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The links between southwest France and the Cape inspired Kate Mosse’s latest novel, writes Kate Sidley

Published in the Sunday Times


Kate Mosse has a house in Carcassonne, again the setting of a novel. Picture: Supplied

The Burning Chambers
****
Kate Mosse, Mantle, R285

Bestselling author Kate Mosse visited the graveyard in Franschhoek several years ago and felt such a strong sense of the links between the southwest of France and the Cape, the landscape and Huguenot history that, she says, a shiver ran down her spine. It inspired The Burning Chambers.

Readers are plunged into 16th-century France, to a time of bloody strife between Protestants and Catholics, persecution of the Huguenots and the massacre of Toulouse. Like her Languedoc trilogy (Labyrinth, Sepulchre and Citadel), this novel is set predominantly in Carcassonne.

“All my fiction is inspired by place, by landscape,” she says. Mosse knows the place – she goes there every month to write. When she’s there the history of this fortified medieval city is palpable to her. She’s walked the ancient streets and climbed the towers and seen the sun on the citadel, and this intimate knowledge she bring to The Burning Chambers.

It’s a lot of complex history to wrangle, and Mosse handles it deftly, bringing the setting and its events vividly to life while interweaving the familial and romantic stories. At its heart is a love story, between young Minou Joubert, the daughter of a Catholic bookshop owner, and Piet Reydon, a Dutch-born Protestant convert and supporter of the Protestant army.

Minou receives a mysterious anonymous letter: SHE KNOWS THAT YOU LIVE. Piet has secrets and a dangerous mission. The characters’ converging storylines are interspersed with extracts from a mysterious diary. The book proceeds with plenty of threads, twists and turns to keep the reader engaged. A priceless religious relic, treachery, torture and murder add to the intrigue.

Mosse’s characters – Minou’s family, the political and religious plotters and planners, and a mysterious and nasty villain – keep us emotionally connected.

“I have an idea of the sort of people I need, and it’s as if I build a set, and the characters start to show themselves. I’m intrigued. ‘Ah, so that’s who you are. I see. And you have red hair.’ It’s like a developing photograph. Sometimes, someone who I thought was a chorus member will say no, she’s a supporting lead. Other times it turns out a character just isn’t up to the job.”

Women’s stories are often at the heart of Mosse’s books. “I like to write about older women,” she says. “They hear more and see more than people realise.”

Mosse points out that certain themes and experiences – prejudice and persecution, family, exile, political power, tolerance, love – are timeless and universal. It’s these that drive the novel.

This novel is the first in a quartet tracing Huguenot history through three centuries. Fans of Mosse’s big, engrossing historical novels will be delight to have three more to look forward to, following the descendants of some of the characters in The Burning Chambers. @KateSidley

Book details

Nal’ibali FUNda Leader to host Youth Day round table panel discussion at Centre for the Book (14 June)

In the spirit of South African Youth Month, the Nal’ibali national reading-for-enjoyment campaign is hosting a Youth Day round table panel discussion at Centre for the Book on Thursday, 14 June. The panel will include activists who are passionate about youth, language and advocacy work. The story of 16 June 1976 encompasses two of Nal’ibali’s values – activism and the belief that every child has the right to be educated in a language they understand.

“A love of storytelling and sharing stories is inherited by us as South Africans. To cultivate a culture of reading in South Africa, we need more young people to become reading role models. I’m extremely passionate about literacy and would like to activate a love for books in children. Especially children from townships,” explains Liziwe Ndalana, a literacy activist and one of the panelists.

The improvement of literacy rates is a universal concern. As a nation we can draw inspiration from other countries that have called on activists to resolve issues around literacy. The Cuban Literacy Campaign, through the agency of citizens, was able to drastically reduce the country’s illiteracy rates. Closer to home, Tanzania also ran a successful adult literacy campaign in the 1970s that was championed by local activists. Ultimately, we see that with citizen agency, change is possible.

