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Yewande Omotoso shortlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award 2018!

The shortlist for the International Dublin Literary Award 2018 has been announced and it boasts a South African title!

Congratulations to Yewande Omotoso, whose novel The Woman Next Door (Chatto & Windus) was selected as one of the 10 shortlisted titles. This isn’t the first time that Yewande’s literary ingenuity has been recognised – The Woman Next Door was also shortlisted for the Barry Ronge Fiction Prize 2017.

This prestigious award is cited as “the world’s most valuable annual literary prize for a single work of fiction published in English”. Books are nominated for the award by public libraries throughout the world; the South African titles were nominated by Cape Town Library and Information Services. Local authors Mohale Mashigo (The Yearning) and Nthikeng Mohlele (Pleasure) appeared on the longlist.

The winner will be announced on the 13th of June and will receive €100,000.

Good luck, Yewande! :)

Book details

Sunday Times Literary Awards Longlist 2018 announced

Announcing the longlists for South Africa’s most prestigious annual literary awards, the Alan Paton Award for non-fiction and the Barry Ronge Fiction Prize, in association with Porcupine Ridge. The shortlists will be announced in May.


This is the 18th year of the Sunday Times fiction prize, named for Barry Ronge, the arts commentator who was one of the founders of our literary awards. The criteria stipulate that the winning novel should be one of “rare imagination and style . . . a tale so compelling as to become an enduring landmark of contemporary fiction”.

“South African novelists have once again demonstrated their creative power. This year’s longlist invites the reader to tussle with uncomfortable questions of politics, loss, greed, mythology, heroism and trauma.

Vivid storytelling and unflinching characterization help us to explore vulnerabilities in our quest for love, justice, kindness and compassion. What particularly stands out this year is the inspiration drawn from the complicated relationship between fact and fiction. Some of the authors deftly draw us in to grapple with contemporary South African issues of rampant corruption, devastating greed, and gender disparity. Others bravely take us on a tour of an unkind history and give us a new lens through which to examine our reflections.

Many of the stories are deeply personal, allowing the reader to resonate, on a human level, with the characters’ innermost fears, secret fantasies and their darkest sins. The novels will compel you to examine your humanity, question your unease and define your aspirations. The longlist lays bare the complex and confused time we live in. What an incredible joy and honour to have delighted in these stories that pierce at our hearts. It is going to be very difficult to choose one winner.” - Africa Melane


Selling LipService, Tammy Baikie (Jacana Media)

Grace, Barbara Boswell (Modjaji Books)

A Handful of Earth, Simon Bruinders (Penguin Books)

Softness of the Lime, Maxine Case (Umuzi)

Dikeledi, Achmat Dangor (Picador Africa)

Accident, Dawn Garisch (Modjaji Books)

Bare Ground, Peter Harris, (Picador Africa)

I am Pandarus, Michiel Heyns (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

A Thousand Tales of Johannesburg, Harry Kalmer (Penguin)

Dancing the Death Drill, Fred Khumalo (Umuzi)

Asylum, Marcus Low (Picador Africa)

The Blessed Girl, Angela Makholwa (Pan Macmillan)

Johannesburg, Fiona Melrose (Little, Brown)

If I Stay Right Here, Chwayita Ngamlana (Blackbird Books)

The Last Stop, Thabiso Mofokeng (Blackbird Books)

The Third Reel, SJ Naudé (Umuzi)

Unpresidented, Paige Nick (B&N)

Imitation, Leonhard Praeg (UKZN Press)

Bird-Monk Seding, Lesego Rampolokeng (Deep South)

New Times, Rehana Rossouw (Jacana Media)

The Camp Whore, Francois Smith – translated by Dominique Botha (Tafelberg)

Spire, Fiona Snyckers (Clockwork Books)

Son/Seun, Neil Sonnekus (MF Books Joburg)

A Gap in the Hedge, Johan Vlok Louw (Umuzi)

The Shallows, Ingrid Winterbach – translated by Michiel Heyns (Human & Rousseau)


