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Archive for the ‘International’ Category

“An excellent novel about the issue of comfort women” – Margaret von Klemperer reviews Mary Lynn’s Bracht’s White Chrysanthemum

Published in the Witness: 12/04/2017

White Chrysanthemum
Mary Lynn Bracht, Chatto & Windus

THE issue of “comfort women”, kidnapped by Japanese forces from Korea and China and forced into prostitution for the use of their soldiers is one that has simmered shamefully along since the end of the Second World War.

Neither the Japanese nor the Korean governments have shown sufficient willingness to confront the issue, let alone insist on a genuine apology or reparations from the Japanese side. It has taken determination by the surviving women themselves – now very few – and other activists to drag this horrible episode into the light. They erected a bronze statue of a comfort woman, the Statue of Peace, in Seoul opposite the Japanese embassy: the Japanese demand its removal as the precursor to any kind of admission or apology.

Mary Lynn Bracht, a Korean-American, has taken the subject of comfort women for her very impressive debut novel.

The politics and history of Japan, Korea, China, Manchuria and Mongolia are little known in the West, and make a fascinating and elegantly illuminated backdrop for the stories of two sisters, Hana and Emi. They live on the island of Jeju off the southern tip of the Korean peninsula and are the daughters of a haenyeo, one of the women who dive for fish and crustaceans. Even under Japanese occupation, it was a powerful, matriarchal society, now sadly reduced to little more than a tourist attraction.

Bracht’s novel is told in alternating chapters by Hana and Emi. Hana’s are set in 1943, the year in which, as a young woman diver, she rushed out of the sea in an effort to save her little sister from a Japanese soldier she saw approaching. She did save Emi, but was herself taken captive and removed to a life of abuse and rape at a military brothel in Mongolia. Emi’s story is set in 2011 when she is an elderly woman, consumed by guilt that her sister vanished while protecting her and still desperately trying to find her, or at least discover where she went and what was her fate.

Perhaps Bracht is guilty of striving a little too hard for a sense of closure, if not exactly a happy ending to a story that ended badly for the estimated two hundred thousand women taken into slavery and for those left behind, but this is fiction and in White Chrysanthemum, she has created two powerful and unforgettable characters. And shone a spotlight not only onto an episode that should never be forgotten but onto the plight of women and girls in all theatres of war. An excellent novel.

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Toll of madness, redemption of love – Michele Magwood reviews Zack McDermott’s Gorilla and the Bird

Published in the Sunday Times

Gorilla and the Bird: A Memoir of Madness and a Mother’s Love
Zack McDermott, Piatkus, R315

This book is one of the gems of the year, the true story of a young man who suffers a catastrophic psychotic break and his sliding, slipping climb to normality.

Zack McDermott was a promising public defender in New York, an idealistic man raised working class in Wichita, Kansas, “a baloney sandwich throw from the trailer park”. His mother nicknamed him Gorilla as he was barrel-chested and hirsute. He calls her The Bird because of the small, avian movements she makes with her head. The Bird taught high-school English to the roughest students, gathering “any thug, gang-banger, ex-con or other members of the discard pile” around their dining-room table every afternoon for extra lessons.

It was understandable that he would want to become a lawyer defending “the dregs, the cast-offs, the addicts and the Uncle Eddies”. Uncle Eddie, it turns out, was institutionalised for schizophrenia.

So mental illness is in the family gene pool, but in Zack’s case it has manifested as Bipolar 1 disease.

Pitched straight into the gutting system in New York, he soon feels overwhelmed by the responsibility of his job and the hopelessness of his abject clients.

At the same time he is doing some fairly crazed stand-up comedy at night. He’s smoking dope, not sleeping, not eating. And one morning he steps out into the city believing he is being filmed, Truman-style for a real-life documentary. We want to avert our eyes as he careens through the day, until he ends up shirtless and shoeless on a subway platform, sobbing. From there he is transported by police to the pysch ward, deep in psychosis. Only the Bird can rescue him.

Seeing it from the inside, bipolar is utterly terrifying, and Zack’s struggle – he has more breakdowns – is deeply affecting. But the story belongs to the big-hearted Bird, too, for her determination to not let go of him. @michelemagwood

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Yewande Omotoso shortlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award 2018!

The shortlist for the International Dublin Literary Award 2018 has been announced and it boasts a South African title!