“Considering how South Africa became a democratic nation, and the struggles people overcame in hope of a better future for generations to come, we cannot deny the power activism holds in changing the social landscape in South Africa,” says Thembakuye Madlala, Nal’ibali Digital Strategist. “A sentiment shared by many is that our education system is in crisis.

“One of the ways in which the country can overcome this is by instilling a sense of activism and responsibility in people of all ages in our communities. The Nal’ibali FUNda Leader network aspires to do this. FUNda Leaders are everyday South Africans who have raised their hands to help ensure that all South Africa’s children are given a better chance to succeed through the power of stories and reading, in the languages they understand best.

“FUNda Leaders are generally passionate adults who care about and respect children and want to help them learn and become literate through fun and relaxed interaction with stories. They are activists by nature and eager to share their free time by storytelling and reading on a volunteer basis, in the quest to get South Africa reading. By the end of 2017 we had 5752 registered FUNda Leaders spread across the country.

“There are many ways to be a FUNda Leader. These will be explored during the Youth Day round table discussion and the impact our FUNda Leaders have had in their respective communities will be shared.”

Nal’ibali FUNda Leaders and literacy activists are encouraged to take part in this discourse – it’s an opportunity for likeminded individuals to brainstorm solutions to the literacy issues that affect all South Africans. The FUNda Leader panel and audience will together also discuss reclaiming African languages in education, and the importance of South African young people in promoting a culture of reading for enjoyment.

Nal’ibali believes in the relevance of having round table discussions with young people, to explore possible ways they can become literacy role models and help to create a nation brimming with children who can read and, more importantly, who read for enjoyment.

For more information about the Nal’ibali campaign or how to become a FUNda Leader, visit www.nalibali.org and www.nalibali.mobi or find us on Facebook and Twitter.

“It started off the way my projects often do; with a title.” Harry Kalmer writes about the origins of his novel, A Thousand Tales of Johannesburg, shortlisted for the 2018 Barry Ronge Fiction Prize

Published in the Sunday Times

Harry Kalmer is an award-winning playwright and novelist who has authored six works of fiction and 23 plays. His novel En die lekkerste deel van dood wees was the runner-up in the 2007 Sanlam/Insig Groot Roman competition. Briewe aan ‘n rooi dak, based on the letters of Magdalena Otto, received the Anglo-Gold Aardklop award for best new drama in 2001, and was adapted for TV and broadcast. In 2014, his drama The Bram Fischer Waltz won the Adelaide Tambo Award for Human Rights in the Arts. He lives in Johannesburg.

It started off the way my projects often do; with a title. The title arrived on a Monday morning in 2007 outside a hardware store. At the same moment an image of a fountain with Arabic titles appeared.

The fountain I recalled from a walk in Tangiers years before. However, this image placed the fountain in a courtyard in Belgravia, the suburb that, in the 1890s was Jozi’s first walled community.

A few weeks later in Springs I waited for someone next to a pool of stagnant mine water with reeds and water fowl. I wrote what I thought was an opening line in a notebook. The line ended up on page 41 of A Thousand Tales. The fountain didn’t make it onto the page but the book was set in Belgravia and the title made it to publication.

For a long time it remained only a title. The xenophobic attacks of May 2008 and the fact that the violence spilt over into the suburb where my unwritten book was set, was a trigger. I was horrified by the proximity of the violence to my cosy middle-class existence, the brutality of the attacks and what it said about our society.

The violence became the backdrop for the novel.

A title with the words A Thousand doesn’t lend itself to a short format. I realised I needed help and enrolled in a masters in creative writing at the University of Stellenbosch. By the end of that year, thanks to my supervisors, Willem Anker and Marlene van Niekerk, I had a 300-page first draft.

I colour coded the storylines, arranged them in interesting patterns on my wall and used it as a structure for the next draft. A year and several drafts later I added the first 40 pages.

During that time I was invited to read at Africa Short Story Day – I was the only Afrikaans reader – and read a scene from my work in progress. The scene was set in the Rockey Street jazz club Rumours during the 1980s. Half the audience didn’t understand what I read. I realised that the book should also be published in English.