Africa Melane – Chair

Melane is the host of the Weekend Breakfast Show on CapeTalk. He is also an ambassador for LeadSA, an initiative of Primedia Broadcasting and Independent Newspapers. Melane studied accounting at the University of Cape Town and did articles at PwC. He then went on to teach a professional development course to first-year students in the faculty of health sciences at the University of Cape Town. Melane is the chairman of MODILA, a trust that offers educational programmes to raise awareness and provides training in design, innovation, entrepreneurship and art studies. He also serves on the board of Cape Town Opera, Africa’s premier opera company.
Kate Rogan

Rogan is the owner of Love Books, an independent book shop in Johannesburg. Rogan has a degree in English from the University of Cape Town and a post-graduate degree English (Hons) from Stellenbosch University, where she studied under Michiel Heyns. She started her working life as a copywriter at 702, then moved into publishing where she was a commissioning editor at Zebra Press in its early days. She moved back to radio as a producer and for many years produced The Book Show for Jenny Crwys-Williams. In 2009 she started Love Books.

Ken Barris

Barris is a writer, book critic, NRF-rated academic, poet and keen photographer. His work has been translated into Turkish, Danish, French, German and Slovenian, and has appeared in about 30 anthologies. He has won various literary awards, including the Ingrid Jonker Prize, the M-Net Book Prize, and most recently, the University of Johannesburg Prize, for his novel Life Underwater. He has published five novels, two collections of poetry, and two collections of short stories. The most recent, The Life of Worm & Other Misconceptions, was released last year.

This is the 29th year the Alan Paton Award will be bestowed on a book that presents “the illumination of truthfulness, especially those forms of it that are new, delicate, unfashionable and fly in the face of power”, and that demonstrates “compassion, elegance of writing, and intellectual and moral integrity”.

“It is inspiring to note that out of the 25 books on a very prestigious long list, eight have been written by women, and as two of the books have been co-authored, it means we have 10 female authors in the running.

Dominant trends this year include corruption and state capture which are probed mercilessly. The Gupta family’s wheeling and dealing as well as the former President Jacob Zuma’s alleged malfeasance come under intense scrutiny from several quarters. There are journeys into the criminal underworld and insights into past and present spy networks that read like thrillers, and a selection of moving biographies and memoirs of courageous struggles by contemporary and historic figures. These intensely personal accounts help us understand the bigger picture. There are also specialist offerings that delve into topics as diverse as regional history, social activism, sport, anthropology and feminism.

Each of the books on the 2018 long list is like a pointer on a road map, illuminating the place in which we now find ourselves. A common thread running through the longlisted books is the question of how on earth did we get here? At the TRC hearings a sentiment repeated like a litany over many months, was that of people just wanting to know what happened. Revenge, compensation or retribution seemed to take a backseat for many testifying. We need to know what happened if we want to shape a solid, healthier future and together these books answer myriad questions about the road we have travelled as a nation.” - Sylvia Vollenhoven


Spy: Uncovering Craig Williamson, Jonathan Ancer (Jacana Media)

Almost Human: The Astonishing Tale of Homo Naledi, Lee Berger (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

65 Years of Friendship, George Bizos (Umuzi)

Rule of Law: A Memoir, Glynnis Breytenbach with Nechama Brodie (Pan Macmillan)

Reflecting Rogue: Inside the Mind of a Feminist, Pumla Dineo Gqola (MF Books Joburg)

Kingdom, Power, Glory: Mugabe, Zanu and the Quest for Supremacy 1960-87, Stuart Doran (Bookstorm)

Skollie: One Man’s Struggle to Survive by Telling Stories, John W Fredericks (Zebra Press)

No Longer Whispering to Power: The Story of Thuli Madonsela, Thandeka Gqubule (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

Being Chris Hani’s Daughter, Lindiwe Hani and Melinda Ferguson (MF Books Joburg)

Get Up! Stand Up! Personal Journeys Towards Social Justice, Mark Heywood (Tafelberg)

A Simple Man: Kasrils and the Zuma Enigma, Ronnie Kasrils (Jacana Media)

Dare Not Linger: The Presidential Years, Nelson Mandela and Mandla Langa (Pan Macmillan)

Unmasked: Why The ANC Failed to Govern, Khulu Mbatha (KMMR)

Being a Black Springbok: The Thando Manana Story, Sibusiso Mjikeliso (Pan Macmillan)

