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Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

In Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu’s debut novel there is no distinction between the real and the magical, writes Kate Sidley

Published in the Sunday Times

The Theory of Flight ****
Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu, Penguin Books, R270

Imogen “Genie” Zula Nyoni, the gap-toothed heroine of Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu’s debut novel, The Theory of Flight, is said to have hatched from a golden egg.

She inhabits an idyllic childhood, playing among the sunflowers with her friend Marcus. Her life changes when adult concerns interfere. Marcus’s parents take him away. And soldiers – the feared red berets – bring death and horror to the village.

When the author was just seven the men with the red berets entered her own idyllic childhood on the plot of land her grandfather owned in Zimbabwe.

“I remember the sunflowers and having that space to let my imagination run wild. And I also know we had droughts, we had the men with the red berets. My memories of my childhood have to contain both those things. Not to take away from the atrocity, but people are able to go through horrible things and still live and laugh and love each other.”

This is the challenge of post-colonial literature, says Ndlovu.

“How do we tell the story of where we come from without reducing it to the doom and gloom you see on the TV news?”

The novel is set in an unnamed southern African country – a smart choice which relieves her of the burden of a real country’s deep history and inevitable complexity.

She is able to look at the issues of Zimbabwe – war and HIV and homelessness run through this book – without them overwhelming the essentially human story, the story of Genie’s life, and the author’s other themes: love and loss and friendship and the transformative power of imagination.

The tale emerges through the lives of a few families and intriguing characters, from colonial times to the present.

There’s Genie’s father, Golide Gumede, a revolutionary who endured Soviet winters to study aeronautical engineering and build a plane, “because he understood that after the war – when independence arrived – people would need to know that they were capable of flight”. And her mother, Elizabeth Nyoni, a self-styled Dolly Parton in a blonde wig, with dreams of Nashville. There are farmers, war veterans, a journalist, street kids and the brutal bureaucrats of The Organisation of Domestic Affairs.

Ndlovu is a gifted storyteller, skillfully interweaving the real and the magical, beauty and devastation, historical and personal perspectives, simplicity and complexity. She has a vivid imagination and the tale shimmers with magic, though she balks at the “magical realism” label.

“I simply told this story as honestly as I could, in the way stories have always been told around me, with no distinction between what is magical and what is real. My job as a writer is not to confine my imagination, but to use all the elements I need.”

Her background as a filmmaker informs her writing: “It was important to me to try to capture all of what was happening from the best vantage point I could have. As a writer you have this all-seeing ability but in real life you only see something from a certain angle. So each character sees Genie differently, and she has a definite understanding of herself, even when the other characters don’t. When you have multiple viewpoints and voices, there is nuance.”

She adds: “I experience the world visually and try to communicate that vision through the careful use of words. If I can’t get you to see why Golide has fallen in love with Elizabeth’s ankle, then I’ve failed.”

In this case, she succeeds – both in the telling of Golide’s ankle-inspired infatuation, and in the book itself, which is a marvellous and unusual flight of fancy. When Genie dies, and flies away on huge silver wings, she will take a little piece of your heart with her. @KateSidley

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If anything, So Much Life Left Over is a study of the nature of marriage and faithfulness, writes Michele Magwood of Louis de Bernières’ new novel

Published in the Sunday Times

Louis de Bernières’ latest novel is character-driven. Picture: David Levenson/Getty Images

 

So Much Life Left Over ****
Louis de Bernières, Harvill Secker, R290

Louis de Bernières’ new novel picks up where he left off in The Dust that Falls from Dreams, though you do not have to have read that to appreciate this book. It opens in a valley in colonial Ceylon in the years after World War 1, where two former fighter pilots are shooting the breeze as well as a row of tin cans.

“Daniel Pitt and Hugh Bassett suffered from the accidie of not being at war. Even in a land as beautiful and surprising as Ceylon, they missed the extremes of experience that had made them feel intensely alive during the Great War, in spite of its penumbra of death.” They, and other survivors, “had so much life left over that it was sometimes hard to cope with”.

Daniel loves Ceylon and his job on a tea plantation, but when his wife Rosie gives birth to a stillborn baby, she falls into a depression and insists that they return to England to the bosom of her sprawling family.

