Sunday Times Books LIVE Community Sign up

Login to Sunday Times Books LIVE

Forgotten password?

Forgotten your password?

Enter your username or email address and we'll send you reset instructions

Sunday Times Books LIVE

Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

La Not So Dolce Vita: Michele Magwood on the ‘unforgettable epic’ of the Elena Ferrante novels



This story set in Italy has captivated readers around the world, writes Michele Magwood for the Sunday Times

It started quietly last year, with people pressing a book into friends’ hands. It wasn’t available in South Africa yet; some had bought it overseas or online, but My Brilliant Friend began to do the rounds, like a secret handshake, and the cultish, elusive word-of-mouth kicked in.

Dinner parties and book clubs were split into those who had read it and those who hadn’t; the ones who had fell into intense discussions with each other. Those who hadn’t, begged to borrow it, and as the next books in the series followed, the conversation around them grew louder.

Now, thankfully, all four of the novels in the series are in our stores. Thankfully, because once you start reading them you can’t stop. There again, you don’t read these novels so much as immerse yourselves in them. In their panoramic, intricately detailed style they’ve been compared to Dickens and Proust, and rarely have literary novels sparked such worldwide attention.

It’s rare, too, that books in translation sell anywhere near the millions these have, yet this story of two friends growing up in the slums of Naples has a potent appeal.

In the first pages of My Brilliant Friend Elena Ferrante presents us with an index of characters. She arranges them into families: the shoemaker’s family, the mad widow’s family, the carpenter’s family, and so on. Over four books and some six decades we will follow these characters and the tributaries of their lives, lives tinged with love for some, but with treachery, madness and obsession too.

Traditionally there is an arc to fiction: the beginning, the climax, the denouement. There is no single arc to this story, though. Rather, it is like life itself, a pullulating flow streaming onwards. The language is unadorned and neutral, with few lyrical flights or gorgeous tracts of description, yet there is an urgency to the writing, an engine of fury driving it.

Ferrante told The Paris Review, “I tend toward an expansive sentence that has a cold surface and, visible underneath it, a magma of unbearable heat.”

Part of the quartet’s allure is the anonymity of the author. From the outset of her career the pseudonymous Ferrante has refused to be identified or to promote her books. “I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t.” This hasn’t stopped Italian commentators trying to guess her identity – one even proclaimed her to be a man – but so far she has steadfastly remained anonymous, granting few written interviews.

My Brilliant Friend opens in the present day. The narrator Elena Greco is in her 60s, a successful author living in Turin. She receives a call from the son of her childhood friend, Lila, telling her that his mother has vanished. She has wiped every trace of her life from their apartment, even cutting herself out of photographs. When, weeks later, she hasn’t reappeared, Elena is livid.

“Lila is overdoing it as usual, I thought … she wanted not only to disappear herself, now, at the age of 66, but also to eliminate the entire life that she had left behind. We’ll see who wins this time, I said to myself.” And with that she turns on her computer and begins to write the story of their friendship, beginning in the 1950s.

Lila Cerullo is the daughter of the local shoemaker, a skinny, scabby sprite of a child, preternaturally clever. “Her quickness of mind was like a hiss, a dart, a lethal bite … every one of her movements said that to harm her would be pointless because, whatever happened, she would find a way of doing worse to you.”

Elena is softer, given to pleasing, and is devoted to Lila. She’s intelligent, too, but dogged and disciplined. She persuades her parents to let her continue her studies – her eventual ticket out of the squalor – but Lila’s father forces her to leave school to work for him. Her ticket is the usual one for girls like her: marriage at 16 to a brute.

And so the two friends plunge into their lives. Their dolls will become babies, the boys who threw stones at them will be their lovers. They will orbit each other, sometimes colliding, sometimes swinging far apart, supporting each other, betraying each other, forever entangled by their childhood experiences. They grow into beautiful, forcible women, powerful in different ways.

Elena moves away, pursuing the life of the intelligentsia, but is pulled inexorably back to the neighbourhood that Lila can never leave but which she comes to rule. It is a deeply intimate examination of women’s friendship set against a backdrop of poverty, violence and heaving Italian politics. The lava that Ferrante refers to is their rage against their circumstances: the misogyny and shuttered horizons, the ambivalence of motherhood, the iron grip of class and their frustrated ambitions.

How Lila and Elena navigate the limitations of their lives, how they triumph and stumble, contest and acquiesce, makes for an unforgettable epic. There has never been anything like it.

