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The Killing of Butterfly Joe is a tale of violence, guns and greed - and the process of storytelling - told from a prison cell, writes Anna Stroud

Published in the Sunday Times

Rhidian Brook’s protagonist sells butterflies in glass cases – a job he once had. Pic: Nikki Gibbs. © Unknown
The Killing of Butterfly Joe
Rhidian Brook, Picador, R285

The Killing of Butterfly Joe is a fast-paced, neo-gothic thriller that starts in the Catskills Mountains of New York and takes the protagonists on a whirlwind adventure across America. The provocative set-up of the title adds to the sense of dread as the story unfolds, while cutaway scenes reveal the narrator is telling the tale from his prison cell. From the start we know that the narrator, Welsh wannabe-writer Llew Jones, is in for a wild ride when he becomes entangled in the Bosco clan and their butterfly business.

Rhidian Brook is like his main character – a Welsh novelist, except he is successful and living in London with his wife and two children. This year readers can look forward to a film based on his 2013 novel The Aftermath, starring Keira Knightley.

Brook explains where this latest novel comes from: “When I was 23 I had a job selling butterflies in glass cases in America. I worked for a guy who, as well as being a butterfly salesman, had ambitions to be America’s first Pope (an ambition he ditched on account of wanting to marry). I drove all over the US and sold in 32 states. It was 1987 and was pre-internet and pre-mobile phone, which increased the sensation of having an adventure in a land far, far away. I was not a novelist at the time but I told myself that I had to write about these butterflying days if I could. And so I did – 30 years later.”

The characters are well-rounded and entertaining. There’s Joe Bosco, the charismatic, dynamic oldest son; Edith, the powerful, terrifying matriarch; Isabelle, the sensible sister; Mary, the sensual sister; and Clay, Elijah and Celeste who, like the narrator, come to the business in unorthodox ways.

Brook says the characters’ interaction is vital to the story: “Llew is coming into an established, albeit eccentric, family in which there are different temperaments and different histories all clashing. Part of Llew’s journey is working out who is true and trustworthy. The characters also bring out the best and the worst in our narrator.”

Llew and Joe’s relationship reminds the reader of Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby; Llew is enthralled by the sheer magnitude of Joe’s personality and despite his affection for both sisters, it is Joe he loves.

Joe was inspired by two “untameable, creative/destructive mavericks” in literature, The Cat in the Hat and Zorba the Greek. There are echoes of Kerouac and F Scott Fitzgerald in the story, and Brook unpacks the notion of the American Dream in a new and refreshing way.

“The American Dream is a chimera. And yet, the sense of possibility – the idea – of America is so powerful it gives you the feeling that you can do and be anything. And sometimes that happens. Joe actually despises the idea of it – for him it stems from the constitution’s attempt to encode happiness in law. He also thinks it’s a kind of idolatry. In his view America is a religious country but its real religion is money, backed by violence and guns. True religion has been lost.”

Writing is a central theme as elements of storytelling appear throughout the book. Joe tells Llew, “If it’s your story, you can do what you like with it”, Joe makes up his own words and Llew admits he’s an unreliable narrator. Brook says: “I was interested in the tension between experiencing versus imagining, but also how we can sometimes stumble into being writers via the most unexpected roads. Llew gets to write his ‘Great Welsh-American Novel;’ just not in the way he expected.” @annawriter_

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"His Michael K has to stand on his own. And he manages to do just that." Lorraine Sithole reviews Nthikeng Mohlele's Michael K

Published in the Sunday Times

Michael K
Nthikeng Mohlele, Picador Africa, R220

Nthikeng Mohlele is brave to bring out a book under the heavy shadow of JM Coetzee’s classic The Life And Times Of Michael K. His Michael K has to stand on his own. And he manages to do just that. Mohlele writes his story beautifully with a tactile sensuality. He arranges words, sentences and paragraphs like a gifted composer.

The book begins with Miles, the narrator. We are then transported to Dust Island where Miles meets Michael K, who has nothing but the rags on his body, a few seeds, a bent spoon and a string.

Miles spends 31 months on the island, hoping that being with Michael K will awaken his inner poet. In those months, he is fascinated by Michael K’s harmonious existence with nature. No more than two words are exchanged between them, and Michael K remains an enigma to Miles as he lives a life devoid of earthly trappings.

