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Holly Ringland's debut novel is a carefully woven coming-of-age story, writes Jennifer Platt

Holly Ringland, whose debut novel is a carefully woven coming-of-age story. Picture: Supplied

 
The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart *****
Holly Ringland, Pan Books, R175

“In the weatherboard house at the end of the lane, nine-year-old Alice Hart sat at her desk by the window and dreamed of ways to set her father on fire.”

This is the gripping first sentence of The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart. It’s Holly Ringland’s debut novel. The breathtaking cover of arresting native Australian flowers matches the carefully woven coming-of-age story. Every chapter features a drawing of a particular indigenous Australian plant with an explanation of the meaning of the flower. Black Fire Orchid means “desire to possess”, Flannel flowers mean “what is lost is found”, and Foxtails mean “blood of my blood”.

In turn these meanings become the foreshadowing of Alice’s mostly unhappy life. Young Alice lives in isolation with her mother and her abusive, obsessively jealous father whose “eyes turn black with rage”. She has seen no one besides her parents – they stay far from the madding crowd in a cottage near the sea and sugarcane fields. The only relief she has is her beach that she considers her refuge, her books and her dog Toby.

Then fire does come and consumes all that Alice knows. Injured and unable to talk, she has to go and live with June, a grandmother she never knew she had. June takes her to Thornfield, an indigenous flower farm that is inland, far away from Alice’s beloved sea.

Here Alice heals and learns about the meaning of flowers that surround her and who the dungareed Flowers are; the gentle women that her gran has taken in who happily spend days in the fields tending the precious blooms. But no matter how hard June tries and how many times Alice asks her, June can’t get herself to tell her the horrible truth about Clem, her father.

Alice, now 26 years old, learns sharply about betrayal. She flees the farm and ends up at Kililpitjara National Park where the sacred Sturt’s Desert Peas grow. This strange blood red plant’s meaning is “have courage, take heart”. Unprotected and raw, Alice finds herself in the same situation as her mother and has to find the fortitude to leave.

Ringland, who says she grew up wild and barefoot in her mother’s garden in northern Australia, not only delivers a modern fairytale with poignancy, sadness and most importantly hope, she gives a rare insight to the wondrous and different landscapes that Australia has to offer that is more than just dusty deserts, wild dingoes, nosy neighbours and surfer dudes. @Jenniferdplatt

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PEN SA to present the 2018 Day of the Imprisoned Writer on 15 November

PEN South Africa, in collaboration with the Institute for Creative Arts, will present the 2018 Day of the Imprisoned Writer on Thursday, 15 November (5:30 PM) at Hiddingh Hall, Hiddingh Campus, University of Cape Town.

Writers will give readings and presentations in solidarity with jailed artists around the world on this notable day.

RSVP to ica@uct.ac.za.

Click here for more on authors featured on the programme and the cases of the five incarnated artists to be commemorated.

Some people take Susan Lewis’s novels with them to the grave, writes Jennifer Platt

Published in the Sunday Times

The Secret Keeper is veteran author Susan Lewis’s 43rd novel.

 

The Secret Keeper ***
Susan Lewis, Century, R215

There are people who love Susan Lewis’s novels so much that they ask to be buried with them.

“I’ve never had this happen to me before. I don’t know how many writers this has happened to. But a reader told me recently that she just buried her sister-in-law and that her sister-in-law’s request was to take some of my books with her. Isn’t that amazing? I am so blown away by that – that you can touch someone with your books so much. It’s so extraordinary how readers do respond.”

No doubt people will respond to her latest book as well.

The Secret Keeper is Lewis’s 43rd book (including two memoirs). Set in Lewis’s fictional Kesterly-on-Sea, this time the focus is on Olivia, who is unwittingly drawn into intrigue. Her first love Sean is back on the scene, after she learnt to live without him for years. He is disrupting the life she has made with her husband, Richmond, and two children in the picturesque seaside town. Like Cabot Cove, there are quite a few murders in Kesterly-on-Sea but this book focuses more on how this tiny town gets dragged into the higher stakes of corruption and money laundering.

Lewis said she invented Kesterly-On-Sea when she started writing books about child abuse and social services.

“The best thing was to make it fictitious so I was never pointing a finger at any specific social services department. And then it moved on to writing something about the police, someone in the medical world, and I realised this was an extremely useful place to have as I didn’t offend people. And now I feel like I’m the mayor of Kersterly. The hilarious thing is that people write to me and say that they love Kesterly and want to know how to get to the city. People latch on to it.”

