By Kate Sidley for the Sunday Times
This new novel from Rahla Xenopoulos had a difficult entry into the world. A year into writing the book, the author was hit by a terrible depression, and put it aside. “You can’t write in depression,” says Xenopoulos, whose first book, A Memoir of Love and Madness, dealt with living with bipolar disorder. “Maybe you could do beading, or macramé, but you can’t write a book.”
But her characters wouldn’t leave her be. “Every one was relentless,” she says. “They were very driven characters and they got into your brain.” She heeded their insistent call and started again. A few chapters in she had another disaster: mysteriously, her words and letters turned into strange symbols that the techies couldn’t explain or reverse. Third time lucky, she finished the manuscript. “Those people stuck it out. They don’t quit on life and they don’t quit on one another. I love them,” she says.
Sticking it out is, curiously, one of the themes of the novel, which revolves around a group of old friends. Tribe starts off in the heady and hedonistic 90s, with the “tribe” dancing, partying and doing some fairly serious drugging in Ibiza. Inseparable in their wild youth, they grew up and went their separate ways. The drug use of one of the tribe, Jude, moved rather beyond the recreational, and he and his wife Tselane exiled themselves from the group to avoid temptation. 12 years later, after Jude’s suicide attempt, the beautiful Olivia decides that what’s needed for his recovery is a reunion of the old friends, and she arranges for them to get together at the luxury game lodge that one of the tribe owns. It’s there that they discover what their friendship and shared history really counts for.
It’s easy to imagine the stylish Xenopoulos as part of a glam tribe of international partiers, but she says the novel isn’t autobiographical, “I always wanted a gang like that, but I didn’t find my tribe until I was 40. So maybe I was writing this to live out that fantasy of being a member of a tribe.”
But her own reality is fodder for her fiction. “Even when you’re not writing, everything you are taking notice of, the way that man sips his water,” she waves a pale wrist of bangles and delicate tattoos around the coffee shop, “It’s a constant process of ingesting stuff for books. The characters are drawn from people I know, gestures I see, and I think there are aspects of me in every one of them.”
The glam, good-looking cast and the multiple glamourous settings – the game farm, Glastonbury, Notting Hill, Ibiza, Cape Town – suggest a frivolous read, but the novel’s key concerns are deeper. Xenopoulos delves into depression and addiction, not just to alcohol and drugs, but also to screens and connectivity. “That digital addition is in all of us, I think. It’s so hard to disconnect, but I really think we have to, particularly us writers. You find your stories in contact with other human beings.”
With Tribe out in the world, Xenopoulos is hard at work on her next book – a mammoth epic time travel novel based on a Kabbalistic legend. “It’s so unlike me, a complete departure. For the first time, I’ve actually plotted the whole book. It’s a huge job because I always write in longhand first. I believe if you write by computer you write by your brain, by pen, you write from your heart.”
A departure, perhaps, but then Xenopoulos does have the ability to surprise us with some thing different every time she sets her heart – and brain – to the task.
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