Democracy & Delusion: 10 Myths in South African Politics, Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh (Tafelberg)

Always Another Country: A Memoir of Exile and Home, Sisonke Msimang (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

The Republic of Gupta: A Story of State Capture, Pieter-Louis Myburgh (Penguin Books)

The Man Who Founded the ANC: A Biography of Pixley Ka Isaka Seme, Bongani Ngqulunga (Penguin Books)

Colour Me Yellow: Searching for my family truth, Thuli Nhlapo (Kwela)

How to Steal a City: The Battle for Nelson Mandela Bay, Crispian Olver (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

The President’s Keepers: Those Keeping Zuma in Power and Out of Prison, Jacques Pauw (Tafelberg)

Miss Behave, Malebo Sephodi (Blackbird Books)

Hitmen for Hire: Exposing South Africa’s Underworld, Mark Shaw (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

Khwezi: The Remarkable Story Of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo, Redi Tlhabi (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

Apartheid Guns and Money: A Tale of Profit, Hennie van Vuuren (Jacana Media)


Sylvia Vollenhoven – Chair

Vollenhoven is a writer, journalist and filmmaker whose work has won many awards including the 2016 Mbokodo Award for Literature and the Adelaide Tambo Award for Human Rights in the Arts. Vollenhoven was the South African producer for the BBC mini-series Mandela the Living Legend, and is also a Knight Fellow, which is funded by the John S. and James L Knight Foundation with additional support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Edwin Cameron

Cameron has been a Justice of South Africa’s highest court, the Constitutional Court, since 2009. Previously a human rights lawyer, President Mandela appointed him a Judge of the High Court in 1994 and he went on to be a Judge of the Supreme Court of Appeal. He was a fierce critic of President Mbeki’s AIDS-denialist policies. Cameron’s memoir Witness to AIDS was joint winner of the Alan Paton Prize in 2005 and his second memoir Justice: A Personal Account won a South African Literary Award in 2014. He has received many honours for his legal and human rights work.
Paddi Clay

Clay has more than 40 years of experience in the media, covering radio, print, and online journalism. She has a BA Degree in English and Drama from UCT and an MA in Journalism Leadership from the University of Central Lancashire, UK. She has reported for the Rand Daily Mail and Capital Radio, and wrote for the FT and US News and World Report. A life-long campaigner for freedom of expression and a free, independent, media, she spent 15 years as head of the Graduate Journalism Training Programme at what is now Tiso Blackstar and retired in January 2017. She continues to coach and lecture.

Book details

Almost Human

65 Years of Friendship

Rule of Law

Reflecting Rogue

Kingdom, power, glory


No Longer Whispering to Power

Being Chris Hani's Daughter

Get Up! Stand Up!

A Simple Man

Dare Not Linger


Being a Black Springbok

Democracy and Delusion

Always Another Country

The Republic of Gupta

The Man Who Founded the ANC

Colour Me Yellow

How To Steal A City

The President's Keeper

Miss Behave

Hitmen for Hire


Apartheid Guns and Money

Selling Lip Service


A Handful of Earth

Softness of the Lime



Bare Ground

I am Pandarus

A Thousand Tales of Johannesburg

Dancing the Death Drill


The Blessed Girl


If I Stay Right Here

The Last Stop

The Third Reel



Bird-Monk Seding

New Times

The Camp Whore



A Gap in the Hedge

The Shallows

New titles from Tim Marshall and Michael Morpurgo to hit the shelves in April!

Tim Marshall

• Essential new reading from the no.1 Sunday Times and internationally bestselling author of Prisoners of Geography, which has sold more than 235,000 in the UK and is being translated into 17 languages, selling over half a million copies worldwide.

• Punchy and engaging insights into global politics – this is an intelligent, accessible approach to a complex topic.

• Tim is an established and respected media commentator on foreign affairs, and has a large and loyal following.

• He will be on television and radio to promote the book. We feel more divided than ever. This riveting popular analysis tells you why.

“One of the best books about geopolitics you could imagine” – Nicholas Lezard, Evening Standard, on Prisoners of Geography
Walls are going up.

Nationalism and identity politics are on the rise once more.

Over 6,000 miles of fences and barriers have been erected in the past ten years, and they are redefining our political landscape.