Follow Michele Magwood on Twitter @michelemagwood

My Brilliant FriendThe Story of a New NameThose Who Leave and Those Who StayThe Story of the Lost Child

Ferrante fever

  • High-profile fans include Oprah, Alice Sebold, Richard Flanagan, Zadie Smith, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeffrey Archer.
  • The books have been translated into 42 languages.
  • Italian TV company Wildside has started production on a 32-episode series of the books.
  • A new Ferrante book is scheduled for December, a scary children’s book titled “The Beach At Night”. The story is told from the perspective of an abandoned doll.
  • The series has boosted tourism to Naples, once a city to be avoided. The New York Times even ran an article directing visitors to sites from the novels, including bookstores and pastry shops.
  • The latest – and some say the most plausible – guess as to Ferrante’s identity is that she is Marcello Marmo, a professor of contemporary history at Naples University. She has denied it.


Book details

» read article

Stephen Leather chats about writing, music and why he stopped reading Stephen King

Published in the Sunday Times

Dark ForcesFirst ResponseBlack Ops


Which book changed your life?

I’m not sure it changed my life, but Trust Me I’m Lying certainly changed the way I look at the world. It’s by a guy called Ryan Holiday, a media strategist who understands the way today’s media can be exploited and manipulated. Before I became a full-time writer, I was a journalist for many years on some of the best newspapers in the world – including the Times and the Daily Mail in London and the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong. Back then being a journalist was a respectable profession and facts were sacrosanct. These days, not so much. Ryan Holiday explains how lazy and unscrupulous some journalists have become, and how you can no longer believe anything you see in print or online. I always knew that the internet was awash with faulty information but it wasn’t until I read this book that I realised how easily the media can be manipulated. I gave up reading newspapers several years ago and view pretty much everything I read online as being suspect. I never thought that was how the world would go, I assumed that the internet would give everyone access to facts and information and that as a result people would become smarter and better informed. What’s happened instead is that you are deluged with lies, misinformation and opinions masquerading as facts. Some of that misinformation is deliberate, some of it is mistaken. For instance, recently I posted on my Facebook page that I hurt myself falling off a Segway in a Cape Town vineyard. Several people posted on my timeline that the inventor of the Segway drove his off a cliff and died. That’s just not true. The inventor of the Segway – Dean Kamen – is alive and well and living in New Hampshire. It was the British guy who bought the company who died. But the lie that the inventor died is repeated again and again. As a former professional journalist I always get upset when facts are wrong. That’s not to say that mistakes don’t creep into my books because they do, but I am always gutted when errors are pointed out to me.

What music helps you write?

No type of music helps me write. I’ve never been able to write with music on. I’m a big fan of music, I have a huge vinyl collection and I go to see live bands all the time, but it’s never been an aid to writing. But I can’t write in silence. When I work I sit in front of the TV with my Mac on a coffee table. I watch TV as I write and always have done. I did most of my homework at school and university with the TV on, and most of my working life was spent in busy newspaper offices so I need a buzz around me as I work. Working with the TV on helps when I need to describe a character’s clothing and the credits are always a good source of names! I can’t watch music shows either – it has to be drama or comedy.

What is the strangest thing you’ve done when researching a book?

My book Fair Game is set partly on a container ship that is attacked by Somalian pirates. I booked myself onto one of the largest container ships in the world and sailed from Malaysia, around the Horn of Africa, along the Red Sea, through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean and onto Southampton in the UK. It took 16 days and I could do all the research I wanted. As there was no TV, wifi or phone service, I had plenty of time to write and wrote almost half the novel while at sea!

Do you keep a diary?

Not really. I keep all the pages from my Filofax which tells me where I was on any particular day and any meetings I had. I did keep a diary for my daughter, starting on the day she was born and detailing all the milestones in her life – first steps, first taste of ice cream, first movie, first day at school, and so on. I stopped when she was 16 and will give it to her when she’s 21.

Who is your favourite fictional hero?

Sherlock Holmes. No question. I’ve read and reread the books countless times and I’m always transported back to another time and place. I love the stories, and the writing.

Which current book will you remember in 10 years’ time?

Probably none. That’s the way of the world, unfortunately. There are more books being published now than ever before, but I don’t think any will have the sort of longevity we see with the likes of Enid Blyton and Robert Louis Stevenson. Arthur Conan Doyle published the Sherlock Holmes stories well over a hundred years ago, but they are still well read and will almost certainly be read in a hundred years time. Robert Louis Stevenson was writing at the same time and his books will, I think, go on for as long as people continue to read. Will any of today’s writers still be read in a hundred years? I think not. I very much doubt that mine will! I enjoy the thrillers I read but they are for entertainment and I doubt that I’ll remember them in ten years time. I’ve read many a crime novel recently but none has created a character like Poirot or Miss Marple or Sherlock Holmes. I wonder why that is? Maybe there are just so many books being published these days that it’s impossible for one to stand head and shoulders above the rest.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

When I’m writing I use “he nodded” and “he smiled” way too many times. I always do a word search when I’ve done my first draft and cut them in half. I went through a phase of always having cars “pull away from the kerb” but I’ve stopped that, pretty much. I always describe gun silencers as “bulbous” but that’s a tribute to thriller writer Jack Higgins who does the same.

