If, like me, in these isolated times youhave been listening to podcasts on books and authors, it would have been tough avoiding Kazuro Ishiguro interviews talking about his latest book, with one also surfacing on DStv’s BBC World.

Klara and the Sun is an intriguing novel and that’s equalled by some of the author’s insight into his own work. He never talks about robots but instead refers to Klara as an AF (artificial friend), with the friend part being that she was specifically created to serve as company for a teenager – which I suspect is perhaps not the easiest thing to be.

For Ishiguro it was about looking at the future through the eyes of an artificial friend who is watching and listening to the people in her/his environment and reacting to their behaviour. And naturally, this is also the way the author can explore certain types of human behaviour in this imagined world he has created. Something he loves doing.

Quoted on the back cover of the book: “Do you believe in the human heart? I don’t mean simply the organ, obviously. I’m speaking in the poetic sense. The human heart. Do you think there is such a thing? Something that makes each of us special and individual.”

And perhaps more than anything, it is this idea about being special and individual that drives Ishiguro in this particular story. He always dives deep in his novels to scratch almost microscopically at specific human conditions and here he is also looking more closely at gene editing specifically.

Once you start fiddling with who you want to bring into the world, we’re talking about a race that might all have similar characteristics – and who decides what those might be? And who would love to live in an homogenous world like that?

But also, what makes humans so fascinating is their flaws and what they do with them. Choices – for those privileged enough to have those – are what most of our lives are driven by and whether we make the right ones. But for whom?

And typically Ishiguro, while he does concede that this novel offers “pathetically futile hope”, he has no solutions or comments on what he thinks about particular problems. He is simply guiding you down a particular road and asking the questions, hoping to make you think.

What is left unsaid (and these silences, he says, are as much work as what has actually been written) is often where he wants you to play with your imagination and hopefully in this way his other desire is allowed to prosper – that the novel lingers and lingers.

And while he is playing in the future, it is one that is plausible. With everything happening in the AI world, much of what he is writing about isn’t far-fetched. Just think of the pandemic, for example, and fully automated restaurants or the speed at which everything medically is happening.

So as Klara stands in the shop window watching the people go by, her observations might just echo those of the people who made her, but once that is fiddled with, how far can we go? That’s why the question –  poetic as it might be – about individuality becomes important and quite scary.


The previous book I have read by this author, One of Us, was about the massacre of young Norwegians, which was also turned into a film. While I found it fascinating, like reading a documentary (which is what it is), I also thought that it could have done with some editing as some things were dealt with in such detail it felt almost as obsessive as the shooter. Perhaps that was exactly the point.

Yet it also showed that Seierstad is a remarkable journalist and her attention is drawn to events that affect especially her own society.  Because of their seemingly successful country, the story and how it unravels reaches across borders and nationalities in a way that captures the terrifying modern world we live in.

Think, for example of Syria, and what has been happening in that country these past few years. For quite some time it dominated headlines, starting with the Arab Spring, but with Covid, you hardly hear anything more about that failed state, which seems to have collapsed. Not only in their world but also in the eyes of those of us who pay attention to what is happening in the world.

Dying has been happening all around us and those embroiled in particular struggles starting pre-covid seem to have taken a back seat – like Syria.

As the title explains, Two Sisters deals with two siblings who travel to Syria to participate in the jihad. And a father sits drinking tea and thinking about his two young daughters. Who would even have imagined that they would want to wage jihad?

In October 2013, teenage sisters Ayan and Leila Juma leave their family home near Oslo. Later they send an email to their family confessing that they are on their way to Syria. They had been planning their “escape” for months –  in secret.

 Think of any family and what they would do if two young children decide to go to a war zone where they join ISIS, at the time and still regarded as one of the most deadly groups operating in what they view as vacuums in many different countries.

While Ayan and Leila’s father decides to follow them to try and bring them back home, by the time he reaches Turkey they have already crossed into Syria. Their story is followed through email and phone contact with the family, who worked closely with the author.

What turns this into such a fascinating read is not only the journey of the two girls and the family tragedy that unfolds as lives are shattered, but also the detailed story about Syria. What is unfolding in what started as part of the Arab Spring is still in progress with no end in sight.

