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Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

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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“A collection of stories about nobodies who discover that they matter” – Mohale Mashigo discusses Intruders with Pearl Boshomane Tsotetsi

Published in the Sunday Times

By Pearl Boshomane Tsotetsi

The acclaimed author of Intruders, Mohale Mashigo. Picture: Sydelle Willow Smith.

 

Intruders ****
Mohale Mashigo, Picador Africa, R180

“A collection of stories about nobodies who discover that they matter.” That is how Mohale Mashigo describes her latest, Intruders. And while the short stories are set in the future (yet deeply rooted in the past) SA, and they feature familiar characters, the author requests that we don’t label the tales in Intruders “Afrofuturism”.

She says Afrofuturism (the genre du jour in literature, film and – as Nando’s points out in their latest cheeky ad – marketing) doesn’t “feel like the right coat to dress my stories in”.

And once you’ve devoured all 12 stories in the book, you understand why Mashigo feels the need for that disclaimer in the first place. To refer to Intruders as Afrofuturism is lazy and inaccurate. The stories aren’t as performative as that label would suggest and while they have a strong sense of familiarity, it’s not in a “seen this all before”, unoriginal way.

The familiarity in Intruders is both comforting and disconcerting. The people in the stories could be our friends, our families, our neighbours – they could be us. The settings are familiar to anyone who knows any corner of this land. That makes it harder to dismiss these tales of werewolves, mutants, monster slayers, shapeshifters and magicians as just tales of fiction.

It’s difficult to do so when you get sucked into them quickly because you recognise the world they are set in. Some of the stories themselves are inspired by or make reference to tales that many of us grew up on.

About this, Mashigo says: “Some of our stories are so magical, scary and downright beautiful. I wanted to show people that there is value in what we have … Our things are nice too!”

For instance, “BnB in Bloem”, a story about two sisters who hunt monsters, brings up the legendary story of Vera the Ghost.

There are a few different versions of Vera’s story, but the basic premise is that she is a beautiful hitchhiker ghost picked up by men who would sleep with her and then later wake up at her gravesite. In “BnB” Vera isn’t just one apparition, but many, who are terrorising men. All of the Veras have died at the hands of the opposite sex, and are out for revenge.

“We would never have to deal with a Vera if men would stop killing women,” one of the sisters says. Imagine if every woman in SA murdered by a man returned for retribution.

That’s part of the beauty of Intruders: it is also a commentary on gender, violence, race, addiction and class in SA done masterfully and in such unexpected ways that stumbling across bits of commentary in the stories feels like discovering sweets you didn’t know were hidden in your pockets.

Take “Once Upon a Town”, for instance. It’s the tale of two brilliant children who were both the hope of their families and communities, who end up hiding in the shadows because of afflictions they have no control over.

Streetlights reflect off the Orange River in Upington. Picture: 123rf.com/Demerzel21

 
While it’s a charming love story, “Once Upon” is also incredibly sad because – while it deals with the supernatural – it’s such a familiar South African tale.

The tale of brilliance that flourished in the sun for a while before being snuffed out by circumstances beyond the control of the gifted; the gifted kids who grew up in a place that wasn’t made to nourish their kind; the gifted kids who were the hopes of their families and communities for a better life; the gifted kids who, in the end, couldn’t escape the world they lived in.

One of the best stories in the Book is “Little Vultures”, a sci-fi fantasy set in a Jurassic Park-esque world, minus the horror (well, at least in the beginning). Basically, a sci-fi Garden of Eden. A widowed scientist, who is a pariah because of an experiment, lives on a farm with the animals she has created or resurrected. She is joined by two women, both coping with their own pain in different ways (one through cosmetic surgery, the other through isolation).

While the story is a literary Venn diagram about science and magic, at its heart is a stunning tale of loss, grief, loneliness and the value of life. The story ends on a suspenseful note, which is both fantastic and frustrating. Frustrating because you want to know more.

