Asymptote Journal has announced the fourth edition of their international translation contest, Close Approximations! Click here for the submissions guidelines.
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Asymptote Journal has announced the fourth edition of their international translation contest, Close Approximations! Click here for the submissions guidelines.
Published in the Sunday Times
Madeline Miller Bloomsbury, R295
Men are pigs. Ask Homer, who wrote in the eighth century BCE about heroic Odysseus trying to get home to Ithaca after the Trojan War. In The Odyssey Homer devotes two chapters to Circe, a beautiful witch. When Odysseus and his weary sailors land on her island paradise, she turns them into pigs.
But Madeline Miller gives the goddess a makeover in her second brilliant novel, Circe. The great Odysseus gets a taut two chapters, and Circe has to teach herself “the simple mending of the world”.
Miller says she always starts a book with an idea about a character, and waits until she has a strong sense of their voice. Circe, traditionally “a sexy, dangerous witch, a villain, an obstacle to be overcome”, presented a challenge and an opportunity. “I wanted more scope for her,” says Miller, “more focus on her virtues and flaws” than the huge works of literature, such as The Odyssey and The Iliad, allow.
“I have a background in theatre, so I’m always imagining being in her skin, seeing through her eyes, hearing her delivering the monologue. I like it to feel organic. Natural. So it took me a long time to hear her voice.”
Seven years, to be exact. Not quite as long as it took Odysseus to circumnavigate the known and unknown world, but close. Miller sets out to rehabilitate the witch, and concludes that heroism comes in different forms.
Is Circe a feminist character? “Definitely,” says Miller. “I always felt her otherness.” Rejected by her Titan parents, considered a figure of fun by the other nymphs for her soft heart, and exiled to a faraway island, Circe teaches herself magic. She learns through bitter experience to deal both in healing and the darker arts.
Is writing a similar kind of witchcraft? “Absolutely, I recognise that,” says Miller. “It’s research and hard work and making it happen, day after day – but there is also that inexplicable thing that happens. Call it muse or intuition or inspiration, the way your mind shifts. But you also have to keep showing up.”
Miller has always been fascinated by stories. “I remember from the time I was five or so, my mother would read these epic tales to me, and I loved how big and exciting and real they felt. They were intense and adult – there were monsters, and grief and desire and pain and love.” Circe is so compelling because it is pacy but also literary: Miller writes so clearly and with such yearning and wisdom that the book is a spellbinding immersion in a terrifying, believable and satisfying universe.
It is at once familiar and unsettling. “Like the best cover songs,” I suggest, “the ones where the tune or the words are familiar but the singer has elevated it into a completely different experience.” Miller is unconvinced. “It’s not only songs,” she says. “As a writer I’m very conscious of being part of these epic narratives, both ancient and modern – from The Odyssey and The Iliad and all those guys, but also from Tennyson – the traditions established over millennia.”
And Miller’s own voice is utterly distinctive, keen and kind. Circe shows how experience transforms us: nymphs change into sea monsters; rapists morph into pigs; a heartless goddess becomes a selfless parent: “What creature,” Circe asks herself, “lies within me?”
Miller argues that being human is banal and unfair, but also wonderful and terrible. Men may become pigs, but the gods are worse: they are eternal. Mortals can be both heroes and monsters. We get the whole pantheon – grief, and desire, and pain, and love.
Via Open Book Festival
The first group of authors has been announced for the eighth Open Book Festival taking place from 5 to 9 September this year.
Brought to you by the Book Lounge and the Fugard Theatre, Open Book Festival offers a world-class selection of book launches, panel discussions, workshops, masterclasses, readings, performances, and more. The festival also hosts the popular Comics Fest, #cocreatePoetica and various children’s and outreach programmes. Venues for the event include the Fugard Theatre, District Six Homecoming Centre, the A4 Arts Foundation, and The Book Lounge in Cape Town, and are all within walking distance of one another. Selected events will also take place outside the city centre, such as at Elsies River Library and Molo Mhlaba School.