By 2012 I had enough of a manuscript to end up on the shortlist for the Groot Afrikaanse Romanwedstryd.

‘n Duisend Stories oor Johannesburg was finally published in 2014 and was eventually shortlisted for eight Afrikaans literary awards. I translated the book myself and Melt Myburgh and Fourie Botha at Penguin Random House said they wanted to publish it. They appointed Michael Titlestadt as editor.

I translated the book so that more people, my English-speaking family members and friends could read it. And perhaps find a few new readers.

Book details

“I wanted to give voice to a story I felt hadn’t been fully explored yet in South Africa – that of children who grew up in exile.” Sisonke Msimang discusses her Alan Paton Award shortlisted memoir, Always Another Country

Published in the Sunday Times

Sisonke Msimang lives in Perth, Australia, where she is programme director for the Centre for Stories. She regularly visits South Africa, where she speaks on current affairs. She has degrees from Macalester College, Minnesota, and the University of Cape Town, is a Yale World Fellow, an Aspen New Voices Fellow, and was a Ruth First Fellow at the University of the Witwatersrand. She contributes to The Guardian, The Daily Maverick and The New York Times and has given a popular TED Talk which touches on events that appear in Always Another Country.

Why did you decide to write this memoir?

I wanted to give voice to a story I felt hadn’t been fully explored yet in South Africa – that of children who grew up in exile. While we have had many amazing freedom fighters, I wanted to also demonstrate to young people and women especially that you don’t have to have a long CV and a long list of accomplishments for your life to be worthy of examination. All of us have stories – big and small. In South Africa we have tended to be interested in the big men of our history – black and white. As a contrast I wanted to look at my small little stories, set against the backdrop of South Africa’s much larger story.

Did writing your story give you new insights into your experiences growing up?

The process of writing always helps to clarify your experiences, but a lot of these experiences I had already worked through, so I was ready to share them.

It is an intensely personal and revealing book. Was it painful to write?

Not at all. There is a wonderful quote I use when I teach storytelling – “Tell your stories from your scars, not from your wounds”. I only shared experiences that I had felt I had fully dealt with at a personal level so that by the time I was sitting down to write, I wasn’t treating my readers like therapists. For me there is a very clear line between catharsis and publishing a book. Your diary is for catharsis; a memoir should be about what you hope people might be able to take away from the experiences you’ve had in your life.

What does the word “identity” mean to you?

Your identity is who you are; the component parts that make you a unique individual.

You became disillusioned after your return to a free South Africa. Why?

I didn’t become any more disillusioned with South Africa than other South Africans did during the end of the Mbeki years and the Zuma years. I had high hopes for our political leaders – as we all did. I think the last decade has taught us that anyone can let you down but only you as a person can take responsibility for addressing the challenges you see around you.

Now that you live in Australia, does the distance from South Africa help to focus your views on the country?

Not really. I am here a lot, so there really isn’t much distance. I see myself as being incredibly lucky; someone who is able to make a home anywhere, but who is fundamentally connected to her country – South Africa. It’s as though there is an umbilical cord tying me to this place. Exile made that bond very strong and I have come to realise that no matter what happens or where I live or go, that cord will never be broken. It makes me who I am.

After writing the book, do you feel more at peace with the past?

Ha! Well, the truth is I am a very balanced person because my parents tried hard to make sure that we were okay, in spite of all the moving. So I’ve been at peace with my past for a long time, and I am incredibly grateful for the journey I have travelled.

Book details

Lowveld Book Festival 2018: Save the date!

Via Allison Cooper

The Lowveld Book Festival is fast-becoming a not-to-be-missed event on literary calendars across South Africa!

It’s time to save the dates in your diary as this year’s festival will take place at the Casterbridge Lifestyle Centre, in White River, on 18 and 19 August 2018, whilst the business breakfast and outreach activities will take place on Friday 17 August.