Congratulations to Yewande Omotoso, whose novel The Woman Next Door (Chatto & Windus) was selected as one of the 10 shortlisted titles. This isn’t the first time that Yewande’s literary ingenuity has been recognised – The Woman Next Door was also shortlisted for the Barry Ronge Fiction Prize 2017.

This prestigious award is cited as “the world’s most valuable annual literary prize for a single work of fiction published in English”. Books are nominated for the award by public libraries throughout the world; the South African titles were nominated by Cape Town Library and Information Services. Local authors Mohale Mashigo (The Yearning) and Nthikeng Mohlele (Pleasure) appeared on the longlist.

The winner will be announced on the 13th of June and will receive €100,000.

Good luck, Yewande! :)

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Sunday Times Literary Awards Longlist 2018 announced

Announcing the longlists for South Africa’s most prestigious annual literary awards, the Alan Paton Award for non-fiction and the Barry Ronge Fiction Prize, in association with Porcupine Ridge. The shortlists will be announced in May.


This is the 18th year of the Sunday Times fiction prize, named for Barry Ronge, the arts commentator who was one of the founders of our literary awards. The criteria stipulate that the winning novel should be one of “rare imagination and style . . . a tale so compelling as to become an enduring landmark of contemporary fiction”.

“South African novelists have once again demonstrated their creative power. This year’s longlist invites the reader to tussle with uncomfortable questions of politics, loss, greed, mythology, heroism and trauma.

Vivid storytelling and unflinching characterization help us to explore vulnerabilities in our quest for love, justice, kindness and compassion. What particularly stands out this year is the inspiration drawn from the complicated relationship between fact and fiction. Some of the authors deftly draw us in to grapple with contemporary South African issues of rampant corruption, devastating greed, and gender disparity. Others bravely take us on a tour of an unkind history and give us a new lens through which to examine our reflections.

Many of the stories are deeply personal, allowing the reader to resonate, on a human level, with the characters’ innermost fears, secret fantasies and their darkest sins. The novels will compel you to examine your humanity, question your unease and define your aspirations. The longlist lays bare the complex and confused time we live in. What an incredible joy and honour to have delighted in these stories that pierce at our hearts. It is going to be very difficult to choose one winner.” - Africa Melane


Selling LipService, Tammy Baikie (Jacana Media)

Grace, Barbara Boswell (Modjaji Books)

A Handful of Earth, Simon Bruinders (Penguin Books)

Softness of the Lime, Maxine Case (Umuzi)

Dikeledi, Achmat Dangor (Picador Africa)

Accident, Dawn Garisch (Modjaji Books)

Bare Ground, Peter Harris, (Picador Africa)

I am Pandarus, Michiel Heyns (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

A Thousand Tales of Johannesburg, Harry Kalmer (Penguin)

Dancing the Death Drill, Fred Khumalo (Umuzi)

Asylum, Marcus Low (Picador Africa)

The Blessed Girl, Angela Makholwa (Pan Macmillan)

Johannesburg, Fiona Melrose (Little, Brown)

If I Stay Right Here, Chwayita Ngamlana (Blackbird Books)

The Last Stop, Thabiso Mofokeng (Blackbird Books)

The Third Reel, SJ Naudé (Umuzi)

Unpresidented, Paige Nick (B&N)

Imitation, Leonhard Praeg (UKZN Press)

Bird-Monk Seding, Lesego Rampolokeng (Deep South)

New Times, Rehana Rossouw (Jacana Media)

The Camp Whore, Francois Smith – translated by Dominique Botha (Tafelberg)

Spire, Fiona Snyckers (Clockwork Books)

Son/Seun, Neil Sonnekus (MF Books Joburg)

A Gap in the Hedge, Johan Vlok Louw (Umuzi)

The Shallows, Ingrid Winterbach – translated by Michiel Heyns (Human & Rousseau)


Africa Melane – Chair

Melane is the host of the Weekend Breakfast Show on CapeTalk. He is also an ambassador for LeadSA, an initiative of Primedia Broadcasting and Independent Newspapers. Melane studied accounting at the University of Cape Town and did articles at PwC. He then went on to teach a professional development course to first-year students in the faculty of health sciences at the University of Cape Town. Melane is the chairman of MODILA, a trust that offers educational programmes to raise awareness and provides training in design, innovation, entrepreneurship and art studies. He also serves on the board of Cape Town Opera, Africa’s premier opera company.
Kate Rogan

Rogan is the owner of Love Books, an independent book shop in Johannesburg. Rogan has a degree in English from the University of Cape Town and a post-graduate degree English (Hons) from Stellenbosch University, where she studied under Michiel Heyns. She started her working life as a copywriter at 702, then moved into publishing where she was a commissioning editor at Zebra Press in its early days. She moved back to radio as a producer and for many years produced The Book Show for Jenny Crwys-Williams. In 2009 she started Love Books.