Open Book Festival has established itself as one of the most innovative literature festivals in South Africa. It has twice been shortlisted for the London Book Fair Excellence Awards. Last year, nearly 10 000 people attended the festival’s record 140 events, with ticket sales from previous years surpassed in the first two days. Open Book Festival is committed to creating a platform to celebrate South African writers, as well as hosting top international authors. The festival strives to instill a love of reading among young attendees, with the programme designed to engage, entertain and inspire conversations among festival goers long after the event.
“We are once again compiling a phenomenal line up of authors, across a wide range of genres, to join us at the festival,” says Festival Director Mervyn Sloman. “We’ve put together a short preview of some of the authors joining us, to help plan your reading.”
The international authors include:
Author: Lesley Arimah (Nigeria / USA)
Books include: What it Means when a Man Falls from the Sky
Why we’re excited: Lesley has been a finalist for the Caine Prize and a winner of the African Commonwealth Short Story Prize among other honors. She was selected for the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 and her debut collection What it Means when a Man Falls from the Sky won the 2017 Kirkus Prize.
Author: Jonas Bonnier (Sweden) joining us courtesy of the Swedish Embassy
Books include: The Helicopter Heist, Stockholm Odenplan
Why we’re excited: Jonas Bonnier is a novelist, screenwriter and journalist. His latest book, The Helicopter Heist is a gripping suspense thriller about the Västberga helicopter robbery. It has been sold to 34 territories.
Author: David Chariandy (Canada) joining us courtesy of Canada Council of the Arts
Books include: Brother, Soucouyant
Why we’re excited: David Chariandy won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize in 2017 for Brother. The Guardian UK described it as ‘breathtaking…compulsive, brutal and flawless’. David’s debut novel, Soucouyant, received nominations from eleven literary awards juries.
Author: Anna Dahlqvist (Sweden)
Books include: It’s Only Blood
Why we’re excited: Anna Dahlqvist is a leading voice writing about women’s and girls’ rights. She is editor-in-chief of Ottar, a Swedish magazine focusing on sexuality, politics, society and culture.
Author: Nicole Dennis-Benn (Jamaica/USA) with thanks to the University of Stellenbosch for assisting with her joining us
Books include: Here Comes the Sun
Why we’re excited: Her debut novel, Here Comes The Sun, received a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, a NPR Best Books of 2016, an Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Entertainment Weekly, and Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2016, a BuzzFeed Best Literary Debuts of 2016, among others.
Author: Guy Deslisle (Canada) joining us courtesy of Canada Council of the Arts
Books include: Hostage, Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea, Shenzhen: A Travelogue from China, Burma Chronicles, Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City
Why we’re excited: Guy Deslisle is a cartoonist and animator, who is acclaimed for his graphic novels about his travels. His most recent book, Hostage, was longlisted for Brooklyn Public Library’s 2017 literary prize.
Author: Frankie Edozien (Nigeria/USA)
Books include: Lives of Great Men
Why we’re excited: Frankie Edozien is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of AFRrican Magazine. Lives of Great Men was shortlisted for a Lambda Literary Award. The Financial Times called the book ‘a fine contribution to the important work of pursuing equality and social justice on a global scale’
Author: Mariana Enriquez (Argentina) joining us courtesy of the Embassy of Argentina
Books include: Things We Lost in the Fire
Why we’re excited: Stories by Mariana Enriquez have appeared in anthologies of Spain, Mexico, Chile, Bolivia and Germany. The New York Times Book Review called Things We Lost in the Fire, ‘[P]ropulsive and mesmerizing, laced with vivid descriptions of the grotesque…and the darkest humor’.
Author: Aminatta Forna (Scotland/Sierra Leone/USA)
Books include: Happiness, The Hired Man, The Memory of Love.
Why we’re excited: Aminatta Forna’s award-winning work has been translated into eighteen languages. Her essays have appeared in Freeman’s, Granta, The Guardian, LitHub, The Nation, The New York Review of Books, The Observer and Vogue. She has written stories for BBC radio and written and presented television documentaries.