De Bernières employs a multi-hued, multi-voiced technique to narrate the story, which is character- rather than plot-driven.

Rosie has three sisters: the giddy Sophie, married to a doubting Anglican minister, Ottilie who is in love with Daniel’s brother but who settles for another, and Christabel, a Bohemian who lives with a woman artist in a distinctly Bloomsbury setup.

If anything, So Much Life Left Over is a study of the nature of marriage and faithfulness. Affairs abound, loves go unrequited, they burgeon or sour and are compromised. Some fly. One senses a society bewildered, groping for purpose even as it trudges towards another war.

Colourful and quickly moving, De Bernières counters humour with darker strokes. Daniel’s heroic, officer brother becomes a street-sweeping drunk; his son will have nothing to do with him.

Most moving of all is the character of the gardener, Oily Wragge. Wragge spends his days hiding in a cave beneath the conservatory, trying to shut out his nightmares of the war in Mesopotamia, the death marches and his slavery in Anatolia: “Starved and ill, in heat so scorching it can’t be imagined or told, without food, without water, we are driven along by Arab horsemen. The beatings with rifle butts, the trampling of the dying. Shit running down our legs, pains like childbirth in our guts. Yallah! Yallah! Move on! Move on!”

As the guns of war sound yet again, De Bernières leaves the stage open for the last book in the trilogy. @michelemagwood

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La Bastarda: the Equatorial Guinean novel that defied the censor’s order to shut up

Published in the Sunday Times

By Tiah Beautement

Trifonia Melibea Obono’s La Bastarda has won universal acclaim for its commentary on the harmful nature of genderised societal norms.

 
La Bastarda ****
Trifonia Melibea Obono, translated by Lawrence Schimel, Modjaji, R220

Calling a novel brave has become a cliché; but La Bastarda truly is a work of courage. It’s written by Trifonia Melibea Obono, the first Equatorial Guinean woman writer to be translated into English. Yet Africa’s only Spanish-speaking country banned the book.

“This novel was a scandal in my country,” Obono says, via her book’s translator, Lawrence Schimel. “It was forbidden to discuss its homosexual content in the media. It had a great success in Spain and reached Equatorial Guinea on the rebound. Its success was such that even though I have written four novels, nobody forgets La Bastarda. It’s the book of rebellion, they say.”

The story follows teenager Okomo. Defying her maternal grandmother, Okomo attempts to locate her biological father, not considered her dad in Fang tradition. During her search, she meets her gay uncle, who has been cast out of the community.

Through friends and acquaintances, Okomo finds herself questioning traditions in village society and Fang culture. This leads her to revelations about her own sexuality, taboo in her society.

In one of the story’s most heart-wrenching moments, Okomo discovers that while her culture has a word for gay men, there isn’t one for women. The teen laments: “If you don’t have a name, you’re invisible, and if you’re invisible, you can’t claim any rights.”

Obono explains: “In Okomo’s tradition, women are not people but just property of men. A woman’s sexuality is in the service of her ethnicity, of reproduction. Okomo, who represents womanhood, vindicates the right to be visible, to be an activist, and to enjoy a fundamental right: sexuality.”

The story came at huge personal cost to the writer. “I already lived openly,” Obono says. “But a book like La Bastarda in a closed society pulls you out of the closet on an institutional level. Relatives and friends called my mother to tell them her daughter disobeyed tradition and her place as a woman inside it, writing this filth.”

She continues, “I feel alone as a woman who writes about a marginalised group. I feel alone for not being heteronormative. I feel alone because I have lightish skin and don’t fit into the racial categories of my country: black, white, mulatta. I feel alone for not lightening my skin. I feel alone for not putting on make-up or wearing high heels. I feel alone for not belonging to the masculine gender nor the female: I’m a mix of both.

“The moment comes when you decide to be yourself, without complexes or categories. And you’re happy. I have friendships that don’t abandon me, books, writing – by loving them so much I keep myself sane.” @ms_tiahmarie

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“It was an opportunity to speak to the criminals, to tell their untold story.” Jonas Bonnier discusses his first true crime novel, The Helicopter Heist, with Mila de Villiers

Published in the Sunday Times

The Helicopter Heist is Swedish author Jonas Bonnier’s riveting first true crime novel. Author picture supplied.