And that is the only disappointment with the tales in Intruders: how incomplete they feel. It’s as though Mashigo sucks the reader into her supernatural world as quickly as she spits you out from it. A lot of the stories leave you feeling like an addict who needs a fix. More please. @Pearloysias

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Book Bites: 9 September

Published in the Sunday Times

The Killing HabitThe Killing Habit
****
Mark Billingham, Little Brown, R300

If you are hurrying through an airport bookshop looking for something to read on a flight, you can pick up the latest Mark Billingham and know he will deliver. Especially if it is one of the DI Tom Thorne series. In this, Thorne is assigned to solving a series of cat killings. At first he is incredulous – he is a homicide detective after all – but agrees with the received wisdom that often the careers of serial killers begin with torturing animals. If this person can be stopped at this stage it will prevent murders. He and colleague DI Nicola Tanner find themselves stumbling into a labyrinth that spreads far beyond the dead animals. Expertly plotted and satisfyingly twisting, it’s interesting to note that the book is inspired by the real-life case of the Croydon Cat Killer, who is still at large. Michele Magwood @michelemagwood

Watching You
Watching You
***
Lisa Jewell, Century, R290

Joey returns to the UK from Ibiza with new husband, Alfie, after a rave-fuelled work stint that ended in a whirlwind wedding. Now they’re back in a small town in Bristol, living with Joey’s brother and pregnant sister-in-law. Joey’s life takes on meaning when she develops a crush on her neighbour, Tom, principal of the local school. But she’s not the only one; his pupils are also gaga over him. There are voyeurs aplenty in this book. Tom’s teenage son watches girls through binoculars from his bedroom window. Then there’s the delusional mother of one of Tom’s pupils who spends nights in the bushes watching his house. Amid all this there’s a murder, a stabbing, and dark family secrets. Not the most convincing read, although the final twist is a shocking surprise. Gabriella Bekes @Gabrikwa

A Station on the Path to Somewhere BetterA Station on the Path to Somewhere Better
*****
Benjamin Wood, Simon & Schuster, R275

Benjamin Wood is one of the hottest young British novelists. His gripping third book is about a father-and-son road trip – a week of aching unease that climaxes in horror. Daniel Hardesty, 12, lives with his mother; his parents have split up. His father, Francis, takes him on a jaunt to visit a TV studio. Francis is a masterly creation; mercurial, charming – and a monster poised on a knife edge. We see him through the boy’s eyes, and know something bad is going to happen. When it does, it’s worse than anything we expected. The tale unfolds over the next 20 years, as the sins of the father are visited on his damaged son. Tom Learmont

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A Darker Shade of Pale adds to the growing genres of books about the everyday and painful experience of apartheid and racism in SA, writes Donnay Torr

Published in the Sunday Times


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
A Darker Shade of Pale: A Memoir of Apartheid South Africa ****
Beryl Crosher-Segers, Torchflame Books, R250

In an entry on her blog, Beryl Crosher-Segers ponders: “I couldn’t get to know white or black South Africans while growing up. But our lives were intertwined in some absurd way. I think absurd is the right word here …”

“Absurd” is the perfect word for the juxtaposition of what reads like a normal childhood – but set within the abnormal strictures of apartheid SA.

At its heart, A Darker Shade of Pale is about family. Beryl was born in Cape Town in 1955, seven years after the National Party imposed the system of apartheid. As the middle child of five, she was a quiet observer. “I was the typical ‘Dear Diary’ girl,” she laughs. “I didn’t speak much until I was about 17. But I wrote things down. I’ve always written things down.”

These early recordings of her life are what make her memoir an engrossing read. It weaves clear and poignant memories together in a straightforward, unsentimental way: of a hard-working survivor of a mother, a dissatisfied revolutionary of a father, the solace of good neighbours and friends, moments of joy, pain at the tragic loss of a brother … And finally, a grown-up Beryl and her young family emigrating to Australia. The things that make up a life. There’s one difference, of course. Beryl and her family were classified as “coloured” under the laws of apartheid SA. This meant separate schools. Forced removals from beloved homes and public spaces. Genial white bakers who called you “hotnotjie”, not “child”. Benches that read “Whites Only”.

A “whites-only” beach. Picture courtesy of Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Getty Images.

 
Beryl is now living in Sydney, Australia, and was named one of the country’s most influential Africans, receiving the Celebrate African-Australia’s Captain’s Award. She’s received a human rights award from the University of Technology in Sydney, participated in the organisation of the 2000 Olympics and has worked for senator Penny Wong, parliamentary leader for the opposition. Despite her success, the humiliation of apartheid still lingers and she shares a vignette that illustrates how the hurt is still there, even decades after leaving SA.

“In 2017, a filmmaker from the Australian Film and Television School made a documentary about my story. We went to visit my mother, she’s 86 now and also living in Australia. I took two of the original ‘Whites Only’ signs from the trains along. My mom would not touch them. She would not look at them. She’s been out of SA for 40 years, she hasn’t seen these signs for that long, but she just wouldn’t …”

Writing the book opened old wounds, but also purged some of the more traumatic experiences Beryl had while growing up, such as the night she and her then-boyfriend, now-husband, Chris, went to the Rhodes Memorial to make out – and witnessed a mixed-race couple being arrested by the cops. The (white) male got to sit in the front of the police van, the (non-white) woman was thrown in the back.