There are many reasons why walls go up, because we are divided in many ways: wealth, race, religion, politics. In Europe the divisions of the past decade threaten not only European unity, but in some countries liberal democracy itself. In China, the Party’s need to contain the divisions wrought by capitalism will define the nation’s future. In the USA the rationale for the Mexican border wall runs deeper than the need to control illegal immigration; it taps into the fear that the USA will no longer be a white majority country during the course of this century.

Understanding what has divided us, past and present, is essential to understanding much of what’s going on in the world today. In ten chapters covering The Great Divides; China; the USA; the UK; Europe; the Middle East; India and Bangladesh; Africa; The Spaces In Between; and The Bridges Across, bestselling author Tim Marshall presents an unflinching and essential overview of the faultlines that will shape our world for years to come.

Tim Marshall is a leading authority on foreign affairs with more than 30 years of reporting experience. He was diplomatic editor at Sky News, and before that was working for the BBC and LBC/IRN radio. He has reported from 40 countries and covered conflicts in Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Israel. He is the author of the no.1 Sunday Times bestseller Prisoners of Geography; Worth Dying For: The Power and Politics of Flags; “Dirty Northern B*st*rds!” and Other Tales from the Terraces: The Story of Britain’s Football Chants; and Shadowplay: The Inside Story of the Overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic (a bestseller in former Yugoslavia). He is founder and editor of the current affairs site

Flamingo Boy
Michael Morpurgo

A stunning new classic from master storyteller Michael Morpurgo for readers of 9+, in the vein of Private Peaceful and The Butterfly Lion.

This is a landmark new novel form the nation’s favourite storyteller, set in the unique landscape of the Camargue in the South of France during WW2. There, a young autistic boy lives on his parents’ farm among the salt flats, and the flamingos that live there. There are lots of things he doesn’t understand: but he does know how to heal animals. He loves routine, and music too: and every week he goes to market with his mother, to ride his special horse on the town carousel. But then the Germans come, with their guns, and take the town. A soldier shoots a flamingo from the sky, and it falls to earth terribly injured. And even worse is to come: the carousel is damaged, the horses broken. For this vulnerable boy, everything is falling apart. Only there’s a kind sergeant among the Germans – a man with a young boy of his own at home, a man who trained as a carpenter. Between them, perhaps boy and man can mend what has been broken – and maybe even the whole town…
• A brand new fiction title from the Nation’s Favourite Storyteller and author of War Horse, Michael Morpurgo
Listen to the Moon was shortlisted for a Costa Book Award
• Michael Morpurgo’s English Language sales exceed 34 million copies
• Michael’s UK sales exceed 5 million copies (TCM Bookscan, 2013)
War Horse and Private Peaceful books have been made into films establishing Michael Morpurgo as a household name internationally
• Michael currently has over 44k FB likes and his website visits regularly exceed 20k “Please invite this wonderful story in, you won’t regret it. History is rarely more movingly alive.”

Morris Gleitzman Praise for Michael Morpurgo: “Michael Morpurgo writes brilliantly about war and animals, conveying the big emotions without preaching.”

Guardian “Champagne quality over a wide range of subjects.”

Daily Telegraph “There are few children’s writers as compelling as Michael Morpurgo.”

Daily Express “Morpurgo, as always, is subtle and skilful, and incorporates social and moral issues into his writing without being self-righteous or detracting from the quality of the narrative” Elizabeth Reilly, British Council

“The former children’s laureate has the happy knack of speaking to both child and adult readers.” Guardian

Michael Morpurgo OBE is one of Britain’s best-loved writers for children. He has written over 100 books and won many prizes, including the Smarties Prize, the Blue Peter Book Award and the Whitbread Award. His recent bestselling novels include Shadow, A Medal for Leroy and Little Manfred. His novel War Horse has been successfully adapted as a West End and Broadway theatre play and a major film by Steven Spielberg. A former Children’s Laureate, Michael is also the co-founder, with his wife Clare, of the charity Farms for City Children.

Book details

Also available as an eBook.

Also available as an eBook.