Anyone just watching who says they know what is going on in that tragic war is probably delusional, but at least when reading the tale of these two young women who hope to find a future with men they have never met, embroiled in what some consider a holy war, throws some light.

I just remember watching the fall of Aleppo  ̶   at the time the largest city in Syria being turned into rubble. And when you read about the father crossing into Syria from Turkey and how the family’s funds were being wiped out, another tragedy is playing out just on this border. As with all war, someone is making money.

One can only read in horror as these two young women set a series of events into motion. How could they not? What family does just allow their daughters to slip away …

But that’s the world we live in.


If you’re steeped in Afrikaans literature, you’ve probably read this one, which won among others the UJ Debut Prize, the Eugene Marais prize; the WA Hofmeyr Prize; the ATKV Prosa prize and the kykNET-Rapport prize for fiction. He didn’t leave much for anyone else in 2019.

But I came to it late and only then discovered that the author was writing under a pseudonym, but had revealed who he was when becoming a serial winner of many of the book prizes available locally.

He fooled me in many different ways, the first being that I so fell for his description of Daan that I didn’t want to read further. It not being my favourite kind of man, I mistook the character of Daan for that of the author. Took me a while and a sheepish grin … I have done this before when something is one of my personal bugbears, so much for objectivity.

Nevertheless, I fortunately spotted my feet of clay and made a u-turn. The language was the thing that initially grabbed me. It’s something that has been popping up all over the show in Afrikaans literature and I’m no specialist in this particular genre, but when a book makes strong enough waves, I jump.

Those fearing for the loss of their mother tongue need not fear, it has been given wings, I suspect –  slowly but surely. Readers especially those as sporadic as this one, are reaping all the benefits. Because it is such a young language still, it has always been the playground of the creatives and gloriously so. It is wonderful to experience the celebration!

But back to Daan, the title is actually your guiding light as it tells you that we are going on both a physical and spiritual journey as the ageing widower and father of two sons reviews his life and the people who were a part of his daily existence – amongst others his wife, whom he starts writing to.

Before too long, this reflective debut novel worked its magic and the praise heaped on it came as no surprise. So if you don’t want to miss out on the important stories that emerge from our country, this is one of them and a most novel and invigorating way of reflecting on a life.


With no children of my own and way past my sell-by date, I was stunned that the publisher thought I was a candidate to review this one, but on closer reflection and paging through the book I saw some method in the madness.

The  compiler/collector probably says it best:  “Poetry was a luxurious comfort to me during the newborn days when my bone-deep exhaustion rendered reading a novel a wild and distant fantasy. It was something I could gulp down during a night feed, or while liquidising a blameless vegetable. These poems granted me windows into other dark bedrooms and, when I read about infant-speed toddles, I could see something of our own haphazard progress reflected there.

“As the years passed, I squirrelled away more of these verses. In the company of these poets, I could forgive myself the piled laundry, the toast-for-tea, the not-now-I’m-busy’s and the school-run screeching.

“They helped me to approach some of the tender feelings often buried under the avalanche of weaning and wiping, cheering or chivvying, and give them a moment – those quiet moments that are for some years, so few and precious – to be felt.

“These women invite us into their homes and their hearts, and we understand ourselves- and this deep, wild, ever-evolving bond – better for hearing the voices.”

All of us, with children or without, have had those periods of time where nothing you do gives you enough time to catch up. And especially for young mothers, this is a soft reprieve embraced with the words of other worthy souls, who share their innermost thoughts about something those reading have experienced or might in the future. It’s a great idea. I would have liked a touch more diversity and yet, now we know the gaps, we can look for something to augment that. Or perhaps a local poet or lover of poetry can compile that book, which speaks from all corners of our country and show what we mean by diversity!

Books that Allow the Words and Actions of Those Involved To Tell the Real Stories

If you want to go for fact rather than fiction, DIANE DE BEER has two examples dealing with events happening on an international front but with relevance here:


book chernobylChernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich (Penguin Books):

I first discovered this author with her book celebrated with a Nobel Prize for literature in 2015 –  Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets – in which I discovered her unique style. She rejects the term journalist but describes herself as an oral historian. What she does is allow people to tell their stories and something remarkable unfolds. In Russia for example, like in South Africa at more or less the same time and like here, people were expecting their lives to change dramatically with the and dismantling of the UUSR.