“Chris and I still talk about that night,” says Beryl. “I can still hear the woman’s screams. I wonder what happened to her. Where she is now, if she is still alive. And I wonder what we could have done, if we weren’t so scared and helpless to do anything back then.”

Writing the book has also opened the floodgates for more memories from her friends and family.

“My mother told me something that she’d never mentioned before … She grew up in a suburb called Retreat in Cape Town. She said that one morning, the bridge they’d always had to cross to get to the train station was suddenly off limits to them. It happened overnight. She said, ‘We were herded like cattle down to the railway crossing to walk around and go on to the other side.’ She’d never told me that before. To go from human one day, to not-quite-human the next … She told me this story, and I thought she probably has so many more she hasn’t told me …”

Engaging people with the power of story is the point of this book. “People really need to tell their stories,” says Beryl.

“We need to make it clear that all this is not forgotten. There needs to be dialogue. I think if we can engage and talk about how wrong it was … That’s all we want to hear. Because we, and I’m talking about myself, I live with that. It was an abuse of our human rights.” @SAPixi

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Book Bites: 2 September

Published in the Sunday Times

Presumed Dead ***
Mason Cross, Orion, R315

The rugged northeast of rural Georgia near the Appalachian Trail is perfect murder country. Between August 2002 and October 2003 nine bodies found in the dense forest were thought to be the work of the Devil Mountain Killer. Adeline Connor, then a teenage, was one of the victims, but her body was never found. And now, 15 years later, her brother is convinced he saw her alive and well in Atlanta. Carter Blake, a man who finds missing people, is hired to come to the small town of Bethany to investigate David’s claim that his sister is not dead. Someone has something to hide and the body count mounts. Who is out there with a .38 – re-emerging from the woods to kill? A gripping read that keeps you guessing till the end. Gabrielle Bekes @gabrikwa

The Gold Diggers ****
Sue Nyathi, Macmillan, R265

Disenchanted with life in a failing Zimbabwe, a miscellany of individuals make the treacherous crossing into SA, driven by a wily dealer in human cargo. Buoyed up by their hopes of being reunited with relatives or finding lucrative employment, they head for Johannesburg, the City of Gold. They are quickly disillusioned. The city is tough and sleazy; living conditions are squalid; xenophobia is rife; and it is difficult to secure employment without the necessary documents. Tenacity and sometimes duplicity are required and some fall prey to unscrupulous beguilers. Even those who achieve success pay a high price. Nyathi’s narrative has considerable pathos and provides insight into the plight of individuals forced by circumstances to take desperate actions. Moira Lovell

Caligula *****
Simon Turney, Orion, R295

Apparently insane Roman emperors continue to enjoy exposure in contemporary fiction, and readers can have their pick of perspectives. This look at Caligula differs from most considerations of the infamous tyrant in that author Simon Turney attempts, for as long as possible, to maintain a sympathetic view of his subject. Using Caligula’s loving, loyal sister Livilla as the first-person narrator goes a long way to making this a possibility, as she’s the last person in the world willing to wish him ill. Turney’s research paints a detailed picture of the perils of life at court under Caligula’s volatile predecessor Tiberius and of most of the major incidents in Caligula’s rule, confirming that Rome, for all the glamour its historical profile suggests, was a profoundly treacherous place. Bruce Dennill @BroosDennill

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“Fierce, sad, inspired” – Anna Stroud reviews Craig Higginson’s soul-stirring The White Room

Published in the Sunday Times

A man and a woman give each other fictionalised stories about themselves, revealing much more than they ever hoped to in Craig Higginson’s The White Room. Author picture: Christof van der Walt.

 

The White Room
*****
Craig Higginson, Picador Africa, R265

In Craig Higginson’s fourth novel, The White Room, he reimagines and expands the story he started to tell in his 2010 play The Girl in the Yellow Dress. The novel opens when playwright Hannah Meade arrives in London for the opening night of her play about a brief period in Paris when she taught English to a young French-Congolese man named Pierre.

To complicate matters, she’s invited him to the premiere; but when she spots him with his gorgeous wife, she retreats into the wings and frets over how he will receive it.

“This book is so much about fiction and representation,” Higginson says in an interview.

“In the first half of the play before the interval, Pierre is pissed off with her because of the way she represented him, and stuck quite closely to the facts. But then in the second half of the play, he comes away feeling that something in him has been reached, even though the second half of the play wasn’t literally true.”