What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?

The Quran and the Bible. I have several copies of both and keep meaning to read them but never get around to it. I’ve flicked through them, though! Much of my thriller-writing at the moment involves Islamic terrorism so I really should know what’s in the Quran but I’m afraid I Google the bits I need. We did a fair bit of Bible studies at school and I always enjoyed the stories, so I’ve no excuse for not reading the whole book.

Has a book ever changed your mind about something?

I was a biochemist before I became a journalist so I read a lot of medical stuff. I’m not a great fan of doctors generally, like journalists they have become a tainted profession over the years, with financial considerations often taking precedence over treatment. One book that changed my mind about the whole cholesterol argument is The Great Cholesterol Con: The Truth About What Really Causes Heart Disease and How to Avoid It by Malcolm Kendrick. For years the so-called experts have told us that low-fat high-carbohydrate diets are good for us and result in healthy hearts. But this is almost certainly a lie. The pharmaceutical companies came up with so-called “wonder drugs” – statins – which are widely prescribed to lower blood cholesterol levels in an attempt to protect against heart disease. Millions of people take statins every day, and the experts say they are safe and relatively free of side effects. That’s probably a lie, too, and this book demonstrates why. The sad fact is that these days you can no more trust doctors than you can trust journalists, and this book explains why.

You’re hosting a literary dinner with three writers. Who’s invited?

Jack Higgins, Len Deighton and Gerald Seymour, the three thriller writers who influenced me the most when I started writing. My publisher sent my first novel Pay Off to Jack Higgins asking him for a blurb for the cover. He wrote back saying he was too busy to read it. I always through that would make a wonderful cover blurb – Jack Higgins: I was too busy to read it – but no one seemed to think that was a good idea. Years later he gave me a much better blurb for my break-out book The Chinaman, for which I’ve always been grateful.

What novel would you give a child to introduce them to literature?

The Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton. It’s the first book I remember, it was read to me at primary school, I guess I was five or six years old. I’ve never forgotten it and read it to my daughter when she was little. I went on to become a huge Enid Blyton fan and the first book I remember reading myself was a second-hand hardback copy of her book Shadow The Sheepdog. I think it was her Famous Five series that first got me interested in thrillers because I went from there to Ian Fleming (James Bond) and Leslie Charteris (The Saint). If you’d argue that The Faraway Tree isn’t literature, then I’d go for Kidnappedby Robert Louis Stevenson. When I was 12 I was given it to read during the school holidays. I kept putting it off and finally realised there were only two weeks to go before school started. I worked out that if I read 20 pages a day I’d finish it just in time. I forced myself to read the first 20 pages. The next day I read 20 more. The third day I was hooked and read it through to the end in one sitting. Brilliant storytelling.

Do you finish every book that you start? If you don’t, how do you decide when to stop reading?

It’s rare for me not to finish a book. I stop watching TV shows all the time (my Netflix account is littered with unfinished episodes) and I have walked out of cinemas midway through films, but books are different. I usually know before I start a book whether or not I’m going to like it. Generally I’d know the author, I’d have looked at the cover and the blurb, and flicked through it (if it’s a paperback) or read the sample (if it’s an ebook), so I’d have a pretty good idea what the book is about and how it’s written. One book I couldn’t finish was Stephen King’s Under The Dome. I was sailing on a container ship from Malaysia to the UK and wanted a good-sized book to get into because there was no TV, no internet and no phone signal. I wanted a good book to keep me occupied when I wasn’t writing. Under The Dome is just under a thousand pages but after three days I abandoned it. I was a huge fan of Stephen King in the old days and devoured the likes of The Shining, Salem’s Lot and It, but I found Under The Dome to be just plain boring. I started skipping pages, then chapters, then skipped to the ending and read that. It was as ridiculous an ending as I thought it would be so I was glad that I’d saved myself the days of reading to get there. I left it on the ship. I stopped reading because I didn’t care about any of the characters, a fatal fault in storytelling.

Book details

» read article

Harry the difficult dad: Jennifer Platt reviews Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Our favourite wizard has grown up, but he still knows how to cast a spell, writes Jennifer Platt for the Sunday Times

Harry Potter And The Cursed ChildHarry Potter and the Cursed Child
JK Rowling, John Tiffany & Jack Thorne (Little, Brown)

If you are afraid that the eighth book will mess with your love of Harry Potter, don’t worry. JK Rowling has done it again. It thrillingly and effortlessly transports you back to the magical world filled with those much-loved characters and surprising storylines. Best of all, it’s fun!