It did of course for a handful of oligarchs and the usual suspects and like here the lives of ordinary people were trampled on and they were left gasping for air. It is where she shines her spotlight harshly yet illuminating the lives that are struggling to make sense of what is happening to them.

I picked this one up at a sale recently and was as engrossed in this story told in similar style. Who doesn’t remember Chernobyl? And yet, it’s the name and nuclear disaster that strikes hardest, the rest is hazy. On this particular cover, Julian Barnes is quoted as saying: “The book leaves radiation burns on the brain.”

Being the writer, he captures it magnificently.

“All that remained behind barbed wire was the land. And the graves. Our past our great country,” says one party member who felt he had to help with the clean-up. Another was taken on a cleaning operation without any warning: “On the first day we saw the nuclear power plant from a distance. On the second, we were already clearing the rubbish around it. We were shoveling with ordinary spades…As we said battling the atom with spades! In the twentieth century.”

Then there’s this about the nuclear operator Leonid Toptunov who was on duty that night at the power plant, and pressed the red emergency shutdown button a few minutes before the explosion. It didn’t work…He was treated in Moscow: “To save someone, there has to be a body to start with,” the doctors said throwing up their hands in despair.”

“The most serviceable robots were soldiers,” says another of the clean-up period following the catastrophe which just kept going on and on for those unwittingly commandeered to help in this deathly process.

Women were being tested when breastfeeding and found to be radioactive. Professionals who knew what happens in these situations, asked the right questions. They were told to simply carry on testing and watch the television. Emergency measures were being taken. “I – an engineer with twenty years’ experience, someone who knew the law of physics. I knew every living thing needed to be evacuated from the area, at least temporarily…We were accustomed to believing. I belong to the post-war generation that grew up with the faith.”

It is statements like these and many, many more that tell the full story in the saddest detail, the way the people are led by their noses because they follow their leaders with blind faith – to their deaths. “Everybody knows and still they can’t do anything, not the killers in command and neither those who are doing the dirty work – and then die. That is our world – and the world of most who live on this earth today.”

It is Alexiev’s powerful research and conversations with people on the ground who tell their stories and how and what happened. It is tragic and horrific, even more so than the actual explosion. But at least these unwitting victims can be heard, their stories are being highlighted – and sadly in this world, it probably won’t make a difference.

But now we know – at the very least.

book oneOne of Us by Åsne Seierstad (Virago):

When someone told me they were reading the book about the mass killings in 2011 by Anders Behring Breivik who killed 77 of his fellow Norwegians, young people who were doing their civic duty, on an island, isolated from the world and any immediate help, I didn’t understand why anyone would want to read about this distant tragedy seemingly unrelated to anything here.

Nevertheless, I was given a copy and happy to test my misgivings. Of course it is much more than simply the story of the killings as the author is a journalist who knows how to go about finding and researching her stories, in some instances perhaps too thoroughly but that might also have to do with the translation. The language doesn’t always hold to the subject matter and the focus is sometimes just too much for a particular topic.

And yet, what she does is to walk back in time to Breivik’s childhood, the tug of war between his father and mother, his father’s second and much envied family by the young man, his own isolation in the world and a determined almost frantic effort to be recognised and accepted by almost any peer group.

It is pointed out on the book’s cover that the book shows that “evil is not born but created” (Independent on Sunday) and that is evident in the detailed evidence that Seierstad is at pains to point out.

It is also a story of our time, how people are unable to deal with their own lives and how there is nowhere to turn to. Today’s living is so fast, hardly anyone will notice someone else’s pain, reach out a hand or take the time to even have a conversation. If you grow up in the kind of isolation that is illustrated here, the dark web is almost inevitable if you are determined to make yourself visible.

This is obviously the extreme but if you take this relatively young century into account, people seem to feel more and more that they have to make an impact simply to be seen. That’s a problem of our time which can only get worse.