 
The Helicopter Heist ****
Jonas Bonnier, Bonnier, R270

Nordic noir is all the rage nowadays – from Jo Nesbo to Henning Mankel to The Killing – yet Jonas Bonnier, author of the Scandi true crime thriller The Helicopter Heist, is “not at all interested in crime or crime novels”.

The Helicopter Heist is an exhilarating read based on the 2009 Västberga helicopter robbery; the heist was executed by four men and one spectacular helicopter roof-landing. The foursome broke into a Group 4 Securicor (G4S) cash depot in Stockholm, making off with 39-million kronor (about R88m). The criminals were caught. The money was never retrieved.

Marketed as “true crime fiction” (much to the affable Swede’s amusement), Bonnier states that he never considered writing a non-fiction account of the heist, reasoning that “I’m not a good non-fiction writer”.

Bonnier was approached by his agent to write the book; hesitant at first, he was persuaded when his agent asked him whether he would be interested in meeting the perpetrators.

“I thought, ‘Okay, I’ve never met any of the characters in my book before’,” he laughs. (The Helicopter Heist is his ninth book.)

“It was an opportunity to speak to the criminals, to tell their untold story. I can’t even imagine this novel written by me if I hadn’t met them.” Meeting with them convinced him to write the book.

The eccentric millionaire character known as Zoran in thenbook (Bonnier provided pseudonyms for the four perps) made a profound impression on Bonnier. He describes the man as a “larger than life character” who had “just stepped out of a novel”. This owing to the fact that “Zoran” ordered a glass of lukewarm water which he didn’t touch once (a trait shared with the fictionalised version of the criminal) and his wealth and extravagant lifestyle (think annual trips to the Cannes Film Festival and horse races in Monte Carlo.)

“I fell so in love with this character!” says Bonnier.

The other three perpetrators who, despite previous incarcerations, remain involved in Sweden’s underworld, were eager to meet Bonnier.

“There’s this hierarchy in prison in Sweden and if you’re a robber you’re the shit,” Bonnier explains.

“And if you’re a robber and you used a helicopter – to some extent,” Bonnier interrupts himself, “I hadn’t used this word yet – but to some extent I think they’re proud of what they actually did.”

Bonnier maintains that the characters’ back stories are “very accurate”.

Zoran aside, the character of Sami is a petty thief-turned-family-man who reverts to his old ways; Michal, a charming and savvy Lebanese criminal who grew up in the impoverished suburbs of Stockholm; and the reckless adrenaline junkie, Niklas, whose appetite for adventure makes him agree to participate in the heist before one can say “Bloukrans bungee!”

During the “hours and hours” that Bonnier sat down with the four men, he did not once ask them about past crimes they’d committed, but focused on character sketches.

“I asked them if they played Nintendo or Sega as kids. I asked them very specific questions that I needed to get out of them, like ‘if you walk up to a bar, what do you order?’”

Bonnier believes two members of the heist squad have read the book and knows for certain that the Michal character had “loved it”.

“I specifically asked him what his friends thought and he said ‘no, no – everybody on every end-station likes it’.”

“End-stations” refers to the final stop of a Swedish subway route and they’re usually in very rough neighbourhoods. “So, the criminals enjoy it!” Bonnier relays with unbridled mirth.

As The Helicopter Heist is based on true events, Bonnier had to maintain a balance between fact and fiction; he says it is “tricky”. Readers would regularly ask him if particular passages were true, and after delivering his first draft to his publishers, he was told that a certain scene was not believable. “Well, that scene was something true!” says Bonnier.

Bonnier used the age-old adage of truth-is-stranger-than-fiction to his advantage: “I realised that nobody would be able to tell the truth apart from fiction and if I had presented the book as ‘pages one to five are true and then there’s some fiction’, I would have skipped the fiction parts. So I tell them it’s all true!” he chortles.

That the criminals were able to pull off the heist was “almost unbelievable”, says Bonnier. He was fascinated by how the foursome went about planning the heist: “I mean, to blow up a roof is not just to blow up a roof! You have to use so many different techniques and find roofs in Stockholm that are constructed in the same way [as the roof of the GS4] and try it out.

“It’s amazing! I really enjoyed listening to them telling their stories. I also learned a lot about explosives,” he says, cracking up.