Even though it is the script of a two-part play, with the story by Rowling but written by theatre greats John Tiffany and Jack Thorne, it has the heart of her novels. It’s also 330 pages long.

The story starts 19 years after Harry has battled Voldemort. It takes off exactly from the epilogue of the last book, The Deathly Hallows, with grownups Harry, Hermione, Ron and their families at King’s Cross Station on Platform 9 3/4.

Harry is now 37, world weary, and married to Ginny Weasley. They have three children, and the middle one, Albus Severus (named after Dumbledore and Snape), is off to his first year at Hogwarts. Worried that he will be sorted into the house of Slytherin, he gets iffy advice from his dad: “The Sorting Hat will take your feelings into account … it did for me.”

(Here come some spoilers …)

It doesn’t. Albus is immediately sorted into Slytherin, and this is the beginning of the deterioration of his relationship with his father.

One of the main themes of the Potter books was lasting friendship. Harry met Hermione and Ron on the Hogwarts Express on their first trip to the school. This time the theme is built around Albus’s friendship with Draco Malfoy’s son Scorpius. Like Harry and Ron, Albus meets him on the train and they share sweets – “Schock-o-Choc, Pepper Imps and Jelly Slugs”. They become firm friends who have much in common – they both have to deal with who their fathers are, their reputations and legacies.

Albus struggles to live up to what he thinks his father wants him to be. He has difficulty flying, is lousy at potions and spells and hates being at Hogwarts.

Scorpius has to deal with being a maleficent Malfoy – or even worse, Voldemort’s child, according to rumours. Despite his parentage or rumoured parentage, Scorpius is lovable, charming, clever and kind – and foolhardy Albus is lucky to have him as a friend.

To prove to his father that he is worthy of being a Potter, Albus decides on a harebrained scheme of saving someone in his father’s past. Together with Scorpius they use a time-turner – a device that allows them to travel quite far back in time. (This is unlike the one in The Prisoner of Azkaban, which allowed Hermione and Harry to travel only hours back in time).

We are then placed firmly in the past in the Goblet of Fire book, where the Triwizard Tournament takes place. This is a good device for settling readersin and allowing fans to go back to their favourite place and time to meet characters long gone.

By their actions, Albus and Scorpius set off a butterfly effect. Their world now has been changed by the events of the past. And – like their parents – instead of consulting with the adults they try to fix the problems themselves.

The writers show that things do change, but Harry Potter and his universe are still as enthralling and magical as ever.

Follow Jennifer Platt on Twitter @Jenniferdplatt

Book details

» read article

Through a glass darkly: Michele Magwood talks to Sam Cowen about her memoir From Whiskey to Water

By Michele Magwood for the Sunday Times

Through a glass darkly: Michele Magwood talks to Sam Cowen about her memoir From Whiskey to Water

From Whiskey to WaterFrom Whiskey to Water
Sam Cowen (MF Books Joburg)

In January 2014 Sam Cowen came around after her first blackout in 12 years. She was facedown on the bricks of the Big Bay Surf and Lifesaving Club in Cape Town. It was all too familiar: her mouth was dry and tasted of vomit, her body hurt and she had no idea where she was or how she had got there. This time, though, there was no alcohol involved. This time she had passed out from hypothermia, having swum 7.5km from Robben Island to Bloubergstrand.

How she got there makes for riveting reading.

Cowen is one of the country’s best-loved media personalities: for many years the witty, laconic foil on the Highveld Stereo breakfast show, warm host of the TV show Great Expectations and author of several irreverent books on mothering. So there was some disbelief when it was announced that she had written a memoir of alcoholism and addiction. No one could be as sharp and sassy day in and day out if they had a drinking problem.

But she did, and in From Whiskey to Water she details epic benders and blackouts, crippling hangovers and a near-rape. “I was a high-functioning alcoholic,” she says. “I hate labels but this one is true.” She managed because she lived within a set of rules. “I was never drunk at work, for example, I never drank before lunchtime. I had hundreds of rules.”

Once she set out to drink a case of red wine in front of the television and almost succeeded before she passed out, another time she woke up on the floor of her study with the computer mouse in her hand, having tried to order a French maid’s outfit online. There are many such anecdotes illustrating what became a yawing free fall. It ended one night in her driveway, after she drove home on the wrong side of the road. She had vomit in her hair and a husband in tears, and that was it.

“I knew I’d broken every rule,” she says, “and I was going to lose my husband.”

With the help of Alcoholics Anonymous she began what is now 14 years of recovery, but that is by no means the end of the story.

She stopped drinking and started eating. And when she had ballooned to 102kg she started dieting obsessively and unsuccessfully. And then she started exercising manically, which became yet another addiction, and finally found long-distance swimming.