Miles leaves Dust Island following a tragic event. He settles in Johannesburg with the intention of writing poetry, a quest he hopes will get him to live on the periphery of life. Miles soon discovers that, unlike Michael K, he cannot exist merely by the soil.

Miles becomes consumed by Michael K. He questions, prods and dissects Michael K’s existence. How does a man grow into an adult having not touched and experienced carnal pleasures? A shot of good whisky? A great piece of steak? Having not voted? Not participated in a protest?

Michael K survived wars and deprivation but came out with his soul well on the other side. Maybe, just maybe, Miles thinks, we are not fully living because of the societal, economic, political and cultural pressures. Maybe Michael K was the answer to a life of true freedom for he was beholden to no one. To nothing.

As in his previous novels Rusty Bell and Pleasure, Mohlele writes with an orchestral precision about the nature of pleasure and existence. Lorraine Sithole @LS3841

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Book Bites: 15 April

Published in the Sunday Notes

The Swimming Lesson and Other Stories
Kobus Moolman, UKZN Press, R160

Like his poems, Kobus Moolman’s short stories examine life through what can be described as a philosophical lens. The story “Like Father, Like Son” explores the impressions of religion – its restrictions on desire and language, its racial stratification, and its love, presaging violent discipline in obedience to God, nation and family. Though distinctly South African and context-specific, there is something general about contemporary society. At the same time, “The Rubbish Collectors” is a small story about who cleans up after whom. Whether it’s Maggie who smells of cigars, not perfume, or Jesus waking you up in the night because he has something on his mind, it’s the oracy of these narratives that will keep you turning the pages. Chantelle Gray van Heerden @CGrayvH

The Wicked Cometh
Laura Carlin, Hodder & Stoughton, R275

“Danger is never overcome without danger,” is how Hester White has survived in the Victorian-era slums since the death of her parents. But fortunes appear to change when a carriage accident sweeps her into the arms of the wealthy Brock family, under the tutoring care of Rebekah. Yet the aristocratic world is not as far away from the slums as it first appears, tugging the women down into the depths of mystery and murder. A sensuous Gothic tale that is slow to begin, picking up as the plot thickens and twists. Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie

Force of Nature
Jane Harper, Little Brown, R275

Beware the office team-building experience, especially when they take you out to the wild. In Australia. This is the second outing of Harper’s detective Aaron Falk and this time he investigates the disappearance of Alice Russell, who vanishes one night after her team of female co-workers lose their way in the forests near Melbourne. Alice is a police informer, forced into getting files on the nefarious dealings of her firm. Falk needs to find out if any of her colleagues or bosses know what she was doing. Harper won plenty of awards for The Dry, and the pace, setting and constructed character building of this follow-up will most probably garner more accolades. Jennifer Platt @Jenniferdplatt

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’n Uiters tydige huldeblyk aan Milan Kundera - Joan Hambidge resenseer Leonhard Praeg se Imitation

Imitation is a strikingly original work of great subtlety, complexity, imagination, originality, and a clear homage to Milan Kundera’s Immortality. I have never read a novel quite like this.’ – JASON M. WIRTH, Commiserating with Devastated Things: Milan Kundera and the Entitlements of Thinking

‘Imitation is challenging, ambitious and intelligent. It is a fascinating and adventurous parallel to Immortality that is intriguingly and playfully managed; an impressive and carefully considered novel that takes some of Milan Kundera’s most enigmatic thoughts and modernises them.’ – ANDREW BROWN, 2006 recipient of the Sunday Times Fiction Prize for Coldsleep Lullaby

‘With stylistic virtuosity, Praeg successfully enacts the tempestuous relationship between philosophy and fiction while elegantly and eloquently exploring the relationship between coloniser and colonised subjects. It is a brilliant, sparkling novel that heralds a very thoughtful, new voice on the South African literary scene.’ – SAM NAIDU, Associate Professor of Literary Theory, World Literatures, and English Literature, Rhodes University


Imitation happened when an unsuspecting philosopher one day found himself equally outraged by South African president Jacob Zuma’s Big Man building project in Nkandla; awed, all over again, by Milan Kundera’s Immortality; and numbed by the monument to hubris generally known as ‘the highest basilica in all of Christendom’, Our Lady of Peace in Yamoussoukro, Cote d’Ivoire.