Bron Sibree reviews Amy Chua's new book which traces tribalism in America

Published in the Sunday Times

Nuestra Senora de la Santa Muerta (Our Lady of the Holy Death) is a female deity personifying death. Her prominent cult holds many poor Hispanic Americans in its grip Picture: Getty Images

Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations
Amy Chua, Bloomsbury, R295

Amy Chua is no stranger to controversy or bestseller lists. In the wake of her 2011 bestselling memoir about her attempt to raise her daughters the strict “Chinese” way, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, the Yale law professor garnered death threats and accolades. Then came the outcry triggered by her 2015 book, The Triple Package, which examined why some ethnic and religious groups outperform others in America. Co-written with her Yale professor husband Jed Rubenfeld, it was accused of new racism but it, too, became a New York Times bestseller.

“I never think my books are going to be controversial,” says Chua, “but somehow I keep getting into trouble. I just wonder what’s going to happen with this one,” she says of her fifth book, Political Tribes. “I’m sure I’ll get into trouble again.”

There’s no denying that Political Tribes – which delivers new, uncomfortable insights into tribalism in America and the human instinct to form tribes – is a biting criticism of conventional American thought on everything from foreign policy through to identity politics and the rise of Trump. In examining why America, a land of immigrants, is so uniquely, dangerously, blinkered to tribal politics at home and abroad, Political Tribes also delivers stinging home-truths – any one of which can ignite controversy.

Yet it is American exceptionalism, argues Chua, that blinds it to tribal identities abroad. For America is exceptional, maintains this American-born daughter of ethnic Chinese immigrants from the Philippines. Its ethnicity-transcending national identity, and its unusual success in assimilating people from diverse origins, qualifies it as a super-group, the only one among the world’s great powers. “This has shaped how we see the rest of the world, and deeply influenced our foreign policy,” says Chua. “This is not to say we haven’t got terrible racism, but unlike France, or even England, this is a country with a very strong national identity. So American people just think ‘Oh Sunnis and Shias, why can’t they just be Iraqis?’ It’s a naive view, and it’s pretty ignorant.”

Tribalism propelled Trump to the White House, argues Chua. Race has been traditionally at the core of American tribalism, but Chua notes that America is “on the verge of an unprecedented demographic transformation”. Yet even the growing “whitelash” to the “browning of America” which many consider a factor in Trump’s rise to power, is as complex and divided as the identity politics of both left and right – which are fracturing so rapidly thanks to bigotry and racism on one side and political correctness and a kind of “oppression Olympics” (when two or more groups compete to prove themselves more oppressed than the other) on the other. She believes it is tearing the country apart. Her insights into the sports of Nascar and World Wrestling, powerful tribal identities that see themselves as the “true America”, are illuminating.

But it is her analysis of lesser-known tribal identities like the Sovereign Citizens, a bizarre anti-government group that law-enforcement agencies have identified as a greater threat to their communities than Islamic extremists, and the Prosperity Gospel – a Christian sect that preaches that being rich is divine and is especially popular with disadvantaged minorities – that are as disturbing as they are revelatory. Not to mention the potent tribal identities of America’s 27000 street gangs. Or the lure of Narco-saints like Nuestra Senora de la Santa Muerta (Our Lady of the Holy Death), a cult which holds many poor Hispanic Americans in its grip as well as many members of the LGBTQIA community.

“America’s identity as this single, unified country that still allows for a lot of diversity is really under threat today, and from both sides. It’s why I wrote the book, so that we can get back to seeing that this super-group status we have is extremely unique,” says Chua. “It’s about saving America, the country that my parents love, and that I love.” @BronSibree

Political Tribes

Book details

Alexandra Fuller had the choice to speak out in her debut novel, or to remain silent. She decided on the former, writes Michele Magwood

Alexandra Fuller, author of Quiet Until the Thaw. © Wendell Locke Field

Quiet Until the Thaw *****
Alexandra Fuller, Penguin, R280

‘A wise woman said to me after my father died that grief is a dismantling thing, but that you get to choose how you re-mantle. And this novel was really my re-mantling.” Alexandra Fuller doesn’t so much as wear her heart on her sleeve as slice open her chest and pin back the skin to reveal it beating, hotly and bloodily. She is an intensely visceral writer, but immensely skilled, too, always, sometimes just, staying this side of melodrama and solipsism.