“It’s the numbness I like,” she says. “There’s a peace to it, an oblivion. It’s what I looked for in the alcohol, and what I sought and couldn’t find in food.”

Not content with simply swimming for health and enjoyment, though, she lashed herself ever further and faster, setting her sights on the Robben Island swim.

Why does she punish herself so? “I can’t answer that. I suppose if it’s not a challenge it’s not worth it. I can only be excessive.”

She’s quick to point out, though, that she lives on a regimen of anti-depression and anti-anxiety medications. “I was anxious before I started drinking and I’m still anxious now.” It seems a state of serenity will always elude her. “I have pockets of it, but I don’t think that’s possible for me. I just wasn’t built that way.”

Stringently honest, at times funny and at others frightening, From Whiskey to Water is an admirable story. And if Sam Cowen were to lift her head out of the water for long enough, she’d be deafened by the cheers.

Follow Michele Magwood on Twitter @michelemagwood

•Listen to Sam Cowen’s interview on the Magwood on Books podcast:

Not loading?

Book details

» read article

Book bites: 14 August 2016

Published in the Sunday Times

Somewhere Out ThereSomewhere Out There
Amy Hatvany (Simon & Schuster)
Book fling
This is an absorbing story because of the concept: how the lives of two sisters diverge after their mother gives them up for adoption. The women are convincing characters, despite being stereotypical at times. The suspense of whether they will track down their mother keeps the reader involved. She is the third character and the novel opens with her decision. This is light reading with a similar texture to the tangled family themes in Jodi Picoult’s books. What gives it an edge, however, is the thought-provoking issues the book raises including the rehabilitation of prisoners, the benefits of fostering children and the gift and complexity of adoption. — Claire Keeton @ClaireKeetonST

The Crow GirlThe Crow Girl
Erik Axl Sund (Harvill Secker)
Book thrill
At nearly 800 pages this doorstopper (originally published as a trilogy) shows Scandinavian noir at its most badass. Complex and somewhat confusing, the book features a murderer motivated by revenge and retribution against a cult which practised child abuse, incest and sex slavery. Detective Superintendent Jeanette Kihlberg enlists the help of psychologist Sofia Zetterlund but finds more than she expected in this disturbing thriller. The Crow Girl is heavy in every sense of the word but if you’re a fan of the genre it’s worth ploughing through the twists of this convoluted plot. — Aubrey Paton

I'm the Girl Who Was RapedI’m The Girl Who Was Raped
Michelle Hattingh (Modjaji Books)
Book buff
“My story is ordinary because too many women share my story. My story is worth telling because too many women identify with it,” Hattingh says at the end of her powerfully honest autobiography. On the day she presents her honours thesis, “Any Man Can Rape”, to a captivated lecture hall she is later raped, tied up on the rocks of a Cape Town beach with another girl. This is her story of survival. In an attempt to redefine herself as other than “the girl who was raped”, Hattingh unpacks the stigmatisation of rape and the emotional impact it had on her, her family and friends. She exposes the atrocities society pins on women who are raped, the inadequacies of our health system in dealing with rape, and how women assign themselves the blame when they are raped. This is an important story. It’s for every woman and man – a book that tells the story of so many women in South Africa, and around the world. — Kelly Ansara @QueenKelso

The Curious Charms of Arthur PepperThe Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper
Phaedra Patrick (HarperCollins)
Book buff
Arthur Pepper has decided that it’s time. A year after his wife’s death, he’s going to go through her things. This is how he finds the hidden charm bracelet, and begins his amazing search for the stories behind each charm. His detective work leads him across the globe, and uncovers many a hidden truth about his wife and himself. It’s a journey of brilliant self-discovery which features tea, tigers, harem pants and art. More importantly, he learns that old wounds can be healed, and that not all that is gone is forgotten. A beautiful, moving tale which is the duck-feather duvet of stories – comforting, warm and happy. — Samantha Gibb @samantha_gibb

Book details

» read article

Guilty of captivation: Bron Sibree talks to bestselling author Liane Moriarty about her latest novel Truly Madly Guilty

Reading Liane Moriarty’s novels is an innocent pleasure, writes Bron Sibree for the Sunday Times

Truly Madly GuiltyTruly Madly Guilty
Liane Moriarty (Penguin Random House)

Imagine lunching in Los Angeles with one of Hollywood’s finest. If you think that’s surreal, then you know just how author Liane Moriarty felt this April, when she sat down to lunch with Reese Witherspoon. Along with Nicole Kidman, Witherspoon is among a formidable line-up of luminaries starring in an HBO series based on Moriarty’s sixth novel, Big Little Lies. Then came a meeting with the legendary writer and producer David E Kelley, who has adapted Big Little Lies for the screen. “It was a real honour for me, but a very surreal experience,” says Moriarty. “That’s the only word I can use, it’s so difficult to describe how it feels.”