Lewis wanted this book to focus on how crime and corruption seep into our lives.

“Money laundering is a big issue. My book is a story of gullibility, and of how a man can get himself into a complete mess. I think it’s a warning to men.”

Lewis brings back one of her readers’ favourite characters, the ex-detective with a heart of gold, Andee Lawrence.

“When I introduced her in Behind Closed Doors, I never thought she would be a recurring character. Readers enjoy her and feel comfortable with her. Each time I bring her into a book it’s like reconnecting with an old friend.”

As for the title of the book, Lewis said she came up with it before she wrote it. “But having said that, I do think there is one person keeping a lot of secrets.”

Lewis is a prolific writer who releases two books a year. “I’ve been doing it a long time. I get into a rhythm. I have to deliver a book in June and one in December. I think the pace of that keeps me going. If I only did one book a year maybe things would collapse. Although maybe I’d have a life …” @Jenniferdplatt

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Anna Burns awarded Man Booker Prize for Milkman

Anna Burns has been announced as the winner of the 2018 Man Booker Prize for her fourth novel, Milkman!

Booker chair of judges, Kwame Anthony Appiah, described Burns’ winning title as “incredibly original”, lauding the author’s ability to “challenge conventional thinking and form”.

Burns told the BBC that she was “stunned” to be awarded this coveted prize, presented to her at London’s Guildhall on 16 October.

Burns is the first author from Northern Ireland to win the Booker.

About the book

In this unnamed city, to be interesting is dangerous.

Middle sister, our protagonist, is busy attempting to keep her mother from discovering her maybe-boyfriend and to keep everyone in the dark about her encounter with Milkman.

But when first brother-in-law sniffs out her struggle, and rumours start to swell, middle sister becomes ‘interesting’. The last thing she ever wanted to be. To be interesting is to be noticed and to be noticed is dangerous…

Milkman is a tale of gossip and hearsay, silence and deliberate deafness. It is the story of inaction with enormous consequences.

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La Bastarda: the Equatorial Guinean novel that defied the censor’s order to shut up

Published in the Sunday Times

By Tiah Beautement

Trifonia Melibea Obono’s La Bastarda has won universal acclaim for its commentary on the harmful nature of genderised societal norms.

 
La Bastarda ****
Trifonia Melibea Obono, translated by Lawrence Schimel, Modjaji, R220

Calling a novel brave has become a cliché; but La Bastarda truly is a work of courage. It’s written by Trifonia Melibea Obono, the first Equatorial Guinean woman writer to be translated into English. Yet Africa’s only Spanish-speaking country banned the book.

“This novel was a scandal in my country,” Obono says, via her book’s translator, Lawrence Schimel. “It was forbidden to discuss its homosexual content in the media. It had a great success in Spain and reached Equatorial Guinea on the rebound. Its success was such that even though I have written four novels, nobody forgets La Bastarda. It’s the book of rebellion, they say.”

The story follows teenager Okomo. Defying her maternal grandmother, Okomo attempts to locate her biological father, not considered her dad in Fang tradition. During her search, she meets her gay uncle, who has been cast out of the community.

Through friends and acquaintances, Okomo finds herself questioning traditions in village society and Fang culture. This leads her to revelations about her own sexuality, taboo in her society.

In one of the story’s most heart-wrenching moments, Okomo discovers that while her culture has a word for gay men, there isn’t one for women. The teen laments: “If you don’t have a name, you’re invisible, and if you’re invisible, you can’t claim any rights.”

Obono explains: “In Okomo’s tradition, women are not people but just property of men. A woman’s sexuality is in the service of her ethnicity, of reproduction. Okomo, who represents womanhood, vindicates the right to be visible, to be an activist, and to enjoy a fundamental right: sexuality.”

The story came at huge personal cost to the writer. “I already lived openly,” Obono says. “But a book like La Bastarda in a closed society pulls you out of the closet on an institutional level. Relatives and friends called my mother to tell them her daughter disobeyed tradition and her place as a woman inside it, writing this filth.”

She continues, “I feel alone as a woman who writes about a marginalised group. I feel alone for not being heteronormative. I feel alone because I have lightish skin and don’t fit into the racial categories of my country: black, white, mulatta. I feel alone for not lightening my skin. I feel alone for not putting on make-up or wearing high heels. I feel alone for not belonging to the masculine gender nor the female: I’m a mix of both.