She is known for her series of memoirs, beginning with the incendiary Don’t Let’s Go To The Dogs Tonight, about her deranged upbringing in what was then Rhodesia. Through this, and three subsequent books, we got to know her family, whom she refers to in ironic tones as The Fullers Of Central Africa. She’s made us care about them, their singular spirit and flaws, their bad luck and bad choices. And so when her father, Tim, died in 2015 her readers felt that they had known him and mourned with her. Doubtless he would have been appalled.

Fuller was already writing Quiet Until the Thaw when he passed away – in Budapest, of all places, so far from his beloved Zambia – and his death had a distinct effect on the writing of it.

It is the story of two Native American cousins growing up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

This is the Rez, a barren, God-forsaken stretch of land onto which the Lakota Oglala Sioux were herded and dumped. And if that sounds familiar to South African readers, it is. “Anyone who’s been to a former homeland in South Africa or a Tribal Trust Land in Zimbabwe will recognise it,” she says. “You can’t begin to imagine the poverty and social problems. But the beauty, too.”

Fuller, who lives in Wyoming, has been visiting the Rez for years, beginning with a three-month stay in 2011. “I felt this jolt of homecoming.” It was inevitable that she would write about the community, but chose to write it as a novel. “It felt less appropriating to fictionalise it, and I wanted a way to stitch together all the stories I’d heard on the Rez.”

She approached the project with humility, and went to visit an elder called Alex White Plume. “I went up to his farm – he breeds war ponies and grows hemp – and he was happy to talk to me, but said ‘Before I open my mouth the first thing I have to do is forgive you and all the people who look like you.’”

The main character of the novel is Rick Overlooking Horse, a gentle, reticent soul, “a child, and then a man, of shockingly few words” while his cousin You Choose Watson is a treacherous brat who grows up sly and corrupt.

He escapes the draft by feigning diabetes while Rick Overlooking Horse is sent to Vietnam and is burned almost to death by friendly fire. He returns to the Rez, sets up a teepee in a remote meadow and becomes something of a sage, though Fuller points out that the Lakota Oglala don’t have words like chief and medicine man. People start to go to him “with their wounded hearts and curdled souls”, she writes, and he quietly guides them “out of all the noisy unbecoming we do between birth and death”.

“I rewrote a lot of the book after my father died and there was a lot of him in Rick Overlooking Horse, his taciturn sort of stoicism. From being a lesser character he became the generator, the voice of the book.”

There are other vividly named characters such as Le-a (pronounced Le Dasha) Brings Plenty, Mona Respects Nothing and a man nicknamed Small Nosebleed Indian, because “a mild haemorrhage from a single nostril would be all it would take to get rid of every last drop of his native blood”.

The years unfurl as the cousins orbit and crash into each other. Fuller writes in short, punchy chapters dense with allusion, with such wry titles as “Mina Overlooking Horse Drinks Coffee as a Substitute for Having a Feeling” and “Meantime, Names for a Red Man, and Why He Doesn’t Care”. The chapters distil the gutting oppression of the people and the ravages of poverty, but also the idea of circular time and the notion of kinship. Some are mordantly funny – such as when two Rez boys are hired for an act at Disneyland Paris – all are a revelation, a portal into a history that has been kicked aside over and over again.

Quiet Until the Thaw – the title comes from a Swampy Cree narrative poem – bulges with wisdom but has the venom of a rattlesnake. Like so much of Fuller’s work it is blisteringly, resonantly beautiful.

She will undoubtedly be accused of cultural appropriation but she weighed it up very carefully, asking what would be worse – her silence or her speaking out. As painful as it was, she had to tell of the Rez. And we’re the richer for it.

“Writing it erased me, it eroded me,” she says, “the trajectory I was on went over a cliff.” After her father’s death she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder – “like a bloody war vet” – and is now taking medication. She can’t drink anymore and has been sober for three years.

