay attention to: the assumption that we are all identical machines who respond to food in the same way, is the most prevalent and dangerous myth about food. It is, he warns, the basis of all diet advice.

We all respond differently to the same food, so the idea that we can all follow the same advice and calorie limits no longer makes sense. And he warns sharply about paying attention to the greatest obstacle when it comes to dangerously inaccurate food information: the food industry.

It’s fascinating stuff and whether you take him at his word, or in this case, scientific research, depends on your interests. I certainly did, because I found his explanations both credible and often just common sense.

Once the introduction is done, he gets into myths under headings like breaking the fast; calorie counting doesn’t add up; the big fat debate; the supplements really don’t work; the bittersweet hidden agenda; not on the label; fast-food phobia; bringing back the bacon; fishy business; veganmania; more than a pinch of salt; coffee can save your life and on and on…

But just to explain some: The subheading in breaking the fast is: Myth: breakfast is the most important meal of the day. While explaining that even when skipping what many would consider a real breakfast, many of us would have a cappuccino with milk and perhaps sugar and this would contain all three macronutrients  ̶  carbs, fats and protein – and will have the same effect on our metabolism as a bigger meal in ‘breaking’ the fast.

He then goes on to explore all the different studies, most of which sadly lack the scientific data to back their claims, and finally reaches the conclusion that it depends on the individual to decide what suits you best – and what would do you and your body the most good.

And just the fact that many of the studies are supported by breakfast food or cereal companies should already have you twitching … and thus he moves on.

I found the book as entertaining as it is informative, and being interested in food from all kinds of vantage points, I discovered enough to tweak my interest and get me thinking.

INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISTS ARE REAL MODERN DAY WARRIORS WHO FIGHT VALIANTLY FOR TRUTH

During the early days of lockdown, I discovered two journalist-written books that I hadn’t read yet even though it is a HUGE interest and the writers, two modern-day icons in the world of investigative journalism, something that ever since the beginning of time, has kept us safe when people are clearly out of control. You might have to scratch around to find them, but if this is a field of interest, it will be worth your while:

DIANE DE BEER

TELL ME NO LIES: INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM AND ITS TRIUMPHS, EDITED BY JOHN PILGER (Jonathan Cape London):

Pilger writes that one of his favourite quotations is by American journalist T. D. Allman: “Genuine objective journalism is journalism that not only gets the facts right, it gets the meaning of events right. It is compelling not only today, but stands the test of time. It is validated not only by ‘reliable sources’, but by the unfolding of history. It is journalism that ten, fifteen, twenty, fifty years after the fact still holds up a true and intelligent mirror to events.”

And having read this book with great glee and horror in equal measure (joy because of the writing and horror because of the unfolding events described, some familiar, others not), it is the absolute truth.

That’s why someone like Trump, for example, can be so endlessly fascinating. It’s not the man himself (thank goodness!), it’s what the intelligent voices have to say about him as a phenomena in this time and place.

Pilger goes on to explain that Allman wrote the piece as a tribute to Wilfred Burchett, whose extraordinary career included what has been described as “the scoop of the century”. He tells us that while hundreds of journalists “embedded” within the Allied  occupation forces in Japan in 1945 were shepherded to the largely theatrical surrender ceremony, Burchett “slipped the leash”, as he put it, and set out on a perilous journey to a place now embedded in human consciousness: Hiroshima.

He was the first western journalist to enter Hiroshima after the atomic bombing, and his front page in the London Daily Express, carried the prophetic headline: “I write this as a warning to the world”.

Burchell was denounced while warning about radiation poisoning, not only by the occupation authorities but also by fellow journalists joining in the orchestrated propaganda and attacks on him.

What Allman and now Pilger point out is that he had exposed the full horror of nuclear warfare; and his facts were validated, as T.D. Allman wrote when Burchett died in 1983, by the “unfolding of history”.

His dispatch is printed on  page 10 of the book and Pilger emphasises that Allman’s tribute can be applied to all those whose work is collected in these pages.

He describes the huge honour of selecting the work to be reprinted, “the opportunity to honour the ‘forgotten’ work of journalists of the calibre of the afore mentioned”. Expanding his thought processes, he explains that the book and the stories it honours are a reminder that “one of the noblest human struggles is against power and its grip on historical memory”.