For the Australian-born Moriarty, this capped a momentous year during which three of her novels not only hit the New York Times bestseller list, but film options to all three were snapped up by major studios. CBS was first off the mark, optioning her fourth novel, The Husband’s Secret, and Jennifer Aniston is now attached to TriStar’s adaptation of her fifth, What Alice Forgot. Not that Moriarty is any stranger to success. Well before her US breakthrough – which brought her worldwide sales to more than six million — she had garnered a doting international readership, and admits she has long “felt lucky to be able to make a living from writing”.

The imminent release of her seventh novel, Truly Madly Guilty, marks 13 years she has now spent crafting the kind of novels that prompted Kirkus Reviews to describe her as “an edgier, more provocative and bolder successor to Maeve Binchy”. Moriarty dreamt of being a writer since the age of eight, but lost her confidence in adulthood, becoming a copywriter instead. She recalls it was only when her sister, Jaclyn, published a teen novel that sibling rivalry took over and she felt compelled to write her own debut novel. “I remain eternally grateful to her.”

She was 36 when the success of that debut, Three Wishes, enabled her to quit her advertising job and write her second, The Last Anniversary, which folded potent thematic concerns, believable characters and a quirky brand of humour into a superbly plotted mystery. Five novels on, Truly Madly Guilty speaks to a different set of thematic concerns, yet still reprises familiar ones. Notably guilt. “I do seem to keep returning to guilt a lot in my novels, and I feel guilty about it,” laughs Moriarty. “But I’m just interested in it. Women seem to be pretty good at it, certainly it’s an emotion I struggle with on a daily basis.”

Truly Madly Guilty has a mystery at its heart, shaped around an unspoken-of event at a barbecue. Revolving around three disparate couples, it also probes the nature of a lifelong friendship between two successful women. Erica’s miserable childhood had led to her being unofficially adopted by Clementine’s family since both first attended school, and their adult friendship is sharply observed by Moriarty.

“I’ve known many people who were unofficially adopted by other families because of their difficult home lives. Families just let them become part of their family, which is an amazing thing that people do, but not an official thing. I then thought, what if one member of the unofficial ‘adoptive’ family didn’t really like this person, and how they’d then have this permanent struggle between wanting to feel generous but feeling guilty.”

Now 49, Moriarty, intends taking cues from Margaret Drabble. “If you look at her books, her characters seem to have aged along with her, and I love that. So I’d like to do the same thing.” She also ranks Anne Tyler at the top of her list of inspirational authors, but for Moriarty writing is a choice more than a compulsion.

“I find that I’m happier when I’m writing, I start to get a bit tetchy when I’m not. I hadn’t realised that until I wrote Three Wishes, and then I felt so relieved. Imagine,” she adds softly, “I could have gone my whole life and not realised that something was missing.”

Follow Bron Sibree on Twitter @BronSibree

Book details

» read article

The devil wears safari suits: Ken Barris reviews Nicky Falkof’s The End of Whiteness

By Ken Barris for the Sunday Times

The devil wears safari suits: Ken Barris reviews Nicky Falkof’s The End of Whiteness: Satanism and Family Murder in Late Apartheid South Africa

The End of WhitenessThe End of Whiteness: Satanism & Family Murder in Late Apartheid South Africa
Nicky Falkof (Jacana)

The book focuses two intriguing lenses on the closing decades of apartheid, namely Satanism and family murder. Falkof’s gaze is productively offset, as her centre of interest is really how the media constructed these seemingly unrelated subjects, and in doing so, how they reflected the social dynamics of late apartheid.

Head of the media studies department at the University of the Witwatersrand, Falkof has comprehensively researched her argument and mined data from the popular media. Her writing is lucid and her treatment of the subjects is interesting, leaving The End of Whiteness accessible to both general and academic audiences. It is not without its faults though. One of them is structural – she keeps returning to the same points of discussion from different points of view in different chapters, so a degree of avoidable repetition is built in.

I have a few quibbles with the argument too.

Falkof refers for example to “the Satanic panic that swept white South Africa” at the time of Nelson Mandela’s release, and describes it as a reflection of anxieties about both the collapse of white rule and the divisions within Afrikaner and other white identities. While there is no doubt that such white anxiety was (and still remains) forcefully present, I am not convinced there was a massive panic about Satanism at the time. I recall a much greater panic in white quarters about the coming of democracy itself.

