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In a state of emergency: Michele Magwood chats to Marita van der Vyver about her latest novel You Lost Me

The French terror attacks change the world view of a disconsolate South African writer in this novel, writes Michele Magwood for the Sunday Times

You Lost Me You Lost Me
Marita van der Vyver (Penguin)

Willem Prins trudges the streets of Paris, disconsolate and depressed. He is, he believes, “a mediocre father, a mediocre writer who leads a mediocre life. How does one endure one’s own mediocrity?” he wonders. Greying and paunchy, Prins is a middling author at home in South Africa, good enough to be short-listed for literary prizes, but never the winner. His early promise as a leonine, Che Guevara-like novelist has never come to much. To make ends meet he has started writing soft porn – “clitlit” – under the pseudonym Lolita Meyer.

This is the first time that Marita van der Vyver has written a male protagonist. “When you’re a female writer, writing mostly female characters, you’re categorised as ‘just’ a woman’s writer,” she says. “I wanted to punch a hole in that box, which is why I chose a male character.”

Prins is mortified when one of his Lolita books is picked up by a French publisher, but when she invites him to the launch in Paris he decides to go, hoping to see his estranged son who has been raised by his first wife and her French husband in the city.

The trip will shake his world view to its very foundations.

First, his son, Maurice, who has a doctorate in philosophy, is a tattooed, pierced, dreads-in-a-topknot waiter in a vegetarian restaurant. His girlfriend Nabila is Muslim, of Tunisian descent. And then there’s the irreverent Jackie, a South African working in Paris, a sprite in pink Doc Martens with a cloud of an Afro. Together the trio of youngsters begin to shift his sclerotic ennui, and his thoughts of suicide recede.

When he and Jackie escape the November 13 attacks in Paris, leaving a cafe minutes before a gunman opens fire on it, Prins is forced to rethink his life. “Tonight is the kind of night that can turn all your certainties into uncertainties.” Unable to contact Maurice, he is deranged with worry, grasping at a forsworn God: “Please, he prays to some or other intelligent higher being he suddenly wishes he could believe in again, please, let my son be safe.”

Van der Vyver was at her home in Provence on the night of the attacks, but equally worried about her three adult sons, one of whom has a girlfriend in Paris and the other two who go to music concerts nearly every weekend. It was only at 2am that she had located them all and ensured they were safe.

“Even so, you feel the horror. I still see it in my children, I see it in their friends, I see it in the French people around me. And then there was the Nice attack, which is much closer to where I live. It’s getting closer and closer. We’re still in a state of emergency. Isn’t it ironic? I left South Africa to live in France and I’m living in a state of emergency.”

On her website Van der Vyver reproduces the diary she kept while writing You Lost Me. It’s a fascinating insight into the process of producing a novel, the research, the plotting, the rewriting. Most surprising is the insecurity she feels about her writing. Despite dozens of books, children’s stories and reams of essays and journalism, she still doubts herself. “The insecurity gets worse,” she laughs, “because people expect more of you and your own standards get higher.”

It’s not stopping her, though. She is full of ideas for more books. “Stories are all around us all the time. Once you have your antennae out, you just have to pick them up.”

Follow Michele Magwood @michelemagwood

•You Lost Me is also available in Afrikaans as MisverstandMisverstand

•Listen to the podcast

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