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A palatable aftertaste: Anna Stroud reviews Ken Barris’s The Life of Worm and Other Misconceptions

Published in the Sunday Times

The Life of Worm The Life of Worm and Other Misconceptions
Ken Barris, Kwela
*****

The worlds depicted in The Life of Worm and Other Misconceptions are ordinary, mundane, bizarre and surreal, but always rooted in the beauty of language. Ken Barris is a craftsman – chiselling away at each sentence until it gleams with understated elegance. Three stand-out stories are the titular “The Life of Worm”, “The Olive Schreiner Stall” and “Poor William”. The raw emotion in each is familiar and discomfiting. In the first, we see a man imprisoned in his own paranoia. His house is a fortress and his dog is a beast; yet he still feels unsafe and simmers with rage at something as innocuous as a tree.

In the second, a victim of necklacing tries to reach out to the living from beyond the grave. He fails, in life and in death, to make connections. In “Poor William”, a man comes across a talking ape in his kitchen. This is a complex story, signalling how chance encounters can alter our perceptions forever.

The opening story, “To See the Mountain”, about a writers’ retreat in Cameroon, introduces writing as a major theme. The narrator and his friend wish to see a nearby mountain up close, and embark on a pilgrimage to get near it. Very little writing gets done, as in “The Grand Parade” when a writer sets up a makeshift office in a busy marketplace in Cape Town and witnesses the cruelty and desperation of humans, himself included.

The idea of writing as something that happens under pressure, and perhaps under siege, crescendos in “Really into Timeshare”, where readers can no longer afford to buy whole books and must settle for a few pages at a time.

The mood of the stories is at times gentle and melancholic, like a simple yet exquisite meal that lingers on your palate hours after the plates have been cleared. The collection imparts invaluable knowledge on writing, writers, history, culture, nature, relationships, and the human condition. – Anna Stroud @annawriter_

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