Ken Barris

Barris is a writer, book critic, NRF-rated academic, poet and keen photographer. His work has been translated into Turkish, Danish, French, German and Slovenian, and has appeared in about 30 anthologies. He has won various literary awards, including the Ingrid Jonker Prize, the M-Net Book Prize, and most recently, the University of Johannesburg Prize, for his novel Life Underwater. He has published five novels, two collections of poetry, and two collections of short stories. The most recent, The Life of Worm & Other Misconceptions, was released last year.

This is the 29th year the Alan Paton Award will be bestowed on a book that presents “the illumination of truthfulness, especially those forms of it that are new, delicate, unfashionable and fly in the face of power”, and that demonstrates “compassion, elegance of writing, and intellectual and moral integrity”.

“It is inspiring to note that out of the 25 books on a very prestigious long list, eight have been written by women, and as two of the books have been co-authored, it means we have 10 female authors in the running.

Dominant trends this year include corruption and state capture which are probed mercilessly. The Gupta family’s wheeling and dealing as well as the former President Jacob Zuma’s alleged malfeasance come under intense scrutiny from several quarters. There are journeys into the criminal underworld and insights into past and present spy networks that read like thrillers, and a selection of moving biographies and memoirs of courageous struggles by contemporary and historic figures. These intensely personal accounts help us understand the bigger picture. There are also specialist offerings that delve into topics as diverse as regional history, social activism, sport, anthropology and feminism.

Each of the books on the 2018 long list is like a pointer on a road map, illuminating the place in which we now find ourselves. A common thread running through the longlisted books is the question of how on earth did we get here? At the TRC hearings a sentiment repeated like a litany over many months, was that of people just wanting to know what happened. Revenge, compensation or retribution seemed to take a backseat for many testifying. We need to know what happened if we want to shape a solid, healthier future and together these books answer myriad questions about the road we have travelled as a nation.” - Sylvia Vollenhoven


Spy: Uncovering Craig Williamson, Jonathan Ancer (Jacana Media)

Almost Human: The Astonishing Tale of Homo Naledi, Lee Berger (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

65 Years of Friendship, George Bizos (Umuzi)

Rule of Law: A Memoir, Glynnis Breytenbach with Nechama Brodie (Pan Macmillan)

Reflecting Rogue: Inside the Mind of a Feminist, Pumla Dineo Gqola (MF Books Joburg)

Kingdom, Power, Glory: Mugabe, Zanu and the Quest for Supremacy 1960-87, Stuart Doran (Bookstorm)

Skollie: One Man’s Struggle to Survive by Telling Stories, John W Fredericks (Zebra Press)

No Longer Whispering to Power: The Story of Thuli Madonsela, Thandeka Gqubule (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

Being Chris Hani’s Daughter, Lindiwe Hani and Melinda Ferguson (MF Books Joburg)

Get Up! Stand Up! Personal Journeys Towards Social Justice, Mark Heywood (Tafelberg)

A Simple Man: Kasrils and the Zuma Enigma, Ronnie Kasrils (Jacana Media)

Dare Not Linger: The Presidential Years, Nelson Mandela and Mandla Langa (Pan Macmillan)

Unmasked: Why The ANC Failed to Govern, Khulu Mbatha (KMMR)

Being a Black Springbok: The Thando Manana Story, Sibusiso Mjikeliso (Pan Macmillan)

Democracy & Delusion: 10 Myths in South African Politics, Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh (Tafelberg)

Always Another Country: A Memoir of Exile and Home, Sisonke Msimang (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

The Republic of Gupta: A Story of State Capture, Pieter-Louis Myburgh (Penguin Books)

The Man Who Founded the ANC: A Biography of Pixley Ka Isaka Seme, Bongani Ngqulunga (Penguin Books)

Colour Me Yellow: Searching for my family truth, Thuli Nhlapo (Kwela)

How to Steal a City: The Battle for Nelson Mandela Bay, Crispian Olver (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