This year visitors can look forward to a host of interesting authors, including two of the youngest authors Stacey Fru (11- years-old) and Michelle Nkamankeng (10-years-old),Tony Park, Dudu Busani-Dube, Mercy Dube, Tracy Going, Amy Heydenrych, Nozizwe Cynthia Jele, Mike Mills, Gus Mills, Maruping Phepheng, James Styan, Richard Steyn, Fred Khumalo, Rehana Rossouw, Steven Sidley, Kate Sidley, Ronnie Kasrils, Dr Gerrit Haarhoff, Prof Peter Delius, Peter Harris, Menzi Mkhonza, Sandy and Tony Ferrar, Sahm Venter, Vimla Naidoo, Dr Salomon Joubert, Walter Thornhill, Adam Cruise and we are very honoured to have Archbishop Thabo Makgoba as well.

Adam Cruise will also be one of the facilitators and will be joined by Lowveld Living’s Nicky Manson and renowned local author Jayne Bauling as well as Bobo Lukhele, news editor at the SABC in Mpumalanga and Alison Lowry who is the ex-CEO of Penguin Publishers and an independent editor.

A balanced programme is on the cards, including poetry, workshops, kids’ corner and story-time for youngsters, panel discussions, historical Lowveld literature, nature lovers’ presentations, interviews with authors, youth literature, a book club segment, a cooking demonstration, a locally written and produced movie as well as the South African Music Show put on by the CMDA which will include well-known songs by some of our best loved local musicians.

South African authors will be selling and autographing their latest publications and authors will be slotted into events to ensure interesting discussions that grapple with the issues confronting South African literature and reading.

The Lowveld Book Festival is a multi-cultural event that encourages a love of reading and acknowledges the role played by writers and poets in society. The 2018 Lowveld Book Festival will again reach out to surrounding rural schools to expose children to the joy of stories and reading; encourage teenagers to read more, whether electronic or printed books; and to support local writers and illustrators through workshops hosted by published authors.

The full programme is being finalised and information about ticket sales will be available from the end of June at www.lowveldbookfestival.co.za. For more information, follow us on Facebook and Twitter, or email lowveldbookfestival@gmail.com.


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Tracy Going and Nozizwe Cynthia Jele are two authors festival goers can look forward to!

Bevan Frank on his award-winning debut thriller, The Mind of God, global consciousness, the British royal family, and Random Event Generators

By Mila de Villiers

Local author Bevan Franks’ debut thriller, The Mind of God, which is set in Cape Town, has won the 2018 Indie Reader Discovery Award for Popular Fiction. Judges included notable publishers, agents, publicists and bloggers.

The announcement was made by Robin Cutler, Director of IngramSpark on Saturday 2 June, at Book Expo America, a major trade show in New York.

I discerned the following about Bevan’s lauded book (thanks, gmail!)…

The book is set against an unfolding terrorist plot in Cape Town while the president of the USA is visiting the Mother City. Could you expand on the nature of the plot and, in light of the Trump-era, why you decided on the president of the United States specifically and not, say, a British prime minister?

A mysterious black box gets stolen from the University of Cape Town while the president of the USA is in the Mother City. Is this a coincidence or is there something more sinister at play? When the professor who worked on the black box disappears, it is up to Liz Greene to find out what happened to her father and his groundbreaking research before it is too late. Liz and her friend, Tim Fletcher, must solve one clue after another as they suddenly find themselves fleeing for their lives in a deadly hunt around Cape Town.

Why did I choose a US presidential character as opposed to one from another country? America is still one of the most, if not the most, powerful countries in the world. Any visit by an American president to SA is a huge news story/event with potential to bring with it positive trade and economic outcomes for SA. Also, in SA there is a huge following of American culture (regardless of ones political views) from movies to books to TV to clothing. (Even one of the gangs on the Cape Flats calls themselves the Americans!)

So if South Africa is a good enough place for an American president to visit, I hope that Americans who have never been to SA would consider it as a holiday destination. Part of my aim in writing the book was to attract international audiences, to get the world to discover SA and to ultimately play my own small part in helping to boost the South African brand (and rand!) And lots of parts of America remain an untapped market in terms of enticing American tourists to visit our shores.

Could you tell our readers a bit more about your protagonist, Liz Greene, and why her father’s research plays such an integral role in the plot?