This is the first time Bonnier set out to write commercial fiction and he describes the experience as more time consuming than usual as he had less free rein with the content and was reliant on the advice of his publishers and crime-fiction writers. “I didn’t know how to write a crime novel.”

“I tried! I really tried!” is the exasperated response when asked whether he read any crime novels as preparation for writing The Helicopter Heist. “I watched maybe 40 movies – I love movies, and I generally like crime and thriller,” says the Oceans 11 fanatic.

Bonnier isn’t the only fan of heist movies – his gripping romp has been commissioned by Jake Gyllenhaal’s production company and will be released as a Netflix film. Bonnier is credited as a co-producer which, according to him, means that “I might be copied in one of the many e-mails that go around.”

Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises, Peaky Blinders) will be responsible for the script.

“This is a large production, no way will they involve some amateur from Sweden,” Bonnier laughs. “But names are good. Big names are good, especially Jake Gyllenhaal.”

As for what’s next – if it doesn’t involve having to kill off a main character (“I get very, very attached to my characters, as long as they’re alive they’re interesting”), or a disillusioned, divorced drunkard of a detective as protagonist (this man really has it in for his fellow Scandi scribes!) – Bonnier’s definitely interested in trying his hand at a second true crime thriller. If only for the fact that the genre definition makes him snigger. Ja, tak! @mila_se_kind

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Book Bites: 30 September

Published in the Sunday Times

One Way *****
SJ Morden, Gollancz, R295

Frank Kittridge is serving a life sentence for murder, yet that doesn’t stop him being approached to go to Mars. He will be part of a team of skilled inmates who will build and maintain Mars Base One while serving out their sentences. Frank is all in – he could do with a change of scenery. However, when the chain gang arrives on the Red Planet and the crew members start to die, Frank needs to play detective or risk ending up in a body bag. Morden delivers action from the first sentence, a refreshing plot, and a shocker of a twist. Thrilling, hard to put down, and deeply satisfying – this book is the perfect trip for an off-world escape that will leave you reeling. Samantha Gibb @samantha_gibb

A Noise Downstairs **
Linwood Barclay, Orion, R305

Paul Davis is a literature professor who was hit on the head by Kenneth Hoffman, a colleague who happened to have the bodies of two women in the boot of his car when Paul stopped to offer roadside assistance. Now Kenneth is in jail and Paul is at home recovering from his injury but suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. He decides it might help to write about the event on the typewriter his wife has bought him. Then Paul starts hearing typing in the dead of night. Barclay dispenses a basketful of red herrings along the way, but mostly of the good kind – the ones that swim close to the solution while still throwing the amateur sleuth off track. Sue de Groot @deGrootS1

Something in the Water **
Catherine Steadman, Simon & Schuster, R305

Flip. This started off so well. The protagonist googling on how to dig a grave on a dead man’s phone: “a poor burial comes down to three things: 1) lack of time 2) lack of initiative 3) lack of care”. She makes sure she doesn’t make these mistakes. Then we go back a few months. It’s entertaining but Steadman’s characters make it irritating. It’s told from the view of Erin who goes on honeymoon with new husband Mark. While diving in Bora Bora they find a bag filled with diamonds and a million pounds and decide to keep it. They get back to London and things go awry. Sympathy of character is needed to make this a compelling read but Erin and Mark are a bit too unlikeable. Jennifer Platt @Jenniferdplatt

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The 2018 SALA shortlist has been announced!

Via The South African Literary Awards

Celebrating 13th anniversary of their existence, the South African Literary Awards (SALA) have shortlisted twenty three (23) authors from a total of just under two hundred (200) submissions received for 2018. The winners will be announced at a glittering awards ceremony on the 6th November at UNISA.

Following the passing on of the 2nd National Poet Laureate, Prof Keorapetse Kgositsile, the prestigious South African Literary Awards will announce his successor as well as introducing two additional categories: Novel Award and Children’s Literature Award.

The Awards will be followed by the 6th Africa Century International African Writers Conference whose International African Writers Day Lecture will be delivered by Professor Kwesi Kwaa Prah, the renowned, highly respected scholar, prolific author and public speaker, who is also the founder of the Center for Advanced Studies of African Societies in South Africa.