The President’s Keepers: Those Keeping Zuma in Power and Out of Prison, Jacques Pauw (Tafelberg)

Miss Behave, Malebo Sephodi (Blackbird Books)

Hitmen for Hire: Exposing South Africa’s Underworld, Mark Shaw (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

Khwezi: The Remarkable Story Of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo, Redi Tlhabi (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

Apartheid Guns and Money: A Tale of Profit, Hennie van Vuuren (Jacana Media)


Sylvia Vollenhoven – Chair

Vollenhoven is a writer, journalist and filmmaker whose work has won many awards including the 2016 Mbokodo Award for Literature and the Adelaide Tambo Award for Human Rights in the Arts. Vollenhoven was the South African producer for the BBC mini-series Mandela the Living Legend, and is also a Knight Fellow, which is funded by the John S. and James L Knight Foundation with additional support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Edwin Cameron

Cameron has been a Justice of South Africa’s highest court, the Constitutional Court, since 2009. Previously a human rights lawyer, President Mandela appointed him a Judge of the High Court in 1994 and he went on to be a Judge of the Supreme Court of Appeal. He was a fierce critic of President Mbeki’s AIDS-denialist policies. Cameron’s memoir Witness to AIDS was joint winner of the Alan Paton Prize in 2005 and his second memoir Justice: A Personal Account won a South African Literary Award in 2014. He has received many honours for his legal and human rights work.
Paddi Clay

Clay has more than 40 years of experience in the media, covering radio, print, and online journalism. She has a BA Degree in English and Drama from UCT and an MA in Journalism Leadership from the University of Central Lancashire, UK. She has reported for the Rand Daily Mail and Capital Radio, and wrote for the FT and US News and World Report. A life-long campaigner for freedom of expression and a free, independent, media, she spent 15 years as head of the Graduate Journalism Training Programme at what is now Tiso Blackstar and retired in January 2017. She continues to coach and lecture.

Book details

Almost Human

65 Years of Friendship

Rule of Law

Reflecting Rogue

Kingdom, power, glory


No Longer Whispering to Power

Being Chris Hani's Daughter

Get Up! Stand Up!

A Simple Man

Dare Not Linger


Being a Black Springbok

Democracy and Delusion

Always Another Country

The Republic of Gupta

The Man Who Founded the ANC

Colour Me Yellow

How To Steal A City

The President's Keeper

Miss Behave

Hitmen for Hire


Apartheid Guns and Money

Selling Lip Service


A Handful of Earth

Softness of the Lime



Bare Ground

I am Pandarus

A Thousand Tales of Johannesburg

Dancing the Death Drill


The Blessed Girl


If I Stay Right Here

The Last Stop

The Third Reel



Bird-Monk Seding

New Times

The Camp Whore



A Gap in the Hedge

The Shallows

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Bron Sibree reviews Amy Chua’s new book which traces tribalism in America

Published in the Sunday Times

Nuestra Senora de la Santa Muerta (Our Lady of the Holy Death) is a female deity personifying death. Her prominent cult holds many poor Hispanic Americans in its grip Picture: Getty Images

Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations
Amy Chua, Bloomsbury, R295

Amy Chua is no stranger to controversy or bestseller lists. In the wake of her 2011 bestselling memoir about her attempt to raise her daughters the strict “Chinese” way, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, the Yale law professor garnered death threats and accolades. Then came the outcry triggered by her 2015 book, The Triple Package, which examined why some ethnic and religious groups outperform others in America. Co-written with her Yale professor husband Jed Rubenfeld, it was accused of new racism but it, too, became a New York Times bestseller.

“I never think my books are going to be controversial,” says Chua, “but somehow I keep getting into trouble. I just wonder what’s going to happen with this one,” she says of her fifth book, Political Tribes. “I’m sure I’ll get into trouble again.”

There’s no denying that Political Tribes – which delivers new, uncomfortable insights into tribalism in America and the human instinct to form tribes – is a biting criticism of conventional American thought on everything from foreign policy through to identity politics and the rise of Trump. In examining why America, a land of immigrants, is so uniquely, dangerously, blinkered to tribal politics at home and abroad, Political Tribes also delivers stinging home-truths – any one of which can ignite controversy.