Liz Greene lives in Cape Town’s southern suburbs. What starts out as an ordinary day for her quickly unfolds into something deadly and sinister as events spiral out of her control. She has developed the ability to deal with what life throws at her, and once she sets her mind to something, there’s no stopping her! But will she be able to cope with the unfolding plot that readers are exposed to? There are various players who will stop at nothing to get what they want, which is something related to Liz’s father’s black box and its crucial global consciousness research that he had recently made a breakthrough with. The black box is the crucial driver behind the fictitious thriller.

The mysterious black box around which the story centres is a Random Event Generator. Could you please

a) explain the purpose of a Random Event Generator (in layman’s terms – after a furious bout of googling, I’m *still* baffled!) and
b) why you decided on the funeral of Princess Diana as a method of describing the ‘worldwide mind’ of grief experienced around the globe? Is this commentary on how easily humankind is influenced by anonymous, yet powerful/revered figures which we – to an extent – tend to deify?

Is there an invisible consciousness that connects all of humanity? What if we could somehow measure it and use it to predict the future? My thriller centres around a real-life project by the Institute of Noetic Sciences, which researches how beliefs, thoughts, and intentions affect the physical world. At the core of this is the black box device or Random Event Generator. In scientific terms, a Random Event Generator is a device that uses computer technology to generate two numbers – a one and a zero – in an entirely random sequence, almost like an electronic coin flipper. [I hope this clarifies a bit more! The reality is that I go into a lot of detail in the book about this and it becomes clearer as the novel progresses.]

While conducting my research for the novel, I found the impact of Princess Diana’s funeral on the black box to be absolutely amazing. In fact I couldn’t believe that it was true, but it was and I decided that this was one of the best examples to use in revealing what actually transpired that day in terms of global consciousness. I don’t want to give away too much to your readers as I obviously don’t want to spoil the story, but there are other important global events which had significant impact on the black box which I explore in my novel too, including a lot of detail about 9/11. What is astonishing is that the black box had a type of ‘premonition’ a few hours before the tragic events of 9/11 took place. As I waded deeper into my research I knew that this subject matter had to be shared, and what better way to do it than amidst an exciting thriller!

The royal family features prominently in your novel; when did you start writing The Mind of God? Was it long before the announcement of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s engagement? As a side note – do you think the British royal family are deserving of the worldwide attention they garner? Is royalty still relevant in the 21st century era? And how did it feel when you heard Bishop Curry quote the exact same de Chardin-quote which appears in your novel?

My book was finished before Prince Harry and Meghan Markle even started dating, which is why I was even more amazed when Bishop Curry mentioned the quote by de Chardin in his sermon at their wedding. The fact that he used the same quote I used at the beginning of my book just reinforced to me the power of synchronicity and how we are all connected, in ways most people don’t even realize.

On the subject of the British royal family, I believe that they are deserving of all the attention they get today. I think that the monarchy and its rich history is important for Britain as a country and for its economy, and can continue to play an important role particularly the younger generation of royals who have made it more relevant in today’s age.

Role models, whether royalty or other, are important in life and many people look up to their role models to give them hope and aspiration. Whether it is a child playing rugby in Soweto who gets inspiration from our new Springbok rugby captain Siya Kolisi, or an aspiring comedian on the Cape Flats who dreams one day of making it big like Trevor Noah or an actress by the name of Meghan who grew up in Los Angeles and one day married a prince!

Does the title comment on the (conflicting) notion that power is dictated by either science or religion in a contemporary society?

Here is a pull-out quote from the novel which is relevant to the title:

“What happened here can only be described as a truly global effect of consciousness, almost like a global mind’s inchoate thoughts. Some would even go far enough to call it the Mind of God.”