“My life as it was ended with this book. I began it living in a comfortable condo on the golf course, now I’m living in a yurt! I am so relieved to be living this close to the grounding ground again. It’s not under a tree of forgetfulness, but through the dome at night I can see the stars of the northern hemisphere.” @michelemagwood

Book details

Doomsday in her own lifetime: a woman turns her back on her paranoid, survivalist family one book at a time, writes Jennifer Platt

Published in the Sunday Times

Educated: A Memoir
Tara Westover, Hutchinson, R320

The cover looks like it’s set somewhere in South Africa. A derelict classroom table and chair are the only signs of life in the middle of golden veld overlooked by a blue-tipped mountain. But this is Idaho – a state in the good ol’ USA whose governor CL “Butch” Otter looks like he may have walked straight out of a Dallas episode with a cowboy hat and an aw shucks ma’am smarm. This is also the state that recently rejected a bill to confiscate guns from convicted domestic felons. So your husband, who has been found guilty of abusing you, still has the means to shoot you.

This is the state where, remarkably, Tara Westover, the last child of seven kids, grew up – in a small, mountainous part of it called Buck Peak. Her dad is a full-on anti-government survivalist, her mom a midwife so that they would “be completely off-grid … and she would be able to deliver the grandchildren”.

In the intro, this is what Westover writes: “On the highway below, the school bus rolls past without stopping. I am only seven, but I understand that it is this fact, more than any other, that makes my family different: we don’t go to school.”

Nor do they go to the doctor or the hospital, even when seriously injured, even when her mother is so badly concussed after a car accident that she has to stay in the darkness of their basement for years, even after her brother Luke suffers third-degree burns so horrific that his flesh melts off. “Papery ropes of skin wrapped delicately around his thigh and down his calf, like wax dripping from cheap candles,” writes Westover.

Westover dedicates this book to another brother, Tyler. “Tyler influenced me,” says Westover in a phone interview from what is now her home in Cambridge, England, near the university where she received her PhD. “If it wasn’t for him, I would be still living that life. I can’t even contemplate it.”

Tyler got out. He taught himself and got a high-school diploma. Then he went to college. This was not celebrated in the family. His father says: “A son of mine, standing in line to get brainwashed by socialists and Illuminati spies.” Their father preaches about the big bad world out there and how the government is waiting to come get them. “I think my father is bipolar and this feeds his paranoia,” says Westover. They each have a go bag – in case the police or FBI comes for them, and they can escape to the mountains. Her father invests in silver coins and keeps them in the basement with his cache of guns.

Now that Tyler has gone off to college, Westover at the age of seven has to step into his place as one of her father’s crew, hauling scrap metal in a junkyard.

Like Tyler, she wants something different for herself. “I wanted to learn. I don’t know when it became something I needed to do, but I just felt it.” Her gateway into the world started with her singing – surprisingly something that her father was proud of and supported.

Then another of her elder brothers comes back into her life after having disappeared for six years. She gives him the pseudonym Shawn in the book. At first he seems like her saviour: he helps her with a neck injury, saves her from falling off a horse, and drives her to her theatre rehearsals in Worm Creek as she prepares to sing in musicals.

But one night, at the age of 15, Westover refuses to fetch a glass of water for Shawn – he loves to give orders, a power play he revels in. He drags her by her hair to the bathroom, forces her head into the toilet and twists her arm until she nearly faints. This is the beginning of many years of abuse.

The memoir takes on a frenzied thriller-like tone. You want nothing more than for Westover to get away. She gratefully does escape for bits of time. Like Tyler, she teaches herself, gets her high-school diploma and for the first time steps into a classroom, at Brigham Young University. In one instance she asks the lecturer for the definition of a word she has never heard before. Surly, the teacher answers, “Thanks for that.” The word is “holocaust”.

She goes back home in the holidays, changed. “I don’t think that education is so much about making a living, it’s about making a person,” she says.

She asks her parents to intervene to get Shawn to stop abusing her, but they deny it ever took place and tell her that she has “false memories of what happened”.

“I had a mental breakdown but with therapy I finally accepted that I was telling the truth,” she writes. And she had her journals, proof that her memories were real. These are largely what she bases her memoir on. Westover and her parents are now estranged.

Asked if she would give her own 15-year-old any advice, Westover is firm that she wouldn’t change anything. “You have to come to a point where you ask yourself tough questions … My book is about how to remain loyal to yourself when you fundamentally change. I hope that it can help other people. That there is no shame of where you come from.” @Jenniferdplatt

Book details