Yet it is American exceptionalism, argues Chua, that blinds it to tribal identities abroad. For America is exceptional, maintains this American-born daughter of ethnic Chinese immigrants from the Philippines. Its ethnicity-transcending national identity, and its unusual success in assimilating people from diverse origins, qualifies it as a super-group, the only one among the world’s great powers. “This has shaped how we see the rest of the world, and deeply influenced our foreign policy,” says Chua. “This is not to say we haven’t got terrible racism, but unlike France, or even England, this is a country with a very strong national identity. So American people just think ‘Oh Sunnis and Shias, why can’t they just be Iraqis?’ It’s a naive view, and it’s pretty ignorant.”

Tribalism propelled Trump to the White House, argues Chua. Race has been traditionally at the core of American tribalism, but Chua notes that America is “on the verge of an unprecedented demographic transformation”. Yet even the growing “whitelash” to the “browning of America” which many consider a factor in Trump’s rise to power, is as complex and divided as the identity politics of both left and right – which are fracturing so rapidly thanks to bigotry and racism on one side and political correctness and a kind of “oppression Olympics” (when two or more groups compete to prove themselves more oppressed than the other) on the other. She believes it is tearing the country apart. Her insights into the sports of Nascar and World Wrestling, powerful tribal identities that see themselves as the “true America”, are illuminating.

But it is her analysis of lesser-known tribal identities like the Sovereign Citizens, a bizarre anti-government group that law-enforcement agencies have identified as a greater threat to their communities than Islamic extremists, and the Prosperity Gospel – a Christian sect that preaches that being rich is divine and is especially popular with disadvantaged minorities – that are as disturbing as they are revelatory. Not to mention the potent tribal identities of America’s 27000 street gangs. Or the lure of Narco-saints like Nuestra Senora de la Santa Muerta (Our Lady of the Holy Death), a cult which holds many poor Hispanic Americans in its grip as well as many members of the LGBTQIA community.

“America’s identity as this single, unified country that still allows for a lot of diversity is really under threat today, and from both sides. It’s why I wrote the book, so that we can get back to seeing that this super-group status we have is extremely unique,” says Chua. “It’s about saving America, the country that my parents love, and that I love.” @BronSibree

Political Tribes

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Alexandra Fuller had the choice to speak out in her debut novel, or to remain silent. She decided on the former, writes Michele Magwood

Alexandra Fuller, author of Quiet Until the Thaw. © Wendell Locke Field

Quiet Until the Thaw *****
Alexandra Fuller, Penguin, R280

‘A wise woman said to me after my father died that grief is a dismantling thing, but that you get to choose how you re-mantle. And this novel was really my re-mantling.” Alexandra Fuller doesn’t so much as wear her heart on her sleeve as slice open her chest and pin back the skin to reveal it beating, hotly and bloodily. She is an intensely visceral writer, but immensely skilled, too, always, sometimes just, staying this side of melodrama and solipsism.

She is known for her series of memoirs, beginning with the incendiary Don’t Let’s Go To The Dogs Tonight, about her deranged upbringing in what was then Rhodesia. Through this, and three subsequent books, we got to know her family, whom she refers to in ironic tones as The Fullers Of Central Africa. She’s made us care about them, their singular spirit and flaws, their bad luck and bad choices. And so when her father, Tim, died in 2015 her readers felt that they had known him and mourned with her. Doubtless he would have been appalled.

Fuller was already writing Quiet Until the Thaw when he passed away – in Budapest, of all places, so far from his beloved Zambia – and his death had a distinct effect on the writing of it.

It is the story of two Native American cousins growing up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

This is the Rez, a barren, God-forsaken stretch of land onto which the Lakota Oglala Sioux were herded and dumped. And if that sounds familiar to South African readers, it is. “Anyone who’s been to a former homeland in South Africa or a Tribal Trust Land in Zimbabwe will recognise it,” she says. “You can’t begin to imagine the poverty and social problems. But the beauty, too.”

Fuller, who lives in Wyoming, has been visiting the Rez for years, beginning with a three-month stay in 2011. “I felt this jolt of homecoming.” It was inevitable that she would write about the community, but chose to write it as a novel. “It felt less appropriating to fictionalise it, and I wanted a way to stitch together all the stories I’d heard on the Rez.”

She approached the project with humility, and went to visit an elder called Alex White Plume. “I went up to his farm – he breeds war ponies and grows hemp – and he was happy to talk to me, but said ‘Before I open my mouth the first thing I have to do is forgive you and all the people who look like you.’”