And all of us, especially in this current climate, can attest to that. Just listen to the leaders speaking about climate change at the most recent Cop26 conference and remember their denial only a few years back. But history fortunately has caught up with them – hopefully before it is too late.

Also think of Zuma and the Guptas who have crippled the country and the way investigative journalists fought the tide to tell their stories and bring their criminality to light.  Think of the brave souls who took the daily  White House beatings and the twitter humiliation from the ultimate bully with a bullhorn stronger than ever before.

With newspapers across the world in serious trouble and fake news difficult to distinguish for some, the impact of the words of these wise warriors has grown and should be nourished and given a protected platform.

“Secretive power loathes journalists who do their job: who push back screens, peer behind facades, lift rocks,” reminds Pilger.

I cannot urge you enough to read this one, be gripped by life happening and learn.

REPORTING: WRITINGS BY THE NEW YORKER, BY DAVID REMNICK (PICADOR):

David Remnick was with the Washington Post from 1982 to 1991 and then moved to The New Yorker where he was a reporter from 1992 and became the editor in 1998.

This book is different from the previous one as it is not dealing necessarily with the abuse of power, but rather with people power and someone who knows how to get under the skin of individuals and write about them in a way that has as much impact as the subjects themselves have had on the world.

Writing about one of his earlier stints as a reporter for the Washington Post in Russia, he tells how he and his wife flew back on the day before they watched “a column of tanks rumbling past our apartment building” on CNN.

The next day he was on a flight back and sheepishly had to hitch a ride to the barricades. He notes sometime later: “Flying away from the scene of a crime is a journalistic felony that can be forgiven with time only if you remind yourself that even the most observant can see only hints of a large event as it is happening.”

Obviously he recovered from there to become and establish his reputation not only as editor but also as someone who writes about others – up close. Or as he says it, attempts to do that.

His subjects are all in the public domain, passing in or out of a crisis or anticipating one on the horison. “Their time was usually limited or grudgingly provided. They had a reputation to protect, public and private agendas to consider, sometimes even a machinery of public relations to keep reporters at bay.”

He concludes in his foreword that the hope is that at some point they will let their guard down and be themselves. Generally they do what they can not to allow that to happen.

He starts with Al Gore, Mrs Graham (the erstwhile proprietor of the Washington Post) and Tony Blair. This is followed by the authors Philip Roth, Don DeLillo, Václav Havel and a series on Solzhenitsyn first in Vermont and then in Moscow. Which then naturally leads into a Russian-dominated series looking at The Last Tsar; The Translation Wars and finally Putin,

A series of outsiders is then tackled with the emphasis on Israel and the PLO, and finally, his sport fetish, boxing.

It is magnificent and anyone who has listened to his  New Yorker podcast will know that he has a way with words, knows how to pick his subject and then hangs out to give his readers an unexpected close-up and personal look.

Both of these books are available on Loot (and probably more outlets if you check) and would make perfect Christmas gifts for the newshounds or anyone who is dialled into the universe so that they can witness the events and people that dramatically changed our lives.

WATERBOY DEALS WITH A MOTHER’S LOSS OF A SON WHO COULDN’T HOLD ON TO A MEANINGFUL LIFE

One reads books for different reasons and mostly these are very personal and deal with taste, where you are at that specific time or how you wish to engage with the world. Glynis Horning’s heart wrenching lament dealing with the suicide of her eldest son is one that caught my attention, because I knew what the quality of the writing would be and while this would not be easy to read, it would contribute to life’s lessons learnt, which makes us grow.  ̶  DIANE DE BEER

Waterboy  ̶   Making sense of my son’s suicide by Glynis Horning (Bookstorm):

Perhaps it doesn’t make sense that I asked to read this book because I don’t have any children of my own.

But I have been a fan of Glynis Horning’s writing for a long time. We were young journalists together, she in Durban and I in Pretoria and I’m not even sure we met. I think so and that that’s where my interest began.

I have always know she is an amazing writer and this is what prompted me to request this book for reviewing. That and possibly also because I have read previous memoirs in honour of lost loved ones that have left their mark. Perhaps the most obvious is Joan Didion’s lament when her husband and daughter died in short succession.

And while Horning’s loss is still recent, the two-year mark looming (which, some note, brings some relief), the rawness of her grief, the way she tries to keep afloat amidst the lives that haven’t stopped, is quite breath-taking.