This reference to the scale of the Satanism scare is densely elaborated. Falkof notes that she is “interested in Satanism as a symptom rather than a cause of social anxiety, so no, I’m not making any claims about numbers or spread”. However, her argument that the Satanism scare is a societal indicator does rest to some degree on its scale. Falkof’s focus throughout is how the media mediate. The danger is that they invent as much as they report, and density of reporting is not the same as density of occurrence on the ground. Her project – to show how media distortions open up the prevailing ideology – is entirely legitimate.

In the section on family murder (where in most cases a father murders his family and then commits or attempts suicide) Falkof argues that such murders reflect a breaking point, a faultline in which the contradictions and internal stresses of maintaining apartheid identity are confronted with the threat of its ending.

She deftly dissects various ways in which these events were represented, and the contrasting ideological positions so revealed. These range from critiques of the apartheid-defined patriarch subsuming the identities of his spouse and children, to the conservative view that the Afrikaner was under unbearable pressure in an increasingly hostile world.

In her conclusion, Falkof concedes that whiteness – an all-embracing, unconscious sense of privilege and rightness – has certainly not ended. But her book is really about perceptions. “If not an end to whiteness,” she notes, “then symptomatic reactions to the fear of the possible end of whiteness, the loss of power and privilege.” She notes ironically that even now, despite the power that whites retain, “we still operate within the same discourse of fear”.

Ken Barris’s collection of short stories, The Life of Worm & Other Misconceptions, will be available in April 2017.

Book details

» read article

Book bites: 7 August 2016

The Cry of the HangkakaThe Cry of the Hangkaka
Anne Woodborne (Modjaji Books)
Book buff
The adult world seen through the eyes of a child is a popular device. Here the child is Karin whose mother, Irene, is shamed in post-World War II South African society by the stigma of divorce and rushes off to marry Jack: a drunken mining engineer who takes his new family to Nigeria. Karin makes her escape in reading, her curious choice being a longwinded blood-and-guts tale of Vikings. Jack is so irredeemably nasty it becomes hard to believe in him. But Woodborne has nevertheless created a powerful view of a suffocating 1950s colonial society. — Margaret von Klemperer

The Loving HusbandThe Loving Husband
Christobel Kent (Little, Brown)
Book thrill
Fran Hall’s husband is murdered outside their farmhouse in rural Norfolk. Isolated, with two young children, she finds herself being badgered and bullied by the police. Sleep deprived and grieved, Fran is slow to awaken to uncomfortable truths: how people can use you and betray your trust, and that misogyny still lurks inside organisations sworn to protect you. The Loving Husband is a disturbing domestic thriller that delves into the darker side of marriage, revealing that not all abuse is physical. — Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie

Permanent RemovalPermanent Removal
Alan S Cowell (Jacana)
Book buff
A thriller about a US diplomat returning to South Africa at the time of the TRC to face his own involvement on the wrong, or at least morally dubious, side of the struggle against apartheid. A slightly well-worn trope perhaps, but the lively pace flows well through both past and present. It resonates with questions about the motives of liberal whites who became involved in the struggle and leaves the reader with no trite, easy answers. Just beneath the surface are questions about the anti-terror campaigns now being waged by the US. The author spent many years as a foreign correspondent in South Africa in the 1980s and it shows. His details ring largely true, except for a few lapses – like referring to the communities of Crown Mines as Old Deep. — Hamilton Wende @HamiltonWende

Chris Ryan (Hodder & Stoughton)
John Porter, hero of the Strike Back novel and TV series, returns in this fast-paced, often-violent adventure. It’s a prequel, set in the late ’90s. After the SAS suffers a massacre during a training exercise, Porter leads an M16 strike team to exact retribution, tracking the perpetrators throughout Europe with his trademark icy precision. The geopolitical shenanigans which form the backdrop to the novel provide insight into the Bosnian genocide and its aftermath, with an unexpected plot twist at the end that hints at collusion within the British military establishment and the aristocracy. Ryan’s intimate knowledge of special forces operations makes this a very plausible novel. — Ayesha Kajee @ayeshakajee

Book details

» read article

Love in a time of genocide: Jacqui L’Ange talks to Lauri Kubuitsile about her novel The Scattering

The Scattering brings to life a brutal time in Namibian history, writes Jacqui L’Ange for the Sunday Times

The ScatteringThe Scattering
Lauri Kubuitsile (Penguin Random House)

Lauri Kubuitsile insists that she didn’t want to write a book about war. She wanted to write a novel that transcended the statistics, one that made war real through individual stories. The Scattering does that and more. She has created an epic tale of love in a time of horror.

This book is not for the faint-hearted. It tells the story of genocide, the decimation of a people who never lived to tell their personal stories. It’s also a reminder that a love that survives war cannot always withstand a hatred turned inward.

This is the story of Tjipuka, a young Herero woman with the world at her feet. She and her husband are expecting their first child. They plan to grow their herd and family in Okahandja, where their people have always lived and farmed. She’s a little afraid of her own happiness.