The Conference is also taking place at UNISA over two days, i.e. 6th and 7th November 2018.

“We are excited that South African literature continues to flourish, with many young writers coming into the scene, sharing platforms with their more established and experienced counterparts,” said Morakabe Seakhoa, Project Director of the South African Literary Awards.

Seakhoa, however, expressed sadness and concern that “we still see less and less of works written in African languages”.

Founded by the wRite associates, in partnership with the national Department of Arts and Culture (DAC) in 2005, the main aim of the South African Literary Awards is to pay tribute to South African writers who have distinguished themselves as groundbreaking producers and creators of literature, while it celebrates literary excellence in the depiction and sharing of South Africa’s histories, value systems and philosophies and art as inscribed and preserved in all the languages of South Africa, particularly the official languages.

With thirteen successful years of existence, thirteen categories and over 161 authors honoured, the SA Literary Awards have become the most prestigious and respected literary accolades in the South African literary landscape. SALA prides itself in not only acknowledging established authors but as a platform to budding writers through the First-time Published Author Award category.

We congratulate the 2018 nominees for their sterling work and keeping South Africa’s literary heritage alive.

First-time Published Author Award

Celesté Fritze: Verlorenkop (Afrikaans)

Malebo Sephodi:Miss Behave (English)

Creative Non- Fiction Award

Deon Maas: Melk die heilige koeie: Van baarde en banting tot Zupta and zol (Afrikaans)

Jurgen Schadeberg: The Way I See It (English)

Sello Duiker Memorial Literary Award

NO SHORTLIST

Poetry Award

Johan Myburg: Uittogboek (Afrikaans)

Kelwyn Sole: Walking, Falling (English)

Literary Translators Award

Jeff Opland and Peter Mtuze: Umoya Wembongi: Collected Poems (1922 – 1935) by John Solilo (isiXhosa to English)

Jeff Opland and Peter Mtuze: Iziganeko Zesizwe: Occasional Poems (1900-1943) by S.E.K. Mqhayi (isiXhosa to English)

Nadine Gordimer Short Story Award

Nick Mulgrew: The First Law of Sadness (English)

Nicole Jaekel Strauss: As in die mond (Afrikaans)

Novel Award

Dan Sleigh: 1795 (Afrikaans)

Rehana Rossouw: New Times (English)

Children’s Literature Award

Marilyn J Honikman: There should have been five (English)

Jaco Jacobs: Daar’s nie ʼn krokodil in hierdie boek nie (Afrikaans)

Jaco Jacobs: Moenie hierdie boek eet nie (Afrikaans)

Marita van der Vyver: Al wat ek weet (Afrikaans)

Posthumous Literary Award

To be announced at the award ceremony: Body of work

Literary Journalism Award

To be announced at the award ceremony: Body of work

Lifetime Achievement Literary Award

Hermann Giliomee: Body of work (Afrikaans)

Ronnie Kasrils: Body of work (English)

Chairperson’s

To be announced at the award ceremony: Body of work

National Poet Laureate

To be announced at the award ceremony: Body of work

Verlorenkop

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Verlorenkop by Celesté Fritze
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EAN: 9780795801068
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Miss Behave

Miss Behave by Malebo Sephodi
EAN: 9781928337416
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Melk die heilige koeie

Melk die heilige koeie by Deon Maas
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EAN: 9780624081166
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The Way I See It

The Way I See It: A Memoir by Jürgen Schadenberg
EAN: 9781770105294
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Uittogboek

Uittogboek by Johan Myburg
EAN: 9781485307761
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Walking, Falling

Walking, Falling by Kelwyn Sole
EAN: 9780987028280
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John Solilo: Umoya wembongi

John Solilo: Umoya wembongi: Collected poems (1922–1935) edited by Jeff Opland, Peter Mtuze
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EAN: 9781869143121
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S.E.K. Mqhayi

S.E.K. Mqhayi: Iziganeko zesizwe: Occasional poems (1900–1943) edited by Jeff Opland, Peter T Mtuze
EAN: 9781869143343
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The First Law of Sadness

The First Law of Sadness by Nick Mulgrew
EAN: 9781485625780
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As in die Mond

As in die Mond by Nicole Jaekel Strauss
EAN: 9780795801358
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1795

1795 by Dan Sleigh
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EAN: 9780624073307
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New Times

New Times by Rehana Rossouw
EAN: 9781431425808
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There Should Have Been Five

There Should Have Been Five by Marilyn Honikman
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EAN: 9780624076568
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Daar's nie 'n krokodil in hierdie boek nie

Daar’s nie ‘n krokodil in hierdie boek nie by Jaco Jacobs, illustrated by Chris Venter
EAN: 9780799383836
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Moenie hierdie boek eet nie!