It felt throughout the read that I was holding my breath for some kind of revelation, some message of redemption for those left behind.

I have always felt that the worst loss must be for parents who lose their children  ̶  even without having my own. It just seems to hold such a darkness that descends on parents and siblings when that happens. And then for it to be suicide just seems so devastating.

That’s why I could understand Horning’s search for some kind of truth with her attempts to hold on to her precious boy. What could she have done? What signs did she miss? Can she bring him back or turn back that clock?

At the time when both my parents were at that stage where I knew we wouldn’t have them for much longer, Rachelle Greeff wrote a play titled Die Naaimasjien. In that she  writes: “Die dood is soos iemand wat sy rug op jou draai.” (Death is like someone turning his back on you). And because I felt directly impacted by what was going to happen, it was as if she had captured the inevitable permanence when someone dies so majestically.

Even the image of someone disappearing into the distance is captured in that poetic yet painful phrase.

That is what is captured so hauntingly in Horning’s search for something she knows is not attainable – ever again. And even though she hasn’t yet reached that point where one feels she is moving on, she is changed and more in control of her emotions. I felt it is in the writing that she has found an escape, an unravelling, a making sense and perhaps a sharing with both her closest and even those of us who in different circumstances might have to deal with something that feels as if it has ripped the life out of you.

Being the journalist she is, she methodically works her way through this difficult time  ̶  and then of course Covid-19 leaps into our lives ripping the rest of the world apart. Perhaps through doing her work as a journalist  ̶  editing and writing   ̶   which didn’t let up during even the beginning of mourning, she found a way to make her expertise (as one of our top health journalists) work for her.

She knew how to do research, which roads to travel and how to find specialists to explain the inexplicable to help her struggle her way through something she didn’t have a roadmap for. Life is like that. It constantly challenges you both in the worst and best ways and you’re not always able to pick and choose. It often seems random and what you make of it is what determines your life.

But because of who she is, she has resilience but also a fighting circle of people around her to help keep her upright. Her husband and second son have their own battles and the three of them worked together and apart to deal with their own grief. There’s also a triage of lifelong friends who simply never let go of their friend, offering constant comfort. And just being there.

Their words of wisdom, chatter and intimate knowledge of their friend allowed them to be constant warriors in this raging personal war. They were not going to allow her to slip away.

There are many reasons to read this book. Many people feel Covid is just about all we can deal with in this time. The rest should all be slightly mindless and happy, and certainly we need loads of that.

But what a book like this of Horning’s shows, even to someone who doesn’t have similar circumstances, is just what being human really means. How we all fall apart at times, overwhelmed by what life has dealt us unexpectedly. But that there’s always a way out, a light that shines somewhere down the road, something to look forward to, other people who need to hold your hand or rely on you for your particular guidance.

Horning keeps the memory of her lost boy alive with the extraordinary memory of a life lived, sometimes excruciatingly, and shows how we can never judge the lives of others. This allows every reader to walk, if even for a few seconds, in those shoes. If this doesn’t encourage empathy in a world that is more difficult to navigate for some than for others, nothing will.

IN THE CHARL DU PLESSIS TRIO UNIVERSE, IT TAKES THREE FOR A SPECIAL BRAND OF MUSIC TO SHINE

PICTURES: Bernard Brand.

Instrumental careers aren’t easy to maintain, but the Charl du Plessis Trio has achieved just that. DIANE DE BEER reflects on their reincarnation and their latest release It Takes Three, a title that aptly captures their current status:

PICTURES: Bernard Brand:

If there’s something that should be clear by now if following the career of pianist (and a string of other titles) Charl du Plessis, it’s not to expect the expected.

This artist thinks clearly about every step he makes and takes in his always-evolving career. This time the light shines brightly on the Charl du Plessis Trio, which have just released a new CD  ̶  not something rare for this trio, which includes Werner Spies (bass) and Peter Auret (drummer), and yet something unique in their recording history.

For the first time, says Du Plessis from the stage of their launch concert (which will be followed by a string of concerts around the country and probably internationally as well) they have workshopped this latest offering.

This is a result of a change in the Trio, with their original drummer relocating to China and being replaced with drummer/sound engineer Peter Auret, a man who has been seriously performing and recording with his own style very much in evidence.