Tjipuka thinks the ancestors might punish her for loving Ruhapo too much, but she pushes such fears aside. While it’s true that the German colonial authorities are throwing their weight around, the head-strong Ruhapo assures her that the Germans will see sense in the face of reasonable arguments – and a show of Herero force.

Ruhapo is horribly wrong. He will never recover from that fact, as Tjipuka will never give in to the brutalities that await her when the Germans issue their extermination order: any Herero found inside the frontier will be executed. Tjipuka’s people flee into the desert, heading for British Bechuanaland. Some of them starve on the dry sands, some in the Lüderitz death camp. Tjipuka is among the “handful of broken people” who survive. She is captured, escapes and is recaptured; she loses everything, and almost everyone, she loves. But she never loses faith in her future.

“I love our inconsistencies and our internal conflicts,” says Kubuitsile. “The convoluted ways we bend our thoughts to rationalise our actions, to justify what we do, even the most horrible acts. We’re not always good; if we were I would have long left human stories and started writing about warthogs or baobab trees. Some of the scenes made me sad. Sometimes reading them, even now, I cry. But that’s okay, I’m human too; we are a magnificently resilient sort of animal.”

It’s not giving anything away to tell you that Tjipuka is reunited with her husband, after believing him dead in battle and almost dying herself many times over. The book begins with the couple in a tender moment, together but separated by a vast emotional gulf; the story tracks back to their wrenching separation.

It also follows another woman who finds herself the victim of a nearby war: Riette is the daughter of a boer who crushes her ambitions to study nursing by forcing her into an unwanted marriage. When their family is swept up in the Anglo-Boer War, she is interned in a British concentration camp. Her path crosses Tjipuka’s, and both are reminded that there is good in the world, and in the people who manage to connect beyond bloodlust and greed.

Riette rails against war as she tends to Tjipuka’s injuries. “Over and over they do it. Men fight, men make war that destroys everything, and women carry the wounds, they clean it up. They rub it away, and they go on. On and on. And yet men pound their chests and say we are the winners. What? What? What do they win?”

Kubuitsile says this is herself speaking through Riette. “There’s nothing good about war, despite what so many shiny medals and marble statues might try to tell us. Nothing.”

But there is a great deal of good in this book. Do the brave thing, and read it.

Follow Jacqui L’Ange @jaxangel

Book details

» read article

A short, intense life whose message defies death: Jennifer Crocker reviews When Breath Becomes Air

Published in the Sunday Times

When Breathe Becomes AirWhen Breath Becomes Air
Paul Kalanithi (The Bodley Head)

We come into the world and the first thing that happens is that we take a breath and, if all is well, we give our first cry. What no one knows is how many breaths of air they will take in a lifetime.

Paul Kalanithi was a young man when he died. He was, by his own account and the accounts of others, an incredible man. He held degrees in English literature, human biology and the philosophy of science from Stanford and Cambridge universities. He went on to study medicine at Yale. He chose neurosurgery and was about to graduate when we meet him at the beginning of this book. He was awarded his degree, but he didn’t get to go to the ceremony.

On a basic level, When Breath Becomes Air is a story about what happens when a doctor becomes a patient, but it’s so much more than that. It is a philosophical and literary exegesis of what a life cut short looks like from the viewpoint of a man who no longer has a long-term plan, because the future is not promised to him.

In his prologue he writes: “I flipped through the CT scan images, the diagnosis obvious: the lungs were matted with innumerable tumours, the spine deformed, full lobe of the liver obliterated.” So with this diagnosis, the doctor on the cusp of a glorious future becomes the patient.

What makes this book extraordinary is that it is not a pity party, but rather the story of an illness and the decisions Kalanithi and his wife Lucy have to make – whether to have a child before he dies, what his future will hold. As his disease progresses he reflects on living with the knowledge of what is killing him. It becomes a rigorous meditation on what death means in our death-averse society. It’s about not knowing how long you are going to live, and how that changes the landscape you thought you were going to navigate.

As Kalanithi discovers, the one thing one wants to know is: how long do I have? His oncologist refuses to answer – a frustration for Kalanithi as he feels this loss of agency.

When Breath Becomes Air is rather like an update on all one’s studies of literature and philosophy in one gulp. Strangely, this is not a morbid book; it is filled with a quiet wisdom. It is, however, a sad book. Particularly poignant is the moment when Kalanithi prepares to scrub in for his last surgery.

But it would be wrong to say that because his life was short – Kalanithi died before he was 40 – it didn’t matter. The message of the book may well be that it mattered very much.

This is not a book people should read, it is a book people have to read.

Follow Jennifer Crocker @Malleson30

Book details

» read article