Author: Adam Smyer (USA)
Books include: Knucklehead
Why we’re excited: Adam Smyer’s debut novel Knucklehead is a refreshingly honest, fierce, intelligent, and often hilarious read.
“By setting his novel in the ’90s, Smyer, has crafted some brutal deja vu. As Marcus reflects on Rodney King, the Million Man March and the Oklahoma City bombing, we think of Freddie Gray, Black Lives Matter and school shootings that have become a way of life… Here we are more than 20 years on, and it’s only gotten worse. We should all be furious.” San Francisco Chronicle
Author: Mariko Tamaki (Canada) joining us courtesy of the Canada Council of the Arts
Books include: Skim, Emiko Superstar, This One Summer.
Why we’re excited: Mariko Tamaki is an acclaimed graphic novelist and author. In 2016 she began writing for both Marvel and DC Comics.
“A key objective of Open Book Festival is to celebrate the wealth of South African talent,” says Sloman. “We have a selection of the most insightful minds and compelling storytellers joining us. Here are a few.”
“We are looking forward to The Last Sentence, a psychological thriller and the debut novel from Tumelo Buthelezi and also to welcoming Ijangolet S Ogwang, whose novel An Image in a Mirror, is a richly told African coming-of-age story.”
Clinton Chauke’s Born in Chains: The Diary of an Angry ‘Born Free’ is a story of hope, where, even in a sea of poverty, there are those that refuse to give up and, ultimately, succeed. Journalist Rebecca Davis, author of Best White and Other Anxious Delusions will talk about her new memoir and journey on a spiritual quest.
Sorry, Not Sorry author Haji Dawjee joins us to discuss this revealing experience of moving through post-Apartheid South Africa as a woman of colour. “We are delighted to welcome back Judith February of the Institute for Security Studies, and author Pumla Dineo Gqola, whose book Reflecting Rogue was the best selling title at last year’s Festival,” says Sloman.
Nozizwe Jele has recently released her new novel, The Ones With Purpose. Happiness is a Four-Letter Word was Jele’s debut novel and won the Best First Book category (Africa region) in the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize 2011, as well as the 2011 M-Net Literary Award in the Film category. Playwright and theatre director Craig Higginson whose novels include The Dream House also joins the line-up to talk about his new novel, The White Room.
Siya Khumalo’s debut memoir, You Have to be Gay to Know God, is a powerful book dealing with gay identity. In Becoming Him, Landa Mabenge explores his own journey that includes being the first transgender man in South Africa to successfully force a medical aid to pay for his surgeries.
The Blessed Girl by Angela Makholwa sees an unraveling of the life that ambitious, social climber Bontle Tau was aiming for. Makholwa’s previous books include Black Widow Society, The 30th Candle and Red Ink. The Gold Diggers is the latest novel by Sue Nyathi (The Polygamist).It is a simultaneously heart-breaking and heart-warming chronicle of immigrant experiences.
Singer-songwriter and author Mohale Mashigo (The Yearning) returns to talk about her new collection, Intruders while in Soweto, Under the Apricot Tree, another festival regular Niq Mhlongo brings the complexities of Soweto to life on the page.
Zuki Wanner’s books include Men of the South which was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize Africa Region for Best Book; London – Cape Town – Joburg and children’s book Refilwe. Her recent Hardly Working: A Travel Memoir of Sorts explores the politics of nations, and the ‘burden’ of travelling on an African passport.
SAPS Major General Jeremy Vearey also joins us to talk about Jeremy Vannie Elsies which chronicles his journey of growing up in Elsies River, from rough-and-tumble youngster to the head of the anti-gang unit in the Western Cape. Along the way he mastered the Communist Manifesto in Afrikaans, joined MK, and was sent to Robben Island for his role in the struggle.