What’s next? :D

Recovery from my stroke!! I need to get my strength and sanity back. But yes, Liz Greene will be back, in an environmental thriller. Watch this space :)

***

Becoming Iman: a media personality tells of her religious conversion, before being born again in the light of reason, writes Gillian Anstey

Published in the Sunday Times

Becoming Iman ****
Iman Rappetti, Pan Macmillan, R285

Iman Rappetti an award-winning journalist who has been involved in print, radio and television. She worked as a young journalist in South Africa and then abandoned it (along with all her worldly possessions) when she became Muslim. She lived in the Islamic Republic of Iran for two years, where she also worked on a current affairs TV show for the state broadcaster before returning to South Africa and resuming her life here. Now In her memoir, Iman shares stories and what she has learned from her colourful journey through life. Pic: Moeletsi Mabe. ©Sunday Times.

Iman Rappetti is likable. Convivial, affable, charming – describe it as you wish, she’s all of those and more. She engages with people as if they are the only other being in her universe. Combine that with supreme eloquence and it’s no wonder she is such a hit on TV (she recently left eNCA after 11 years) and her morning radio show on Power FM.

So the idea of Rappetti publishing a memoir is appealing, a chance to find out what helped create her effervescent personality.

Except nothing prepared me for Becoming Iman. Within a few pages, I was gasping with shock, and though that intensity became mild surprise at times and, at others, disbelief tinged with sadness, it also provoked much raucous laughter – all in all, a most satisfying read.

Her publishers were similarly taken aback. Rappetti says when she approached Terry Morris of Pan Macmillan, hopeful she’d be interested in a book compilation of the popular philosophical introductions to her radio show, Morris and her colleague said they made them want to discover more about Rappetti. They knew her career, of course, and “they know my background, a little bit, but they didn’t know (she pauses for a second) My Story. And then afterwards they were like ‘What?’”

It is this “story” that makes Rappetti’s memoir so extraordinary. Though even without its crucial elements, her life has not been mundane. There have been dramas aplenty, such as two siblings appearing from nowhere during the course of her childhood; another she barely knew because he lived with their affluent paternal grandparents; and the father she adored who found the Lord and transformed from an abuser to a loving husband.

Rappetti’s “story” is revealed in her memoir’s title; she literally became Iman. She was born Vanessa, a name her family still uses, and chose Iman, which means “faith” in Arabic, when she became Muslim, which she describes as “the descent into obsessive observance”. She says she was “an extremist Muslim, and for me extreme means following it 100%, not the negativity associated with extremism”.

Her husband, whom she never names, also converted and they followed the same “journey of discovery and adventure” to Iran to study their new religion further, a devotion which often saw her fast for an extra month of Ramadan, “to make up for the years I had lost in unbelief”.

So orthodox, she even shaved off her hair to not have to worry about tendrils escaping from her headscarf. “I wanted nothing to take my eyes off the book that was my oxygen and my reason for living,” she writes.

Rappetti lived like this for about six years. Then she found herself pretending to pray. Feeling suffocated, she writes: “As the laws began to have a material impact on how I was able to live, progress and aspire in society, as I began to live in a lesson, I realised that despite my best hopes, the truth was that I would never be an equal citizen in that construct and that it is the fragility of men it seeks to scaffold and muscularise.”

Today she declares: “I do not believe that God exists, I don’t.” And she is raising her three children without formal religion.

“My children have always grown up in a house where we strive for moral consciousness … for employing our ability to reason. It’s up to them to make the decision whether they want faith one day,” she says.

And her ex-husband? He is a “virulent atheist” also living back in South Africa.

Perhaps her daily inspirational radio message is a type of sermon but she doesn’t believe she has substituted faith with something else. If anything, “it’s the ritual of cooking, the ritual of self-indulgence and of having fun. I always joke and say my true north is joy. So whatever takes us there, if it is a good pot of curry, if it’s horsing around with the kids or eating something delicious or being with people, that’s what I have, if you want to say, replaced things with.”

At the time of her conversion she signed a paper written as a contract, titled “Reasons why you should not drive”. Her turnaround is that she is now a self-confessed speed demon. “Give me a Bugatti Veyron, give me a Lamborghini Aventador, give me a BMW i8 and, by the way, Rolls-Royce have just come out with a brilliant new SUV! Can I please have one of those? Apparently it hauls ass… I love speed, I do. It makes me feel free!”