“The moment comes when you decide to be yourself, without complexes or categories. And you’re happy. I have friendships that don’t abandon me, books, writing – by loving them so much I keep myself sane.” @ms_tiahmarie

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Which turn will the 21st century take? Michele Magwood talks to historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari about the challenges facing humankind

Published in the Sunday Times

21 Lessons for the 21st Century *****
Yuval Noah Harari, Jonathan Cape, R320


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
“In a world deluged by irrelevant information,” writes Yuval Noah Harari, “clarity is power.”

The slight, unassuming Israeli historian shot to fame with his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind which was originally published in Hebrew. He followed it up with Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. Together they have sold tens of millions of copies and been translated into 45 languages.

Harari is a boldly original thinker and credits the Buddhist tradition of Vipassana meditation for his focus and insight. He meditates for two hours a day and for one or two months of the year takes a silent retreat with no books or social media. He is a vegan and chooses not to use a smartphone.

Now, having scrutinised the course of human history and forecast the future of the species, Harari presents 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, which drills into the here and now and the immediate future of human societies. What are today’s greatest challenges and choices? he asks. Where are we heading and what should we pay attention to? Divided into sections like “The Technological Challenge”, “Despair and Hope” and “Resilience” the book presents a deeply disquieting view. “As a historian, I cannot give people food or clothes – but I can try and offer some clarity.”

Yuval Noah Harari. Picture: Olivier Middendorp.

 

Here he answers questions for the Sunday Times:

What do you believe are the high-road and low-road scenarios in the 21st century? What is the best we can aspire to and what is the worst to fear?

The twin revolutions in biotechnology and information technology will give us godlike powers of creation and destruction. But technology doesn’t tell us how to use it. In the 20th century, some societies used the powers of electricity, trains and radio to create totalitarian dictatorships while other societies used exactly the same powers to create liberal democracies. Biotech and infotech can also be used to create very different kinds of societies.

Perhaps the worst-case scenario is that humankind will split into different biological castes, resulting in a situation far worse than apartheid. Artificial intelligence will push hundreds of millions of people out of the job market and into a new “useless class”. People will lose their economic worth and their political power. At the same time, bioengineering will make it possible to upgrade a small elite into super-humans. Revolt and resistance will be almost impossible due to a total surveillance regime that constantly monitors not just what every individual does and says, but even what every individual feels and thinks.

The best-case scenario is that the new technologies will liberate all humans from the burden of disease and hard labour and enable everyone to explore and develop their full potential. Bioengineering will focus on curing the needy rather than on upgrading the rich. Artificial intelligence will indeed eliminate many jobs, but the resulting profits will be used to provide everyone with free basic services, and to allow everyone the opportunity to pursue their dreams, in the field of art, sports, religion or community-building. State-of-the-art surveillance will be used to spy not on the citizens, but on the government, to make sure there is no corruption.

Which of these scenarios will come true?

At present, we seem to be heading towards the dystopian scenario, mainly due to growing global tensions. You cannot regulate bioengineering and artificial intelligence on the national level. For example, if most countries ban genetic-engineering of human babies, but China allows it, very soon everybody will copy the Chinese, because nobody would like to stay behind. The only way to effectively regulate such disruptive technologies is through global co-operation.

What role will religion, ethics and morality play in the 21st century? Are we “playing God”, for example, with bioengineering?

Ethics will be more important than ever, because humankind will be more powerful than ever. When you have the power to re-engineer life, your views on “right” and “wrong” acquire cosmic importance. But you don’t need religion in order to have a good moral compass. For morality doesn’t mean “obeying God” – morality means “reducing suffering”. In order to act morally, you just need to develop a deep appreciation of suffering.

Secular people abstain from murder not because some god forbids it, but because killing inflicts suffering on sentient beings. There is something deeply troubling and dangerous about people who avoid killing just because “God says so”. Such people are motivated by obedience rather than compassion, and what will they do if they come to believe that their god commands them to kill heretics, witches or gays?

And it is noteworthy that secular morality really works. The most peaceful and prosperous countries in the world such as Canada, New Zealand and the Netherlands are secular. In contrast, deeply religious countries such as Iraq and Pakistan tend to be violent and poor. @michelemagwood

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