The eighth Open Book Festival will take place from 5 to 9 September at the Fugard Theatre, D6 Homecoming Centre, The A4 Arts Foundation and The Book Lounge from 10:00 to 21:00 each day. For further information and the full programme, which will be available in early August, visit www.openbookfestival.co.za
Bookings can be made at Webtickets: www.webtickets.co.za
Open Book Festival is organised in partnership with the Fugard Theatre, The District 6 Museum, The A4 Arts Foundation, The Townhouse Hotel, Novus Holdings, The French Institute, The Canada Council for the Arts, The Embassy of Sweden, The Embassy of Argentina, The Dutch Foundation for Literature, UCT Creative Writing Department, University of Stellenbosch English Department and Central Library and is sponsored by Leopards Leap, Open Society Foundation, Pan Macmillan, NB Publishers, Jonathan Ball and Penguin Random House.
Published in the Sunday Times
Barbetje cleared her throat again.
“Just say what you want to say,” I told her, addressing her in English this time. My English was better than hers by then.
Barbetje ignored me and instead bustled about the kitchen while I watched her with defiant expectation. She took out two cups and saucers: not the good stuff the family used, but not the worst. She placed the sugar and a jug of milk next to them and then poured the tea that had been warming on the stove all morning into the cups. She stirred them briskly, then passed me one.
“Hot, sweet tea always makes me feel better,” she explained. I could believe it; she drank several cups a day.
“Why don’t we sit?” she suggested, pulling out a chair at the table. We seldom sat there; the table had always been reserved for the family, even once the misses left. When we worked we stood, but Barbetje was having none of that.
“My legs are sore.”
I sat down, since I knew that no one would actually tell me that I could not. Anyway, it was usually Barbetje who watched me, to make sure that I didn’t overstep my bounds, and if she told me to sit then I would sit. We sipped our tea in silence. I decided that I would not goad her to talk. Maybe I was afraid of what she’d say.
“His father was exactly the same,” Barbetje said, once I had nearly finished my tea.
I stirred the bottom of my cup, thinking that the words alone must have tasted like sugar on her tongue, but she had surprised me with the tea. Such a sweet irony, I thought, that Barbetje should be to one to show me how I too had been deluded enough to believe that a man like that would keep his word: “I will marry you one day; I will give our children my name”. That’s what he used to say on the nights he wanted to talk.
I was glad that Barbetje hadn’t required me to confirm the news of his marriage; she probably already knew, perhaps she was privy to the details. I didn’t know and I didn’t ask. I let her speak.
“Always promising one thing but doing another,” Barbetje said.
I wanted to ask her about the children she’d borne; I wanted to know what had happened to them, whether she’d thought they’d make a difference. I wanted to ask whether the old man had been able to sell his own flesh and blood. If his son was exactly like his father, I needed to know that.
Barbetje had helped me with the first two births – the unsuccessful births. Motherhood had never been my desire. Not to be hurtful, but it had never been my plan. The hopeful among us saw children as negotiating instruments, a tool when we had so little with which to bargain. Others bore children to punish, a constant reminder of the sins of the fathers. All those fathers sinning so unconscionably, ardently, what was another child when compared to able hands, strong arms, feet? A baby for some was gold, and if not gold, then silver.
A baby is not a bird…
I remembered the words from Rakota’s tale; had always wondered what it meant. Those words were the first thing that came to mind when I saw the child, the first one, a girl. Birdlike bones and damp feathers of hair like a newly hatched chick.
A baby is not a bird…
Barbetje’s words disturbed my thoughts. “‘n Stywe lat het geen konsensie nie,” she said, placing a hand on my shoulder.
It was true what she said. A stiff rod had no conscience.