Becoming Iman

Book details

“I wanted more scope for her … more focus on her virtues and flaws.” Madeline Miller discusses Circe with Diane Awerbuck

Published in the Sunday Times

Circe *****
Madeline Miller Bloomsbury, R295


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Men are pigs. Ask Homer, who wrote in the eighth century BCE about heroic Odysseus trying to get home to Ithaca after the Trojan War. In The Odyssey Homer devotes two chapters to Circe, a beautiful witch. When Odysseus and his weary sailors land on her island paradise, she turns them into pigs.

But Madeline Miller gives the goddess a makeover in her second brilliant novel, Circe. The great Odysseus gets a taut two chapters, and Circe has to teach herself “the simple mending of the world”.

Miller says she always starts a book with an idea about a character, and waits until she has a strong sense of their voice. Circe, traditionally “a sexy, dangerous witch, a villain, an obstacle to be overcome”, presented a challenge and an opportunity. “I wanted more scope for her,” says Miller, “more focus on her virtues and flaws” than the huge works of literature, such as The Odyssey and The Iliad, allow.

“I have a background in theatre, so I’m always imagining being in her skin, seeing through her eyes, hearing her delivering the monologue. I like it to feel organic. Natural. So it took me a long time to hear her voice.”

Seven years, to be exact. Not quite as long as it took Odysseus to circumnavigate the known and unknown world, but close. Miller sets out to rehabilitate the witch, and concludes that heroism comes in different forms.

Is Circe a feminist character? “Definitely,” says Miller. “I always felt her otherness.” Rejected by her Titan parents, considered a figure of fun by the other nymphs for her soft heart, and exiled to a faraway island, Circe teaches herself magic. She learns through bitter experience to deal both in healing and the darker arts.

Is writing a similar kind of witchcraft? “Absolutely, I recognise that,” says Miller. “It’s research and hard work and making it happen, day after day – but there is also that inexplicable thing that happens. Call it muse or intuition or inspiration, the way your mind shifts. But you also have to keep showing up.”

Miller has always been fascinated by stories. “I remember from the time I was five or so, my mother would read these epic tales to me, and I loved how big and exciting and real they felt. They were intense and adult – there were monsters, and grief and desire and pain and love.” Circe is so compelling because it is pacy but also literary: Miller writes so clearly and with such yearning and wisdom that the book is a spellbinding immersion in a terrifying, believable and satisfying universe.

It is at once familiar and unsettling. “Like the best cover songs,” I suggest, “the ones where the tune or the words are familiar but the singer has elevated it into a completely different experience.” Miller is unconvinced. “It’s not only songs,” she says. “As a writer I’m very conscious of being part of these epic narratives, both ancient and modern – from The Odyssey and The Iliad and all those guys, but also from Tennyson – the traditions established over millennia.”

And Miller’s own voice is utterly distinctive, keen and kind. Circe shows how experience transforms us: nymphs change into sea monsters; rapists morph into pigs; a heartless goddess becomes a selfless parent: “What creature,” Circe asks herself, “lies within me?”

Miller argues that being human is banal and unfair, but also wonderful and terrible. Men may become pigs, but the gods are worse: they are eternal. Mortals can be both heroes and monsters. We get the whole pantheon – grief, and desire, and pain, and love.

Book details

Read an excerpt from Lesego Rampolokeng’s Bird-Monk Seding, shortlisted for the Barry Ronge Fiction Prize

Published in the Sunday Times

Lesego Rampolokeng is a poet, word performer, and the author of 12 books, including two plays and three novels. He has collaborated with visual artists, playwrights, film-makers, theatre and opera producers, and musicians. His no-holds-barred style, radical political aesthetic and instantly recognisable voice have brought him a unique place in South African literature.