The main character of the novel is Rick Overlooking Horse, a gentle, reticent soul, “a child, and then a man, of shockingly few words” while his cousin You Choose Watson is a treacherous brat who grows up sly and corrupt.

He escapes the draft by feigning diabetes while Rick Overlooking Horse is sent to Vietnam and is burned almost to death by friendly fire. He returns to the Rez, sets up a teepee in a remote meadow and becomes something of a sage, though Fuller points out that the Lakota Oglala don’t have words like chief and medicine man. People start to go to him “with their wounded hearts and curdled souls”, she writes, and he quietly guides them “out of all the noisy unbecoming we do between birth and death”.

“I rewrote a lot of the book after my father died and there was a lot of him in Rick Overlooking Horse, his taciturn sort of stoicism. From being a lesser character he became the generator, the voice of the book.”

There are other vividly named characters such as Le-a (pronounced Le Dasha) Brings Plenty, Mona Respects Nothing and a man nicknamed Small Nosebleed Indian, because “a mild haemorrhage from a single nostril would be all it would take to get rid of every last drop of his native blood”.

The years unfurl as the cousins orbit and crash into each other. Fuller writes in short, punchy chapters dense with allusion, with such wry titles as “Mina Overlooking Horse Drinks Coffee as a Substitute for Having a Feeling” and “Meantime, Names for a Red Man, and Why He Doesn’t Care”. The chapters distil the gutting oppression of the people and the ravages of poverty, but also the idea of circular time and the notion of kinship. Some are mordantly funny – such as when two Rez boys are hired for an act at Disneyland Paris – all are a revelation, a portal into a history that has been kicked aside over and over again.

Quiet Until the Thaw – the title comes from a Swampy Cree narrative poem – bulges with wisdom but has the venom of a rattlesnake. Like so much of Fuller’s work it is blisteringly, resonantly beautiful.

She will undoubtedly be accused of cultural appropriation but she weighed it up very carefully, asking what would be worse – her silence or her speaking out. As painful as it was, she had to tell of the Rez. And we’re the richer for it.

“Writing it erased me, it eroded me,” she says, “the trajectory I was on went over a cliff.” After her father’s death she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder – “like a bloody war vet” – and is now taking medication. She can’t drink anymore and has been sober for three years.

“My life as it was ended with this book. I began it living in a comfortable condo on the golf course, now I’m living in a yurt! I am so relieved to be living this close to the grounding ground again. It’s not under a tree of forgetfulness, but through the dome at night I can see the stars of the northern hemisphere.” @michelemagwood

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Doomsday in her own lifetime: a woman turns her back on her paranoid, survivalist family one book at a time, writes Jennifer Platt

Published in the Sunday Times

Educated: A Memoir
Tara Westover, Hutchinson, R320

The cover looks like it’s set somewhere in South Africa. A derelict classroom table and chair are the only signs of life in the middle of golden veld overlooked by a blue-tipped mountain. But this is Idaho – a state in the good ol’ USA whose governor CL “Butch” Otter looks like he may have walked straight out of a Dallas episode with a cowboy hat and an aw shucks ma’am smarm. This is also the state that recently rejected a bill to confiscate guns from convicted domestic felons. So your husband, who has been found guilty of abusing you, still has the means to shoot you.

This is the state where, remarkably, Tara Westover, the last child of seven kids, grew up – in a small, mountainous part of it called Buck Peak. Her dad is a full-on anti-government survivalist, her mom a midwife so that they would “be completely off-grid … and she would be able to deliver the grandchildren”.

In the intro, this is what Westover writes: “On the highway below, the school bus rolls past without stopping. I am only seven, but I understand that it is this fact, more than any other, that makes my family different: we don’t go to school.”

Nor do they go to the doctor or the hospital, even when seriously injured, even when her mother is so badly concussed after a car accident that she has to stay in the darkness of their basement for years, even after her brother Luke suffers third-degree burns so horrific that his flesh melts off. “Papery ropes of skin wrapped delicately around his thigh and down his calf, like wax dripping from cheap candles,” writes Westover.

Westover dedicates this book to another brother, Tyler. “Tyler influenced me,” says Westover in a phone interview from what is now her home in Cambridge, England, near the university where she received her PhD. “If it wasn’t for him, I would be still living that life. I can’t even contemplate it.”