The play within the novel is structured around five grammar lessons. It opens when Pierre spots Hannah at the Sorbonne and, seeing her as a quintessential English girl, stalks her and convinces her to teach him. But the stories they tell each other about themselves are steeped in fiction, and beg the question whether we can ever truly know each other – or ourselves.

Yet sometimes the lies we tell are most revealing. Hannah’s self-representation leaves Pierre perplexed.

Higginson’s impressive use of language is demonstrated. On the surface it is spare but beneath the simplicity it cajoles the reader into playing a game of words. He writes: “There is an anarchic spirit in her, a kind of reckless impulsiveness that he will ponder over the weeks afterwards. Though she comes across as so perfect, so in control, a shadow seems to lie under everything she says and does.”

Hannah is a complex and moody character who hides from the world in books. The only time she’s truly alive is inside the grammar lessons, while outside everything is drab and dreary. Meanwhile Pierre (like Echo in the myth of Echo and Narcissus) loses himself in her and becomes a rock that reflects her voice.

Unlike the original female character in The Girl in the Yellow Dress, Hannah is not wealthy, or from the UK.

“By making her South African I was able to tap into my own memories of growing up in SA,” Higginson says. “There’s quite a lot of my own life in there … there’s a lot of me in there and yet the characters are very different from me.”

Like Hannah, Higginson was born in Zimbabwe and moved to SA at the height of the Soweto uprising. He also went to boarding school in KwaZulu-Natal, worked in the theatre, lived in England, did a TEFL course in Stoke, and taught English in Paris.

“A recurring theme in my work is the past and traumatic events or secrets from the past,” Higginson says. Hannah and Pierre attempt a relationship, but secrets and baggage from their past seep into the white room, causing them to hurt one another.

“Growing up in SA, one felt a kind of shame all the time. I mean, it’s that thing in The White Room where you’re in this abusive relationship but you don’t know if you’re the abuser or abused.”

The white room represents the room on stage where the action unfolds but it’s also the blank page, a clean slate. On another level, it’s about whiteness and the centrality it demands for itself.

Higginson explains that the novel touches on “the space that whiteness takes up in the world, the room that whiteness asks for itself, and how characters like Pierre have to negotiate that space”.

Yet, it’s a story that affirms the power of poetry, literature and theatre to reimagine and transform ourselves.

“I think we need to absorb fictions in order to heal and find a better vision.”

Fierce, sad, inspired The White Room stirs the soul. @annawriter_

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An African refugee finds her struggle is not over once she makes it to the US, writes Margaret von Klemperer

Published in the Sunday Times

Clemantine Wamariya says being reunited with her parents on TV, with no warning, made her feel like the subject of an experiment. Picture: Julia Zave.

 
The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After
****
Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil, Hutchinson, R320

Clemantine Wamariya’s story opens in 2006. She was an 18-year-old high-school student in the US and a finalist in an Oprah Winfrey essay competition. As one of the finalists, she set off for the filming of an episode of Oprah’s show on Holocaust survivor and Nobel peace prize winner Elie Wiesel, as her essay was about Wiesel’s book, Night. But Wamariya is also a survivor – in her case, the Rwandan genocide.

Wamariya attended the shoot with her sister, Claire, who, nine years older than the six-year-old Clemantine, had protected her through six horrific years in the refugee camps of seven African countries. By 2006, they knew their parents had also survived, although they had not seen them for 12 years. With no warning, Oprah reunited the family on screen, in front of a worldwide TV audience – and of course there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

Oprah had done an amazing thing, reuniting a family after years of devastation, death and loss. And she had raised awareness of a terrible event. But when I read about it, I could only see it as the commodification of grief and suffering, calculated to load the disengaged watchers with warm fuzzy feelings, but shattering to those to whom it mattered.

The Girl Who Smiled Beads is partly an articulation of what that evening in a television studio meant. Wamariya says she was grateful to Oprah, of course, but goes on: “But I also felt kicked in the stomach, as though my life were some psychologist’s perverse experiment.”

Claire and Clemantine Wamariya on ‘Oprah’.

 
Wamariya tells her story with almost unbearable honesty and a palpable anger as she describes the refugee years with Claire, a survivor who was always on the hustle. In that time Claire had two children who Wamariya made it her mission to keep alive, clean and attractive – because clean, attractive infants score better in the hand-to-mouth refugee existence.

Once the sisters were granted refugee status in the US, Wamariya was taken in by a family who saw to her education so successfully that eventually she was accepted to go to Yale. But her main struggles were never going to be academic: Wamariya had to deal with people who wanted, often from the best of motives, to see her as a kind of “genocide princess”, particularly after Oprah. She tried to live up to that, but boiling away beneath the surface was distrust of people’s motives, learnt in her years trailing around the eastern side of Africa.