Published in the Sunday Times
The Hum of the Sun
Kirsten Miller, Kwela R285
Zuko is eight and his thoughts get stuck in his mouth. He enjoys Cheerios, nature, rhythms, patterns, and the light. With his mother and sister dead, his only guide through life is Ash, his teenage brother. Ash should be in school, but with no money or food, he pins his hopes on finding their father in the city. But it is a long walk for two boys; can he be strong enough to get both himself and Zuko there safely? A beautifully told tale that penetrates the heart. Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie
The Little Italian Bakery
Valentina Cebeni (Little, Brown, R275)
Food is magic. From candied lemon sweets (little bits of sunshine) to fried bread soaked in orange blossom honey, Elettra has to come to terms with her baking heritage. Her mother Edda is in a coma, and Elettra’s only answer to her family background is a necklace that points her to Titan’s Island, just off the coast of Sardinia where she discovers a group of widows living in a convent. They might have the answer to all her questions. Cebeni’s novel is atmospheric – filled with scents of lemon, cobalt blue skies and hills covered with juniper berries and heather, and most of all, a deep warm feeling of love. Jennifer Platt @Jenniferdplatt
Published in the Sunday Times
Anna: One Love Two Stories
Amanda Prowse, Head of Zeus, R255
I loved writing the book Anna, I found her a likable, relatable character and it felt like a joy to spend each day with her. I had decided to base some of her struggles and hardships on my own childhood and I think one thing that surprised me was how much I was affected by this.
Anna got under my skin, stayed with me and I found myself concerned for her. People who have read Anna have said she stays with them too and that they feel great warmth and affection for her, so I suppose though it was emotionally challenging, it helped add depth to her character on the page.
One thing I love most about this book is how much Anna’s life feels true and though some moments are quite harrowing, these are quickly followed by others which will make you laugh out loud and, for me, this is life – I think if you can learn to laugh through the bad times it somehow gives you strength to keep going. Anna’s is a love story and when she falls in love with Theo, she finds fulfilment.
We know all the things that Anna has lived through [having spent most of her life in a care home, wanting love] and we know what has shaped her. But, just as in real life, we do not know what things have shaped the person fall in love with and this is certainly the case with Theo.
We will them to work as a couple, cheering them on from the rooftops and praying that the two young people, despite being from such different backgrounds, can find a way to overcome all their demons and make this relationship work.
I wanted to create a love story that was real, true to life, flawed and challenging but also with the fairy-tale elements that make a romance like Anna’s so magical. I hope I have achieved this. Anna is without doubt one of the characters who will forever live in my heart and mind.
When writing the book, I based the character of Theo’s mother on a friend of my mother’s and I cannot tell you how funny it was when she made a particular point of mentioning to me how much she disliked the character! I guess it’s true what they say; we really don’t know how others see us. This is certainly the case with Anna, who sees herself as an ordinary girl but I think you will agree after having read the books that she is really quite extraordinary.
Published in the Sunday Times
Don Winslow, Harper Collins, R205
What makes a good cop good at his job? Courage? Intelligence? Bravery, empathy, toughness? Detective Sergeant Denny Malone and his elite team, dealing with drugs, guns and gangs in New York, have all those qualities. What characterises a bad cop? Theft, dishonesty, accepting bribes, violence? Collusion? Murder? He and his team are guilty of all those as well. The Force describes in riveting detail how these contradictions are possible, even inevitable. Malone came from a police family, and joined as a young idealist, determined to do good. In the face of injustice and systematic corruption, he started crossing the line, one step at a time. Eventually caught, Malone is prepared to admit his own crimes, but the Feds want him to betray his friends, his contacts and his mentors. Set against a background of imminent racial conflagration and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, it is simply excellent. Aubrey Paton
Jonathan Kellerman, Headline, R300
Psychologist Alex Delaware is called by his old LAPD pal, Milo Sturgis, to a home in upscale Pacific Palisades. Inside the house is a corpse with no hands, no face and no blood. And a family who are certain they don’t know the victim who appeared in their den while they were out. Night Moves is Kellerman’s 33rd Delaware thriller and, as ever, he delivers sharp prose, intelligent plots and sleazy characters. A solid, enjoyable thriller, the novel’s real strength lies in the relationship and banter between Delaware and Sturgis. That’s really what his fans are after, and Kellerman delivers with class. Russell Clarke @russrussy
After months of extensive reading, careful evaluation and fierce deliberation it is finally time to reveal the shortlists for South Africa’s most prestigious book awards, the Alan Paton Award for non-fiction and the Barry Ronge Fiction Prize, in association with Porcupine Ridge. The winners, who will each receive R100 000, will be announced on Saturday June 23.