Tyler got out. He taught himself and got a high-school diploma. Then he went to college. This was not celebrated in the family. His father says: “A son of mine, standing in line to get brainwashed by socialists and Illuminati spies.” Their father preaches about the big bad world out there and how the government is waiting to come get them. “I think my father is bipolar and this feeds his paranoia,” says Westover. They each have a go bag – in case the police or FBI comes for them, and they can escape to the mountains. Her father invests in silver coins and keeps them in the basement with his cache of guns.

Now that Tyler has gone off to college, Westover at the age of seven has to step into his place as one of her father’s crew, hauling scrap metal in a junkyard.

Like Tyler, she wants something different for herself. “I wanted to learn. I don’t know when it became something I needed to do, but I just felt it.” Her gateway into the world started with her singing – surprisingly something that her father was proud of and supported.

Then another of her elder brothers comes back into her life after having disappeared for six years. She gives him the pseudonym Shawn in the book. At first he seems like her saviour: he helps her with a neck injury, saves her from falling off a horse, and drives her to her theatre rehearsals in Worm Creek as she prepares to sing in musicals.

But one night, at the age of 15, Westover refuses to fetch a glass of water for Shawn – he loves to give orders, a power play he revels in. He drags her by her hair to the bathroom, forces her head into the toilet and twists her arm until she nearly faints. This is the beginning of many years of abuse.

The memoir takes on a frenzied thriller-like tone. You want nothing more than for Westover to get away. She gratefully does escape for bits of time. Like Tyler, she teaches herself, gets her high-school diploma and for the first time steps into a classroom, at Brigham Young University. In one instance she asks the lecturer for the definition of a word she has never heard before. Surly, the teacher answers, “Thanks for that.” The word is “holocaust”.

She goes back home in the holidays, changed. “I don’t think that education is so much about making a living, it’s about making a person,” she says.

She asks her parents to intervene to get Shawn to stop abusing her, but they deny it ever took place and tell her that she has “false memories of what happened”.

“I had a mental breakdown but with therapy I finally accepted that I was telling the truth,” she writes. And she had her journals, proof that her memories were real. These are largely what she bases her memoir on. Westover and her parents are now estranged.

Asked if she would give her own 15-year-old any advice, Westover is firm that she wouldn’t change anything. “You have to come to a point where you ask yourself tough questions … My book is about how to remain loyal to yourself when you fundamentally change. I hope that it can help other people. That there is no shame of where you come from.” @Jenniferdplatt

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Hitchcock meets Harlem: Michele Magwood reviews AJ Finn’s twisty and slick The Woman in the Window

Published in the Sunday Times

By Michele Magwood

The Woman in the Window

The Woman in the Window
AJ Finn, Harper Collins, R285

In the book world, success stories don’t get much better than this. Editor at leading publishing house writes a thriller under a pseudonym, a bidding auction breaks out on the synopsis alone and even before publication film rights are sold and foreign rights in dozens of countries. His own publishing house buys it for a cool two million – not realising it’s been written by the guy down the corridor – and the book is blurbed by supernovas Stephen King “Unputdownable!” and Gillian Flynn “Astounding.” It debuts at No 1 on the New York Times bestseller list.

The Woman in the Window tells the story of Dr Anna Fox, once a respected child psychologist and now an agoraphobic, alcoholic shut-in. Her husband and eight-year-old daughter have left her and she drifts through the days drinking merlot and popping pills, watching the world outside her Harlem townhouse through the zoom lens of her camera. And then, one night, she witnesses – she’s damn sure she witnesses – a murder in an apartment opposite her. The victim is a woman Anna knows, but no one believes she ever met her, let alone saw her get stabbed to death. Crippled by addiction and mental illness, she must solve the mystery.

“Anna’s a mess,” says the author in an email interview. “Yet she owns her mess. She’s smart, she’s funny, she’s self-aware.” Readers he meets find her relatable and intriguing, he says.

He deftly subverts the “male gaze” of so much crime fiction. “I was keen to create a female lead who isn’t passive, reactive or an obvious victim,” he writes, “and I wanted to describe her as a woman in the title – not a girl. With a few exceptions, including Gone Girl (a title that bristles with irony), these ‘girl’ books seem to condescend to women readers. Can you imagine if we referred to grown men as ‘boys’? Creepy.”