As with any change, whether one is comfortable or not, especially in the creative sphere it often brings excitement, and in this instance, it seems a chemistry that has worked positively for the musos. “Peter is an experienced recording artist with his own studio and many awards. He speaks his mind and makes suggestions which changed the dynamics in the group,” says Du Plessis.

What it meant is that this latest effort was a much more democratic effort, he says  ̶  tongue-in-cheek. “Usually I would do the arrangements and hand them over to the others  ̶  a done deal.” But this time they workshopped the album with all three contributing arrangements on particular compositions. The change is dramatic, which is important when part of what you do is record. You don’t want all the albums to sound identical.

This has always been a Du Plessis trademark. As a pianist he has understood that to have a career on stage, he has to mix it up – but with thought.

The selection of music might puzzle those who aren’t familiar with the Trio’s work – dominated by classical music that is reworked and arranged to great effect. The days are long gone where audiences aren’t accepting of this kind of crossover especially when those in charge are adept in both genres – classical and jazz.

From Richard Wagner’s Pilgrim’s Chorus from Tannhäuser to Chick Corea’s Spain, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata to When The Saints Go Marching In, the mix is eclectic and exciting and much of the fun is recognising the original composition and how they play with it in subtle, serious and expansive ways.

Adding a new skill, Du Plessis, fine tune’s his instrument.

And the recording itself was also an unusual one. Du Plessis, who has been recording for many years both in personal and in group capacity, has had a few unpleasant and perhaps less productive sessions in the past. Now, even with someone in the group who has the expertise, they still called in the specialists to do the recording – on the Atterbury stage, which was specially set up to replicate a recording studio.

One has to know that even these unique circumstances would have influenced the performance and the outcomes. That and the fact that the sound engineer in their midst could then take his time and work on the final product. “It truly shows,” says Du Plessis – and of course it will. Who would not make their own product simply the best?

All of this started as the second year of Covid uncertainty kicked in at the start of 2021. Artists have had a torrid time. Audiences are their lifeblood and these were not allowed. Imagine 50 people at a show  ̶  you don’t even cover the cost of staging the performance.

Making music is the focus:

Travelling overseas for concerts, which is a huge part of their year, was up in the air and Du Plessis decided their project would be the recording. “It was also time to establish Peter as part of our recording cycle,” he explains and they set out to create the perfect circumstances for an end product that would have all three of them smiling.

That’s exactly what they did on stage at the launch, which was a fun affair. Du Plessis kept the chatter to a minimum while the boys dressed in black with designer (I have to assume) tackies (just to add some informality to what might be perceived as too staid an event).

The other ingredient in this production is the Steinway concert grand piano, which Du Plessis (a Steinway artist) went to fetch for the Atterbury Theatre a couple of years back at the Steinway & Sons factory in Hamburg, Germany.

There you have the chance to test many different pianos to make a very personal choice. At the time, when playing something on the piano for the first time, his thought was how cool it would be to make a recording, but also perform live on stage on this exquisite instrument.

It was obvious when attending the concert and then listening to the recording, that they pulled it all off. These are three talented and dedicated musicians who pooled their skills to enhance the end product, and with piano, drums and bass in the mix, the sound is rich and pliable – and the music familiar and yet completely new.

Like with any Du Plessis concert, and I’m not exaggerating, it’s beautifully compiled – both live and on the CD – and all you have to do in both instances (which is the perfect combo, is kick back, embrace and allow the music to wash over you.

Two more concerts in Gauteng are on the cards:

A concert arranged by a group of friends:
 At 8 Kafue road, Emmarentia
6 November 18:00
Bookings: https://qkt.io/TRIO 
R750pp
And the following day:
 at the Linder Auditorium, WITS
7 November 16:00
Bookings: info@jms.org.za or at the door
R200pp

EMOTIONAL DAMAGE AND RELENTLESS HARM OF RACISM MAGNIFIED IN ATHOL FUGARD’S BLOOD KNOT

Celebrating both playwright Athol Fugard and the 45th anniversary of the Market Theatre, artistic director James Ngcobo turns to the earlier work to capture this moment in time. DIANE DE BEER reviews Blood Knot, the perfect choice for what feels like a re-awakening of live theatre:

PICTURES: SIPHIWE MHLAMBI

Mncedisi Shabangu in Blood Knot..