Alan Paton Award
Chair of judges Sylvia Vollenhoven comments: “When nations sink into division and despair creativity points to a way forward. The collective power and style of the five authors (three of them women) on this year’s shortlist represent the finest artistic vision for the future. Literary flair is coupled with excellent research that takes us into places we need to visit. Exploring recent history a remarkable opus dissects Zimbabwe like no other, the man who founded the ANC is honoured in all his complexity and we get to know exactly why we owe the former Public Protector such a huge debt of gratitude. Balancing the political with the personal, two achingly beautiful memoirs give us deep insight into the family terrain where all our horrors and delights originate.”
Kingdom, Power, Glory – Mugabe, Zanu and the Quest for Supremacy, 1960-1987, Stuart Doran (Sithatha Media/Bookstorm)
The judges voted quickly and unanimously to shortlist this massive book. It is an exhaustive, meticulously detailed history of Zimbabwe’s formative years that draws on previously classified information and throws new light on such events as the Gukurahundi massacres. One judge called it: “Monumentally researched, monumentally annotated and evidenced, and monumentally impressive.”
No Longer Whispering to Power – The Story of Thuli Madonsela, Thandeka Gqubule (Jonathan Ball Publishers)
The biography of the former public prosecutor reminds us of the enormous impact she made during her seven years of tenure. Gqubule reveals details of Madonsela’s life, as well as her investigations, findings and their consequences, in what one judge described as “an energetic, passionate whirl of words.”
Always Another Country: A Memoir of Exile and Home, Sisonke Msimang (Jonathan Ball Publishers)
The judges regarded Msimang’s memoir to be one of the best entries in terms of style. It charts her way from childhood through multiple identities and roles, beginning with her early years in exile in Zambia and Kenya, young adulthood and college years in North America, and returning to South Africa in the 1990s.
The Man Who Founded the ANC: A Biography of Pixley ka Isaka Seme, Bongani Ngqulunga (Penguin Books)
The panel hailed this biography as an important part of Afrocentric history, an even-handed and scholarly study of a complex man and the conflicting and fluctuating strains of Pan Africanism and Zulu chauvinism. Seme was just 30 when he founded the organisation, but he eventually brought it to its knees.
Colour Me Yellow: Searching For My Family Truth, Thuli Nhlapo (Kwela Books)
Shunned by her paternal family while growing up, journalist Thuli Nhlapo embarked on a painful journey to find her “true” identity. The judges were moved by its brutal honesty, finding in her story the roots of so much of the nation’s dysfunction, “a smaller story illuminating a greater picture.”
Barry Ronge Prize
Judging chair Africa Melane says: “The authors on this list help us search for truth, which is often unsettling and uncomfortable. There are stories of love and loss, of lives not yet lived and those long forgotten. Our history narrates heartbreak and pain, and we learn how to carry our past in our souls. The pulsating veins of our cities are laid bare through deeply personal accounts and there is a fearlessness in addressing controversial issues. The works are thought- provoking, unflinching and disturbing at times, but very compelling. Every read has been immensely rewarding.”
Softness of the Lime, Maxine Case (Umuzi)
Set in the Cape of Good Hope in 1782, and drawing on Case’s own family history, the story traces the relationship between a wealthy Dutch settler and his young slave. The judges admired the fluent writing and vivid sense of place.
A Thousand Tales of Johannesburg, Harry Kalmer (Penguin Books)
Kalmer probes the lives of a handful of disparate characters including the exiled, those returning from exile, and those who never left, casting back a hundred years and bringing the narrative right up to date. This richly faceted portrait of Jozi was applauded for its originality and finely observed writing.
The Third Reel, SJ Naudé (Umuzi)
Described as “intense, intelligent and accomplished”, Naudé’s unsettling novel is set in London and Berlin in the 80s and centres on a young man, Etienne, who has fled conscription in South Africa. It is an intense love story as well as a quiet exploration of film, architecture, music and art.
