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University of Johannesburg Prizes Judge Craig MacKenzie Comments on Winning Books: Life Underwater and Entanglement

Craig MacKenzie, one of the judges for the 2012/2013 University of Johannesburg Prizes for Creative Writing, has written about the winning books, Life Underwater by Ken Barris, which won the UJ Prize for South African Writing in English, and Entanglement by Steven Boykey Sidley, which won the UJ Debut Prize.

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Life UnderwaterKen Barris has won the 2013 UJ Prize for South African Writing in English with his novel Life Underwater (Kwela, 2012). Set chiefly in Port Elizabeth in the 1960s, the novel chronicles the childhood and early adulthood of three brothers: Jude, Simon and Eli Machabeus. From the first page it crackles with vitality: the characters are not just three-dimensional and believable; they are also charged with an energy that constantly simmers just below the surface of Machabeus family life.

As the novel’s title suggests, the sea plays a significant role in the lives of the boys, who swim, dive and surf. In the opening sequence we witness one of Simon’s oyster-fishing dives in which he nearly drowns. Distracted by the dazzling seabed, or perhaps unconsciously enacting an unacknowledged death-wish, he stays down too long and nearly blacks out. The passage is a perfect opener to a novel that has a dark undertow. Barris skilfully sustains this narrative tension until the novel’s climactic last sequence, which deals with the death of the father and the reunion of the estranged brothers –Jude flies in from London, Eli from New York, while the “functional alcoholic” Simon has remained in Port Elizabeth.

One of the many strengths of Life Underwater is its narrative structure. The long first section of the novel (three-quarters of its extent) has chapters that alternate between Simon and Eli, with Eli’s parts told in the first person. We thus get to see the Machabeus family and friends and relatives from different and often conflicting perspectives, which, while providing interest and variety, also reminds us that reality is not something stable and readily graspable. Indeed, a great deal of the conflict between the brothers – which continues right to the end and is clearly irremediable – arises from differing points of view and understandings of life.

A lot of the turbulent energy of the novel stems from the family’s Jewishness: Archie, the father, half-heartedly practises the faith, going through the motions only because, as he frequently confesses, he’s been brainwashed. He nonetheless inflicts shul, Hebrew lessons and various religious observances on his sons, who are reluctant and resentful.

Barris playfully uses Jewish history in casting Jude. Eli, the family chronicler, remarks: “To my mind, Jude is the centre of Machabeus history. The life of this family should be understood as a long and difficult war, fought against the might of Antiochus Epiphanes. It is marked more by factionalism and internecine strife than by any obvious heroism. The outcome remains dubious even to this day, though it is clear that Jude emerges as the most steadfast warrior”.

The irony, of course, is that the historical Judah Maccebeus fought against the Greek-Macedonian Hellenistic state ruled by Antiochus in the second century BCE in order to reinstate the Jewish faith, which Antiochus had banned. The Port Elizabeth Jude Machabeus, on the other hand, shuns religion and instead fights a “lifelong battle [. . .] to drag everything imperfect towards its ideal form, including himself”. This battle is a valiant one, but is, inevitably, doomed to failure.

A major source of tension is the incessant conflict between Jude and Simon. It’s as omnipresent as the notorious Port Elizabeth wind, and one of Barris’s many accomplishments in the novel is his compelling portrayal of this sibling rivalry in its various phases as the boys grow into men. Jude finally gets his say in the last quarter of the novel, which is adroitly narrated in the second person – a device unusual in itself, and also unusually well carried off by Barris. The tension that is palpable from the novel’s opening finally erupts, and the reader comes to understand the hitherto unsympathetic Jude far better.

Barris captures Port Elizabeth’s spirit of place – its beauty together with its provincial somnolence – with great skill. Upon his return for his father’s funeral Jude muses that the town is “so thinly scraped on the edge of the carapace of Africa, so far from the centres of the world, so isolated from the histories that matter”. Life Underwater is a remarkable evocation of a place, an era and a family. Carefully crafted, and characterised by incisive descriptions like the above one, it brings into focus a time and place that has not often been the subject of such memorable literary treatment.

EntanglementSteven Boykey Sidley takes the UJ Debut Prize for his riveting first novel Entanglement (Picador Africa, 2012). This thriller-cum-novel-of-ideas is set mainly in an unidentified part of the US, with a foray into London. In an interesting trend among emerging South African writers (Lauren Beukes and Amanda Coetzee are two other recent examples), Boykey Sidley eschews South African settings and themes entirely.

The novel opens and closes with addresses to graduating students by college professor Jared Borowitz. The first is arrogant and cynical, the second humble and heartfelt. What happens in between these two addresses is what changes Borowitz and utterly engrosses the reader.

The first catalyst to a change in Borowitz’s attitude is a visit to his dying mentor, an eminent scientist. The nature of the last encounter between the sage and his student is startlingly unexpected, and the younger man starts to have doubts about his settled views on life. But he needs something much more visceral and life-threatening to convince him that he doesn’t have all of the answers after all.

A little time later, Borowitz, now back in the States, heads into the country with his girlfriend and some friends for what is intended to be a rejuvenating and fun weekend. But his casual arrogance sets him on a collision course with a local forest-dweller at a nightclub in the nearby town, and events take a nightmarish turn for the worse.

Entanglement is a compelling, unputdownable novel, but it is much more than a thriller, and lingers long in the mind afterwards. It ranges over aesthetics, sex, philosophy, religion and science, among many other things, but always in a way that is fresh and vital. Boykey Sidley has the rare ability to deal with weighty matters in a deft and engaging manner. This makes Entanglement a very memorable debut.

Craig MacKenzie is Professor of English at the University of Johannesburg and a panellist on the UJ Prize. This article was first published in the Mail & Guardian.

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