Leonhard Praeg is head of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Pretoria. He has published a number of books on African philosophy, violence in the post-colony and African humanism. Imitation is his first novel.

Joan Hambidge het onlangs Praeg se roman gerenseer; hiér deel sy haar opinies:

Leonhard Praeg se roman Imitation beslaan 300 bladsye. Dit is ‘n roman wat gepubliseer is deur ‘n akademiese uitgewershuis en die skrywer is ‘n professor in filosofie. Boonop tree dit in gesprek met Milan Kundera se beroemde roman Immortality (1990), en word ook betekenisvol opgedra aan Kundera as ‘n geskenk.

Immortality vorm deel van ‘n trilogie, te wete The Book of Laugher and Forgetting en The Unbeararable Lightness of Being.

Soos Kundera se roman hou dit nie by die gewone plot-konvensies nie. Dit is veral ‘n roman van allusies en intertekste. Die leser word ‘n toehoorder en onderrig in die betekenis van lees. Wat is lewe? Wat is dood? In Kundera se roman is daar ‘n vriendskap tussen Goethe en Hemingway in die ander oord.

Praeg erken dat hy karakters en dialoog oorgeneem het – soos Professor Avenarius.

Hierdie roman begin traag, maar wanneer dit jou beetpak en jy die sleutel waarin dit geskryf is, snap, word dit ‘n besonderse leeservaring. Dit bevat selfs sketse van die St Peters basilika (p. 100 -103). Hier word daar kommentaar gelewer op Our Lady of Peace in Yamoussoukro, Cote d’Ivoire, ‘n nabootsing van die oorspronklike, maar groter as die eerste.

Lees Hambidge se volledige resensie hier.

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Liefhebbers van spanningsverhale - hiérdie erg klaustrofobiese riller is ’n moet-lees!

Reine Duvenage word geteister. Die sluipjagter speel met haar, maak haar bang en geniet haar vrees. Sy soek hulp, maar ander lag vir haar.

Uiteindelik word sy wreed aangeval. Nou lag niemand meer nie, veral nie toe dit blyk dat die wreedaard moontlik steeds aktief is nie.

Hoe leef ’n vrou met die wete dat daar ’n man rondsluip wat beloof het om haar leed aan te doen? Hoe begin ’n mens oor?

Onder ’n vals naam probeer Reine weer, maar haar poging om anoniem te bly, word bemoeilik toe ’n aantal mans uit haar verlede onverwags in die dorp opdaag waar sy skool hou. Hoekom nou? Is daar ’n rede voor?

Toe die tekens van die sluiper se nabyheid weer al hoe duideliker word, moet Pieter Taljaard, die speurder, alles doen om dié keer nie die te fouteer nie, want almal weet dat Reine nie ’n tweede keer sal kan ontsnap nie.

Watter een van hierdie mans was dit wat haar laas aangeval het? Of staar sy al weer haar vrees in die gesig en nie die werklikheid nie?

Hierdie keer lag niemand vir haar nie, maar hoe kan sy beskerm word teen ’n gesiglose persoon wat aan niemand bekend is nie?

Kan Taljaard, ’n gewone, feilbare mens, die regte inligting kry uit die polisie se ewe feilbare stelsels?

Bets Smith skep opsetlik gewone mense. Ja, Reine is mooi, maar sy is ’n plaasmeisie soos baie ander wat deelneem aan kompetisies op universiteit. Die res van die karakters is mans en vroue wat ons ken, juis daarom is hierdie boek soveel meer kloustrofobies. Dit kan met enige een gebeur. Smith het dalk té lank in ander se skaduwees beweeg, maar stil-stil het sy reeds meer as 100 000 Afrikaanse boeke verkoop. Hierdie boek wys dat sy met groot honde kan draf.

Bets is getroud met Pieter Smith en hulle bly in Witrivier, daarom is die laeveld van Mpumalanga so ’n belangrike ruimte is in haar boeke.


"An excellent novel about the issue of comfort women" - Margaret von Klemperer reviews Mary Lynn's Bracht's White Chrysanthemum

Published in the Witness: 12/04/2017

White Chrysanthemum
Mary Lynn Bracht, Chatto & Windus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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