Daniel Mallory – AJ Finn – was working as a crime editor at William Morrow in New York. For 15 years he had grappled with debilitating depression which was eventually diagnosed as bipolar disorder. While adjusting to new medication he took some time off work and stayed at home, watching old movies. One day as Hitchcock’s Rear Window was playing, he noticed a woman in an apartment across the street. While Jimmy Stewart was spying on his neighbours on screen, so Mallory found himself watching the woman across the way. The idea for the novel came to him right there and then, and it took him just two days to write an outline.

There’s a delicious slippery Hitchcock and Patricia Highsmith aspect to The Woman in the Window. Mallory was heavily influenced by Highsmith (The Talented Mr Ripley) when he studied her at Oxford, and he is a lifelong fan of Hitchcock’s films. “Highsmith’s work fascinates and disturbs me because it subverts the forms of detective fiction,” he says. “The Woman in the Window is not as subversive but it does reflect, I hope, Highsmith’s lean, succinct style, and her willingness to peer into the dark corners of the human mind.”

What this book does do, with great effect, is explore the darkness of depression and psychosis, something Mallory knows only too well. Thankfully his condition is now under control.

“What’s enormously gratifying is to meet and hear from my publishers and readers around the world, and also to have the chance to speak to audiences about mental health, a topic that’s too little discussed.”

Twisty and slick, and ever so clever, The Woman in the Window is a one-sitting read. @michelemagwood

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A jealous ex-wife, a skittish bride-to-be, and many, many twists – Jennifer Platt reviews The Wife Between Us

Published in the Sunday Times

The Wife Between Us
Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen, Macmillan, R285

There’s something fun and soapy about the new wave of domestic thrillers – or, actually, they’re more telenovela-like.

They have such an unrealistic glamorous feel and improbable storylines to feed the insatiable thriller market, those who have gobbled up the Girls books – Gone Girl, Girl on a Train etc – and want more.

More drama, more angst, more guessing games.

These feature impossibly beautiful and fragile yet strong women who could be mentally unstable or not, a rich, handsome, dapper man with piercing eyes who could be bad or not, a marriage that has many secrets – old family skeletons, murder, abuse … and the twists, yoh, they just keep on coming.

Set in New York, The Wife Between Us is one such roller-coaster ride. Vanessa now lives in a trendy flat with her aunt after she and her husband Richard have divorced. She is the jealous ex-wife, seemingly stalking his new fiancée. She wants to do everything to stop the wedding from happening.

Nellie, Richard’s fiancée, is suitably skittish. There are no-caller ID phone calls, her wedding photographer is inexplicably cancelled, and Richard is quite demanding. So demanding that her best friend, Sam, is worried that he might not be the Prince Charming that Nellie thinks he is. But Nellie is smitten and will do anything for Richard.

It’s clever and addictive reading but be prepared for over-the-top machinations. There’s already a twist in the first third of the book. Jennifer Platt @Jenniferdplatt

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Book Bites: 11 March

Published in the Sunday Times

The Twinkling of an Eye: A Mother’s Journey
Sue Brown, Human & Rousseau, R230

The Browns are an ordinary family. They have two lovely children (Meg and Craig), good friends, and a home that welcomed others. They also have a ghastly cuckoo in the nest, a life-threatening tumour that was discovered in Craig’s brain when he was 12. His mother wrote this book after his death. The story is horrifyingly accurate. She spares no one in the telling of it. This is an unflinching book about a cruel death, but one that puts living at the centre of death. Jennifer Crocker @malleson30

Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down
Anne Valente, William Morrow, R250

Valente takes you down the bloodied school corridor, under the desks in the classrooms, to the back of stacks in the library as Caleb Raynor guns down 28 of his fellow students, three teachers, three staff members and one principal. This is on October 8 2003 at 9:04am. This is fiction but seems very real (none of the teachers have guns). The part that does not feel real is that this is not the only tragedy to face the small town in St Louis. Three days after the shooting, the houses of the families of the victims start burning down. Jennifer Platt @Jenniferdplatt

The Wanderers
Meg Howrey, Simon & Schuster, R220

Three Nasa astronauts are chosen for a mission to Mars which will make them the first people on the Red Planet. Helen is a veteran astronaut with a complicated relationship with her daughter, Sergei is on the verge of divorce and Yoshi is trying to reach out to his distant wife. Why are they doing it? How will their significant others cope with their absence? A nuanced tale of adventure, terror and the complex emotional challenges of journeying to the outer limits as well as within. Nikki Temkin @NikkiTemkin

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