Then there was the difficulty of forming a relationship with the family she had been torn from at the age of six. Wamariya is honest about her problems and the loss of a sense of self that came from her horrendous childhood. She writes of her hatred of the word “genocide”, because it is an easy catch-all. Each person caught up in it has their own personal story, a private horror that can become lost in the general.

We all know the compassion fatigue that stories of refugees and their situation can engender. Wamariya lays her experience before us without asking for pity or even understanding, but simply for the time it takes to read her book. And it is well worth every minute.

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Book Bites: 26 August

Published in the Sunday Times

Perfect Death *****
Helen Fields, HarperCollins, R215

A naked girl freezes to death on a wintry hillside, but her killer doesn’t enjoy the actual murder. He is sustained by the grief of those who loved the victim. Readers are soon inside the head of the serial killer, and stay a step ahead of Edinburgh cop Luc Callanach. He has complex feelings for Detective Chief Inspector Ava Turner. She’s equally disturbed by the sexual tension, but both keep their guard up as deaths multiply, and police corruption emerges. The tale accelerates to a violent climax and a twist ending. It weaves a bright new thread into the school of “tartan noir” police procedurals and follows two bestsellers: Perfect Remains and Perfect Prey. Tom Learmont

The Tall Man **
Phoebe Locke, Headline, R265

According to a Daily Express quote on the jacket, Locke’s novel is the “must-read summer chiller”. But the only chills I felt while reading this “thriller” was that of Joburg’s winter. The premise is simple: in the early ’90s three girls pledge their devotion to a mysterious figure known as (yes, you guessed it) the Tall Man. This man (who is lank tall. Like, we get it) promises to make these girls “special”. Fast-forward a few decades where the disappearance of a young mother (in 2000) and a brutal murder possibly committed by a teenage girl (in 2018) might just be linked to that one fateful night in an English forest in 1990. The plot drags and Locke’s incessant references to the Tall Man’s height and pseudo-supernatural allusions make this a tiring and confusing read. Mila de Villiers @mila_se_kind

The Anomaly ****
Michael Rutger, Bonnier, R265

Nolan Moore, host of a struggling online reality show investigating archaeological anomalies, leads his crew to a mythical cavern deep in the Grand Canyon, using a century-old newspaper clipping as his guide. In a scenario horror fans know all too well, once Nolan and co are deep inside the cave, rejoicing at their scoop, it all begins to go pear-shaped. Within hours, they are trapped deep under the earth with almost no food, light or water. Then they realise they are not alone … And the plot deteriorates into absurdity – with murders, monsters, and betrayals. But the writing is superb; sharp, witty and intelligent, with refreshingly good grammar. Think one of the more ludicrous episodes of the X-Files, but scripted by Oscar Wilde. Aubrey Paton

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Typos and a superficial engagement with the Karoo landscape undermine an otherwise sexy and smart novel, writes Anna Stroud of The Ecstasy of Brush Strokes

Published in the Sunday Times

The Ecstasy of Brush Strokes ***
Rachel Haze, MF Books / Joburg, R180

As a child of the Karoo and a closet reader of hygromans, can you imagine my delight when I found The Ecstasy of Brush Strokes by Rachel Haze (a nom de plume), hailed as Fifty Shades of the Karoo?

I loved the deliciously flawed character of Alex, who packs up her art supplies and flees to a town near Beaufort West to get away from her marriage and her restless mind.

I liked how unlikable Alex is – her inner dialogue and feelings are well-crafted and you feel empathy for her self-destructive tendencies. Haze creates a three-dimensional character that grows from a love-struck student to a disillusioned adult struggling to find her place in the world.

The vivid, imaginative and wonderfully over-the-top sex scenes between Alex and her Rhodes psychology tutor are enjoyable, as are those with her S&M-obsessed husband and others. The author clearly knows her art and uses it to illuminate the inner world of Alex and the lovers she inhabits.

However, the author fails to capture the nuances of the Karoo; it remains dry and dusty, the people in the township are all on social grants, and everyone’s suffering.

At times it feels like the author tries too hard to be clever, for example when she compares sex to biltong, or in her description of Grahamstown as “a small town in the middle of nowhere, far removed from the civilising hand of urban life” that had a “way of chopping students up into little pieces and then delicately throwing them out into some kind of colonial ether”. Huh?

Wayward typos (“throws of passion”, “spilt second”) and a superficial engagement with the landscape undermine an otherwise sexy and smart novel. @Annawriter_

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