The gathered, sweating, angry-to-trembling Afrikaners in the dusty street want it to have been an attempt at rape. An assault on their grasping at white nationhood. The hands are on the guns. The trucks roar, eager to grab whoever it was. Old woman speaking, the one who lives in the house opposite, with her Parkinson’s-diseased geriatric husband who can only hobble a quarter step at a time from the door to the gate, and her divorced, middle-aged, bulimic daughter. She speaks fast, her squeaky vice trying to rise above the deep-throat growls of the trucks and their old-republic-clad occupants. She prattles fast about how i am a good person, i live in that little house behind the trees, i help out… and it is to not have them turn their murder-intent and fire attention on me… Yes, they gathered in, wanting it to have been an attempt at despoiling this white woman.

And the victim… she struts, the attention bringing a little colour, in vain, to her face. She is walking off her soles, bouncing, glad. She looks like crumpled khaki, like brown paper wrapper out in the elements too long. Like she has been through storms, wind, dust then drain-water drenched and cast out in the driving sun. Pink blotched some kind of symmetry across the face. Deep lined, the visage. Trenches cutting in and across. Thin to the bone, you can see the bones sticking out on both shoulders, desperately holding her shirt up. She bathes in the harsh light of her victimhood. For a change because always when she walks past, the boers look at her. Surreptitiously, the grimaces forming, and steal their glances away, never staring.

Ashamed.

She is no boeremeisie to hold up in pride of the Van Riebeeck and oom Paul Kruger old tradition. She hustles all – black, white – for money in the street. The pale skin peeling off her face. She collects and sells scrap metal across the freeway and…you need not be told but you can see the drug-hunger. The craze behind the skinless eyes.

This day her two children, 6 and 8, ran screaming down the dirt-street and cries filled the air. I ran out. And heard through the trees bordering our properties my AWB neighbour furiously saying, loud-voiced – i later learned it was into her telephone – ‘kom gou…kom gou’ and blabbering incoherently, other things. By the time i got to the gate there were three trucks and a couple of cars gathered in the street, guns on show. A police car arrives, and the police are bored, one yawning. It is Monday morning.

They don’t believe this rape story. The AWB neighbour, predatory, like the smell of blood was in the air and the wounded close by, was wafting and floating around, holding centre-court.

Book details

Book Bites: 3 June

Published in the Sunday Times

Golden Prey
****
John Sandford, Simon & Schuster, R290

Sandford’s novels, featuring the independently wealthy and suave Minnesota detective Lucas Davenport, all have the word Prey in the title. After 28 books, not only the titles but the writing was getting a bit hackneyed. And then, voila! Sandford pulls a rabbit out of a hat. The latest Davenport mystery is back to his pacy, thrilling best as Davenport – now with the US Marshals service – hunts a brace of killers in Mississippi, racing against a mob torturer known as the “Queen of home improvement tools”. The plotting is good, the characterisation of the baddies chillingly convincing. Good to know that old Davenport still has some mileage in his crisply laundered chinos. William Saunderson-Meyer @TheJaundicedEye

You Have to be Gay to Know God
*****
Siya Khumalo, Kwela Books, R255

We’ve all read the stories about how many members of the LGBTQI+ community in South Africa are treated badly because of who they are. And then we go on with our daily lives. Siya Khumalo does something else. His journey of growing up in a Durban township and being gay is narrated in the most perfectly painful way. As he searches for truth in a newly democratic South Africa, Siya’s story is filled with uncompromising and uncomfortable realities that many have never experienced. It’s a narrative we shouldn’t ignore and Siya’s brutally honest writing knocks at our conscience. There is no negotiation in this story. Jessica Levitt @jesslevitt

How I Lose You
***
Kate McNaughton, Doubleday, R290

This book is a sob fest. Don’t read it if you are still grieving over a loved one dying. Eva and Adam are married and they go out to a party in London. They have a good time, but the next morning Eva wakes up next to a cold Adam. Only 31 years old, he died in the night from a heart attack. Eva’s grief is palpable. McNaughton then takes us back in time to see how their love developed — a holiday in New York during 9/11, falling in love on a weekend away, fighting about jealousy and meeting each other’s parents. The whole gamut of a relationship. For fans of One Day and The Notebook. Jennifer Platt @Jenniferdplatt

Book details