BLOOD KNOT BY ATHOL FUGARD

STARRING: Francois Jacobs (Morris) and Mncedisi Shabangu (Zacharia)

DIRECTOR: James Ngcobo

LIGHTING DESIGNER: Mannie Manim

PROPS AND SET DESIGNER: Nadya Cohen

THEATRE: Mannie Manim at The Market, Johannesburg

DATES: Until November 14 Tuesdays to Saturdays 7pm; Sundays 3.15pm;

From the time you lay eyes on Mncedisi Shabangu waiting to enter into the dreamworld of the two brothers in Blood Knot, it’s difficult to turn away.

His whole body seems to be drenched in sadness, and at this point you can’t yet see his eyes. But that is Shabangu’s strength. He climbs into a character almost stretching the skin to breaking point. And when he holds onto his centre like he does here, using his tools sparsely, it’s magnificent.

The two brothers (the one seemingly white, the other black) live in a dilapidated room somewhere in a township.  Zacharia earns a living while Morris stays behind in the room, caring for his brother and their dreams.

He has his sights set on a small farm in Africa, but his brother’s desires are more immediate. What Fugard does so brilliantly is to thread the sadness of their lives through every breath they take, from start to finish.

Blood Knot starring Francois Jacobs and Mncedisi Shabangu directed by James Ngcobo.

It’s not in big gestures or huge events and that’s what makes it so painful to witness. It’s visibly there in everything they do. It’s where and how they live, their isolation, the way they keep polishing their dreams, which hopefully creates a life, and perhaps as an endgame, happiness.

They take small steps as long as they can keep the harsh world at bay, but as we all know, that’s impossible when something as visible as the colour of your skin determines not only your life, but your total being. And how does one buffer the pain?

That’s what Mncedisi manages to put across with his blend of naiveté and an almost childlike desire to secure some warmth and humanity in this place that doesn’t seem to hold any of that. And still he desires and dreams.

It’s in the rhythm of the way he both moves and speaks. Sometimes he takes it slow, then speeds it up, but always quietly so that when he raises his voice in either anger or joy, it cuts through the fabric of your soul.

That’s the kind of work this is, small and written with a quiet simplicity and yet, the issues are pressing against the walls of that room as if waiting to explode. Fugard knew that it is in these small stories, the everyday events that slip by unnoticed, that the depth of racism lies.

And especially this early work, the first that made the world step back and notice, makes it very clear how this kind of hatred permeates everything it comes into contact with – every minute of the day and night. It affected everything and everyone – the oppressed and the oppressors – and it still does.

Francois Jacobs (Morris) and Mncedisi Shabangu (Zacharia).

Because Mncedisi’s character is the one who holds you tight and draws you in, Jacobs’s Morris could just disappear, but he has forged a strong presence, acts as the brother’s foil and allows the bond between these two disparate characters to evolve.

Ngcobo has always been a Fugard fan, both as an actor and as a director, and it is clear that this one, in The Market’s 45th celebratory year and Fugard’s upcoming 90th in 2022, is a heartfelt love letter. He has honoured the text and allowed the words  and the actors to sing.

And with a full understanding of the nuances of the work Mannie Manim adds to the mood as he lights the space with great dexterity and delicacy.

It is in the simplicity that everything glows and allows you to step inside the pain and experience a life that can only be determined by others. Those of us who have had the privilege of planning our own futures with relative ease, may find it difficult to understand the lives of others. That’s what Fugard did so insightfully during the apartheid years when few voices managed to make themselves heard.

Mncedisi Shabangu and Francois Jacobs.

And in a world where racism has grown rather than diminished as one would have hoped, his plays are as relevant and even more poignant than when they were first written. Because we lived through those horrific years even if we were part of the privileged (rewarded for being born white), to witness what is happening today is excruciating.

When will the world learn that diversity is what makes it turn? Fugard said it then and is still saying it now. And yet we keep shunning the other and stomping on their dreams.

Ngcobo and his two actors are determined to shine the light – and they do so stunningly.

.

AUTHOR GERDA TALJAARD’S LATEST NOVEL, VIER SUSTERS, ENCHANTS WITH FAMILY DYNAMICS AND DYSFUNCTION

When author Gerda Taljaard is asked about her latest book at a book launch, she answers with a question: “What is better to write about than dysfunction?” Probably, on par with reading on the topic, agrees DIANE DE BEER:

With a book titled Vier Susters (Four Sisters), dipping into her favourite genre, domestic noir, Gerda Taljaard has created her favourite playground.