Moenie hierdie boek eet nie! : ’n Rympie vir elke dag van die jaar by Jaco Jacobs, illustrated by Zinelda McDonald
EAN: 9780799379211
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Al wat ek weet

Al wat ek weet by Marita Van der Vyver
EAN: 9780799378993
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The 2018 Man Booker Prize shortlist has been announced!

The six authors shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize have been announced!

First awarded in 1969, the Man Booker Prize is recognised as the leading prize for high quality literary fiction written in English.

This year’s list features four female writers, among which the 27-year-old British debut novelist Daisy Johnson – the youngest writer ever to be in reckoning for this £50,000 literary award.

The six authors, of which three are from the UK, two American and one Canadian, vying for this esteemed award are as follows:

Anna Burns (UK) for Milkman

Esi Edugyan (Canada) for Washington Black

Daisy Johnson (UK) for Everything Under

Rachel Kushner (US) for The Mars Room

Richard Powers (US) for The Overstory

Robin Robertson (UK) for The Long Take

The winner will be announced on Tuesday 16th October in London’s Guildhall.

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Book Bites: 16 September

Published in the Sunday Times

PontiPonti ***
Sharlene Teo, Picador, R285

In 2003, Szu Min lives shyly in the shadow of her beautiful mother Amisa Tan, a former B-movie actress and her Aunt Yunxi, who works as a medium. In 2020 Szu’s childhood friend Circe is put in charge of the media blitz for the remake of the 1970s horror film Ponti, in which Amisa plays the leading role. This drives Circe to reconsider her friendship with Szu Min and its bitter end. Split between several decades as well as Circe, Szu and Amisa’s perspectives, Ponti is a quietly tragic and slow-moving read exploring grief, abandonment and broken loyalties in Singapore. Though Teo’s debut is atmospheric in language and setting, it fails to satisfy in its resolution. Efemia Chela @efemiachela

A Double LifeA Double Life *****
Flynn Berry, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, R285

Lord Lucan’s disappearance in 1974 still fascinates true-crime aficionados. Berry’s story is told from the point of view of Claire, a London GP who has lived under a new name since her father vanished. Names and dates have been changed in this fictionalised tale but the crime in the novel mirrors the real case: in his absence a court found Lord Lucan guilty of murdering a servant. In this version eight-year-old Claire finds the body of her au pair and still bears the emotional scars. Berry flips between past and present as Claire pursues the only course of action that will free her from her father’s shadow. Sue de Groot @deGrootS1

The Chalk ManThe Chalk Man ****
CJ Tudor, Penguin, R175

If Stephen King and the Duffer Brothers (Stranger Things) had a British love child, her name would be CJ Tudor. The Chalk Man is spine-tingling and deliciously macabre; Tudor spins a tight yarn with remarkable constraint. A gang of pre-teens ride their bikes around town causing mischief when one day they stumble upon a body in the woods. There’s a strange new teacher who coaxes them into playing with chalk, and every time someone dies, creepy chalk men appear near the murder scene. Nothing is as it seems, and everyone seems to be nursing a secret. Right up to the very last page, The Chalk Man thrills and simultaneously terrifies. Anna Stroud @annawriter_

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In an exclusive interview, Kate Atkinson talks to Michele Magwood about spying, Brexit, and World War II

Published in the Sunday Times

Transcription ****
Kate Atkinson, Doubleday, R290

Kate Atkinson was immersed in the National Archives in London when a set of documents caught her eye. Part of one of MI5’s periodic releases of historical records, they concerned a WW2 agent with the code name “Jack King” who infiltrated fascist circles. He posed as a Gestapo agent and would meet members of the so-called “fifth column” in an innocent-looking flat with hidden recording devices. Next door a junior agent transcribed the meetings.