Bird-Monk Seding, Lesego Rampolokeng (Deep South Publishers)
Rampolokeng’s third novel is a stark portrait of a Groot Marico township two decades into South Africa’s democracy. Innovative and violently sensory, one judge noted that he “brandishes his scatting be-bop voice like a fearsome weapon” as he renders the resilience of people marked by apartheid.
The Camp Whore, Francois Smith, translated by Dominique Botha (Tafelberg)
Based on the true story of a young woman who was raped and left for dead in a concentration camp during the Anglo-Boer War. She manages to recover and dedicates her life to healing trauma, but in the process comes face-to-face with her attacker. “An inspiring character and a deeply skilful, atmospheric story,” noted the panellists.
Published in the Sunday Times
Mick Herron, John Murray, R295
One of the authors I’m most looking forward to meeting at the Franschhoek Literary Festival next week is Mick Herron. The British writer has been quietly turning out a series of spy novels that have built something of a cult following. With London Rules, his fifth, it looks like he’s reached the tipping point onto the mainstream radar.
The plain cover of the book obscures a rare combination of wit, plot, affecting writing and vivid characterisation. It is savagely funny but serious, cynical and sanguine and whippingly plotted, veering from small human vignettes to huge public events.
Jackson Lamb is the axis of the series, a great greedy gaseous lunk who lives on Chinese takeaways and tumblers of Scotch. He’s a washed up Cold War operative who has been shut out of MI5 and put in charge of a band of disgraced spies, the so-called “slow horses”. They are stabled in a decaying building called Slough House where they eke out their days sifting through statistics and drinking weak tea.
There’s Catherine Standish, a recovering alcoholic, who Lamb teases by pouring her drinks; River Cartwright, scion of a legendary MI5 family who screwed up spectacularly; Shirley Dander is a cokehead with anger problems; Louisa Guy is paralysed by grief for her dead partner; and JK Coe is a psychologist with post-traumatic stress disorder, who hides under a hoodie with buds in his ears. And then there is the deliciously awful Roddy Ho, genius hacker and delusional narcissist.
When a terrorist cell erupts into a string of attacks, evidence points to Ho having unwittingly passed information to his girlfriend. And so the slow horses are dragged reluctantly into the action, because the first of the London Rules, as everybody knows, is Cover Your Arse.
Herron presents a sharply contemporary view of the UK that at times borders on libel: the populist Brexiteer politician (and secret cross-dresser) Dennis Gimball and his harpy columnist wife, Dodie; the Muslim politician Zafar Jaffrey, in the running to be mayor of the West Midlands, who has some worrying cohorts, and a vain and weak prime minister concerned only with his image.
As the terrorists strike again and again, the intelligence services get help – almost by accident – from the farcically inept Slough Housers.
Their bickering is blistering but it’s Lamb who gets the best lines. He asks Louisa for an educated guess; when she replies he barks, “I said educated. That guess left school at 15 for a job at Asda.”
Lamb turns to Coe: “You’re the one who gets panic attacks, right? Behind you! Just kidding.” He compares ethical behaviour to “a vajazzle on a nun. Pretty to picture, but who really benefits?”
Padding through the action, and lifting the book to another plane is some arresting description of the hours of the day passing.
“In some parts of the world dawn arrives with rosy fingers, to smooth away the creases left by night. But on Aldersgate Street … it comes wearing safe-cracker’s gloves, so as not to leave prints on windowsills and doorknobs; it squints through keyholes, sizes up locks, and generally cases the joint ahead of approaching day.”
Herron has, of course, been compared to John le Carré and Graham Greene but he is entirely, subversively, unique. @michelemagwood
A new month calls for a new sunshine noir author sending shivers down the spines of local thriller fans…
Here’s what the two thriller aficionados chatted about:
Paul Mendelson is a man of many talents: writer, interviewer, actor, script-writer for theatre and television. He is also an expert on bridge and poker, and has written more than a dozen books as well as regular newspaper columns about them.