Set on a farm in Magoebaskloof, píctures form in your mind’s eye and the house itself becomes another character. You don’t have to listen too hard to hear the floorboards creaking and the rain lashing against the windows during a storm.

And Taljaard explains it best: the house is also a powerful Jungian symbol of the female psyche, which then links it to the Gothic romance tradition: a lingering evil, the prevalence of death, the appearance of the supernatural and the hysterical woman (in this instance, Beatrice), the result of suppressed sexuality.

“It becomes a psychological space,” she notes as she explains that she didn’t want to write what is a favourite genre in Afrikaans, a plaasroman (directly translated as farm novel).

With  storms raging, water plays an important role in this novel. “It can be cleansing for those who feel troubled, a kind of baptism, or even represent undercurrents.” And the list goes on…

She wanted to make  a more skewered stab at this almost comfortable setting (on the surface) with the homestead itself in a state of disrepair, as are the relationships between the four sisters. And that is how she stumbles into the story she wants to tell.

It’s 1945 and war is at the centre with an Italian prisoner of war, mangled by a leopard during his flight, finding his way into their lives. There’s also the complicated politics of the land, with language rather than race the issue.

All the siblings are on the farm in the house they grew up in, which now belongs to the eldest, the beautiful Beatrice, married to a rather weak man; Sophie, the worrier, married to an English man, and Ivy who finds refuge in her childhood home following an escapade with what would now be described as a terrorist group (based on the truth, with the main character also based on reality).

Very much the adjunct to the three sisters, Kittie lives in an outside room/servant’s quarters but was raised as one of the white family yet never fully embraced, almost allowed only to hover on the edges.

We’re dumped into the emotional and political timebomb right from the start as the sisters tread lightly while performing their ‘allocated roles’ in the family – roles many would recognise, as they’re part of family dynamics and dysfunction.

THE many many faces of author Gerda Taljaard:

While the author is also one of four sisters, her aim with the novel wasn’t just her own familiarity but also the fact that women don’t often take centre stage in these stories –  even when they are so often at the heart of the home. “I did take courage from my own family, where strong women have always been a feature,” she says. But she also feels that women have to take their rightful place in the past. “Women should not be excluded.”

She points out that while they are a close family, the sisters are all so different in character, it’s difficult to spot that they are related. “I do, however, understand the dynamics of these kinds of relationships,” she says.

For Taljaard, the writing process is very specific. Once she knows that there’s something brewing, it’s the first sentence that opens the floodgates. “It’s what I need to get the writing to flow,” she says. She makes rough notes, not a framework, and the writing takes over. “It’s almost a spiritual process,” she explains.

And in this instance, her introductory sentence can be twofold: first there’s almost an introductory page, which makes much more sense once you’ve read the story but also introduces the sisters to you briefly and explains the name of the farm; and in Part 1, where the back story starts, one of the sisters arrives at the farm and stops to gaze at the mountains she hasn’t seen for some time. And then reflects on the brevity of life…

But there’s also a tribute in the front of the book from Tove Jansson’s the Summer Book:

At first, no one mentioned it. They had developed a habit, over the years, of not talking about painful things, in order to make them less painful. But they were very much aware of the house.

That presence also encapsulates her own story. On the sister she identifies with most, she points to Kittie. “There is something of me in all the sisters, but Kittie is the outsider and the one I feel a real kinship to,” she says. “She doesn’t fit in and I think there are many similarities.”

But more than anything it wasn’t her own siblings that came to mind when writing the book, it was her grandmother and her sisters who dominated her being, she confesses.

While we all love identifying the writer with the people she is writing about, with this one it doesn’t matter. We all have families, understand particular family dynamics and probably know dysfunction far better than we want to.

That’s what Taljaard does so well as she pulls you into her story. That and the writing. This was my first introduction to this author, who has obvious storytelling abilities but also a way with words, which is tough to capture if not in Afrikaans.

It is, however, the language, the way she juggles with words and concepts, her striking sketches of people, the way they think, trespass and trip through their lives that hold your attention – and finally your heart.

It’s also a story that’s so universal, it would be a pity if it’s not translated, giving it the accessibility it deserves.

Hopefully she will have another first sentence soon.