On the telephone from the UK Atkinson describes how it sparked the idea for the new novel.

“I have to have a title before I can even think about a book, so as soon as I’d read those transcriptions I had it. And then I looked up the OED definition and found it is also a word for broadcasting so it fitted perfectly, because I wanted to write about the BBC in wartime.”

Atkinson’s last two books Life After Life and A God in Ruins – both winners of the Costa Prize – were set in World War 2 and she’s nowhere near done with it yet.

Transcription is a story about ambiguity and duplicity, about idealism, loyalty and the lifelong price of those.

Juliet Armstrong is just 18 and an orphan when she is recruited by the secret service in 1940.

Initially she is the typist who transcribes the interviews taking place in the flat next door. She’s a sharp young woman with a delightfully derisive interior voice: for example, her boss is describing the fifth columnists. “Our own home-grown evil … instead of rooting them out the plan is to let them flourish – but within a walled garden from which they cannot escape and spread their evil seed.” A girl could die of old age following a metaphor like this, Juliet thought. “Very nicely put, Sir,” she said.

“I never design a character,” says Atkinson. “I write very, very slowly at the beginning of a novel and that helps to get into that interior voice. I’m inside their heads. But I don’t construct them – they simply exist. I don’t understand the neurological process, the imaginative process that helps that to occur.”

Juliet is not particularly ambitious, she is more interested in romance and going to dance halls, but her boss promotes her to undercover agent. At first she thinks it is a bit of a lark but it quickly becomes deadly serious and she learns, appallingly, what the consequences of espionage can be. As the book moves forward to 1950 and even further to 1981, we wonder whether she can ever be free of the war.

“I’m really interested in the postwar period,” Atkinson explains, “the 10 years after the war. It was so dingy and hard, there was no sense of euphoria, no money, no food still.”

Romanian actress Nadia Gray in the BBC studios, London, England, December 14 1950. Picture: Underwood Archives/Getty Images.

 
Juliet goes to work for the BBC where she produces nostalgic history programmes for children. It’s a safe and uneventful life, until the intelligence services reel her in for one last job.

Atkinson is bemused by the prevailing Brexit jingoism, the idea of a brave Great Britain standing proudly alone in the war.

“I think the war makes us very nostalgic, and let’s not forget that our view of the war is filtered through the propaganda of the time: the Blitz spirit and so on. When in fact crime rates rocketed, illegitimacy rocketed, people complained a lot. Everything was destroyed. Also, we fought for Europe and now we want to let it go, that to me is slightly mystifying.”

Is there more to be revealed from archives?

“Yes, I think there is. The MI5 and secret service archives are sealed – it’s not like the public records where everything gets released after 40 or 50 years – they only release to the public what they choose to, so I imagine there’s a great deal more. But in a way it was an untried service in the war. They were still learning. When you think about what it must be like now, just the technological aspect of what they must be doing, we really don’t know.

“But we don’t know what we don’t know, do we?” @michelemagwood

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The shortlists for the 2017 UJ Prize have been announced!

Via the University of Johannesburg

The shortlists for the 2017 University of Johannesburg Prizes for South African writing have been announced.

The prizes are not linked to a specific literary genre. This may make the evaluation more challenging in the sense that a volume of poetry, a novel and a biographical work must be measured against one another, but the idea is to open the prize to as many forms of creative writing as possible.

Approximately 60 works were submitted this year, from which the following books were selected for the shortlist:

Main Prize:

Dancing the Death Drill by Fred Khumalo

Bird-Monk Seding by Lesego Rampolokeng

New Times by Rehana Rossouw

The Inside-Out Man by Fred Strydom

Debut Prize:

Grace by Barbara Boswell

Killing Karoline by Sara-Jayne King

The main prize is R75 000.

The debut prize is R35 000.

A formal prize-giving ceremony will be held at a function later in the year.

The adjudication panel comprised the following judges:

Sikhumbuzo Mngadi (UJ)

Ronit Frenkel (UJ)

Danyela Demir (UJ)

Rebecca Fasselt (UP)

Bridget Grogan (UJ)

Nyasha Mboti (UJ)

Thabo Tsehloane (UJ)

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