Mendelson is passionate about South Africa and he’s been visiting Cape Town for 25 years, so when he decided to write a crime fiction novel, he chose Cape Town as the setting.
“The cultural and political background of the country is fascinating for an author and, despite my characters seemingly facing increasing problems, I remain optimistic for South Africa…” he says.
His debut Vaughn de Vries thriller – The First Rule of Survival – was described by Lee Child as: “An excellent, uncompromising crime thriller made even better by its setting.” The First Rule of Survival was an immediate success and was shortlisted for the most prestigious U.K. crime fiction award. It was followed in 2015 by The Serpentine Road and The History of Blood in 2016.
Last year the fourth in the series, Apostle Lodge, came out. A group of boys discover the body of a woman who seems to have been abused and then starved to death in an empty house, Apostle Lodge. Because of the circumstances, Vaughn immediately suspects that it’s not a single crime but part of a series. He finds it hard to attract the focus the crime deserves because a terrorist bomb blast has recently shaken Cape Town and the police are hunting for the perpetrators. As the cases progress, Vaughn finds himself sucked personally into both of them.
If you think serial killer thrillers are formulaic, Apostle Lodge will change your mind. It’s a very different and intriguing take on the subgenre.
Vaughn de Vries’ motivation is justice for the victim. That doesn’t make him an unusual detective, but the fact that it’s his only focus does – he’s not even concerned with the pain of the victim’s family, only in what they can tell him to help him solve the case. Was this where you started with him as a character? Does the rest of his personality develop pretty well inevitably from there?
When I read crime literature, I really enjoy series of books. I find the re-appearance of characters I know reassuring, and the development of the major characters over a long period of time to be fulfilling, in the same way that friendship builds, and you learn more about the person you are fond of.
This is really how it has been with Vaughn de Vries. He is a man engulfed in turmoil yet, strangely, he is at peace with it. In The Serpentine Road, he tells his boss: “You know me, sir: death gets me up in the morning.” He’s only partly joking. He has had twenty years of fulfilling marriage, brought up two daughters, been a policeman in the traumatic death-throws of apartheid heralding the brighter but still troubled times of the new South African democracy and, now he has found what he lives for. Not stability, not sex or alcohol – for which he has barely controlled, unhealthy appetites – but justice for victims. In one way, he is entirely happy in his work; in another, the new world disorients and frustrates him. I think, as the second decade of the new millennium rolls on with the political interference and the all-consuming corruption of the Zuma regime, he has become ever more blinkered, still more focused on that which absorbs him – the pursuit of justice. He just wants to work and be left alone. Perhaps President Ramaphosa will support the SAPS better?
Apostle Lodge is a serial killer story, but it’s quite unlike others I’ve read in the genre. The focus is the damage not only to the murdered victims and the ones who escape, but also to the profilers and others tasked with dealing with such psychopaths on a regular basis. What interested you in this aspect?
I think it is easy to forget that for every attack, every murder we write about, there are victims beyond the character portrayed: their family and friends, the police officers who deal with the crime. I have spoken with homicide detectives both in South Africa and in the UK and it is clear to me that these people’s lives have been changed irrevocably, that their work affects every aspect of their lives: their relationships, their ability to sleep, to relax, to fantasize, to engage with others. I have scarcely met a police officer who does not rely on some form of drug, be it alcohol, nicotine, recreational drugs, or sex addiction to get through their relentless shifts.
So I wanted to be mindful of this aspect of such an investigation. I think if you focus too much upon grief it can become relentless and wearing for the reader, but to ignore it would be doing the often invisible characters who inevitably inhabit such situations an injustice.
Grace Bellingham, a psychological profiler, is worn out by her exposure to stalkers, rapists and killers. At the beginning of Apostle Lodge she opines that perhaps evil is nothing more than a minute distortion of the human brain. However, the actions of the perpetrators is undoubtedly evil and their remorselessness and pride in their actions must be incredibly shocking. To live and work in their world takes a toll none of us can truly appreciate.
Continue reading their conversation here.