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An imagined extension of a real past makes for a riveting novel, writes William Saunderson-Meyer of Anton Svensson's The Sons

Published in the Sunday Times

The Sons
*****
Anton Svensson (Sphere, R295)

Anders Roslund and Stefan Thunberg, authors of The Sons. Picture: Supplied.

 
This powerful epic of a Swedish family whose lives are blighted by crime is riveting. Though this is part of the Made in Sweden series and is following on Svensson’s earlier book The Father - an enormous critical success – it can be read as a stand-alone.

Anton Svensson is the pseudonym of Stefan Thunberg and Anders Roslund. Thunberg is a celebrated screenwriter, responsible for the Wallander television series, based on Henning Mankell’s novels. Roslund is an award-winning investigative journalist and crime writer, who is also half of the Roslund and Hellstrom writing duo, whose books have sold more than five million copies.

The novel takes strands of fact from the past and with aplomb weaves them into a tapestry of what might have happened next. What constitutes the past in The Sons is inspired by the real events that form the basis of The Father.

The impetus for The Father came directly from Thunberg’s life. Though he and his mother lived conventional lives, his father and three brothers moonlighted as Sweden’s most notorious bank robbers. Dubbed the Military Gang for their precision strikes and their readiness to use violence, they netted millions of kronor before being captured.

It was only then that their mother discovered that the apparently successful construction business that the family ran was, in reality, a front. Stefan, though privy to some of their crimes, never participated.

The Sons, which is now fiction and not based on real events, begins with the eldest brother, Leo, being released from prison and trying to reconstitute the gang for one last heist.

Much of the psychological tension comes from the interplay between the innocents of the family and the father, Ivan, and Leo, who take familial loyalty as an absolute given. Failing it being given voluntarily, they are willing to enforce it with unflinching brutality.

Stefan, centre, with his brother Carl and his father, Boris. Picture: Anna-Lena Ahlström.

 
A seminal event in their early lives is when Ivan beats his wife nearly to death, if not for then 14-year-old Leo’s intervention. Leo washes out the blood and explains to his brothers: “What happened here has to stay here. That’s how it works in a family.”

Here is the core of this family’s tragedy: domestic and child abuse, alcoholism, violent crime and terrible secrets. The surprise is not that the family is shattered by a tsunami of pain, but that any of them later manages to pick up the pieces of their lives.

The theme is of the father’s sins being visited upon the sons. Leo’s plan is to steal, for a second time, the millions seized during their arrest, which is now housed in the Stockholm police station.

John Broncks is the detective who put the gang behind bars in the first novel and now suspects Leo of planning another job. But Broncks is to discover that it is his own brother, Sam, also freshly released from prison, who is Leo’s key accomplice.

Broncks is now in a quandary, as he owes his brother an enormous debt – a life-saving intervention that protected Broncks from their abusive father. @TheJaundicedEye

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Book Bites: 1 July

Published in the Sunday Times

When She Was GoneWhen She Was Gone
***
SA Dunphy, Hachette, R285

David Dunnigan is in turmoil when a shoe belonging to his niece, Beth, is delivered to his doorstep. Thing is, she was wearing the shoes when she was kidnapped 18 years earlier, while she was with him. He has never forgiven himself and that has ruined his relationships and his career as a criminologist. Who left the shoe and why? Is Beth still alive? Dunnigan’s hopes revived, he delves into Dublin’s seedy underworld where his quest takes him to a chilling psychiatric asylum run by a mad shrink and his psychotic sidekick. Then to an Inuit village in frozen Greenland where trafficked slaves are worked to the bone in a fish factory. A thrilling read that takes you to the extremes of human cruelty. Gabriella Bekes @gabrikwa

The Long ForgottenThe Long Forgotten
****
David Whitehouse, Pan Macmillan, R285

A cantankerous professor discovers a black box flight recorder of a plane that went missing 30 years ago, and unlocks a story that spans decades, generations, and continents. A young man named Dove works in an emergency dispatch call centre until he starts getting excruciating headaches that present themselves as flashes of someone else’s memories. Twenty years hence a cleaner by the name of Peter Manyweathers discovers a love letter with a list of rare flowers in a library book, and sets off on a quest for adventure – and love. How do these stories fit into each other? Beautifully intertwined and skilfully crafted, Whitehouse spins a narrative that leaves the reader aching for more. Anna Stroud @annawriter_

The ReckoningThe Reckoning
***
Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Hodder & Stoughton, R300

There is something relentlessly grim about Sigurðardóttir’s Icelandic noir novels. The setting is a cold, mostly unfriendly atmosphere of grimy police stations, dimly lit parking garages and a country that is as isolating as it is small and claustrophobic. The characters are unfathomable yet fascinating. This is the second book in the Children’s House series. The detective Huldar and child psychologist Freyja’s careers have both suffered because of the last case they worked on and now they are investigating a chilling case – family secrets and gruesome murders with severed hands and feet found in odd places. Their feelings for each other also complicate matters. Jennifer Platt @Jenniferdplatt

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There is a sadness in the story, but also humour - Margaret von Klemperer reviews The Boy Who Could Keep a Swan in his Head

Published in the Witness (25/06/2018)

Set in the then all-white suburb of Hillbrow in 1967, John Hunt’s novel is a moving evocation of a difficult and different childhood. While the setting might seem strange to those who know Hillbrow in its current manifestation, Hunt’s fine descriptive writing makes it an important and evocative backdrop to the story. But centre stage is occupied by 11 year old Phen.

His real name is Stephen, but he is a stutterer who has more trouble with the letter “S” than any other, so Phen at least offers him a chance to articulate his name. Teased at school by peers and teachers alike, his life is tough. And to compound his problems, his father is dying, slowly and painfully.

His one solace is to get Phen to read to him after school, taking the child into the worlds of Hemingway, Truman Capote and John le Carré, adding colour to the Cold War fantasy games Phen plays in the park while walking his dog. But eventually even his father deserts him in favour of a new-fangled reel to reel tape-deck and non-stuttering audio books.

Feeling sad and supplanted, he befriends a hobo in the park, who tells Phen his name is Heb Thirteen Two, something Phen will eventually decode with surprising consequences which at one point take the reader into what feels like fantasy. But that’s not what it is.

Writing from the standpoint of a child is extraordinarily difficult to do successfully. Hunt makes Phen completely believable, neither too cute nor improbably knowing, as he deals with the tragedy of his father’s impending death and observes with the clear eye of pre-adolescence the behaviour of the adults who surround him. There is sadness in the story, but also humour – Phen’s turn as a tree in the class production of A Midsummer-Night’s Dream is hilarious.

But despite his problems with speech, Phen’s reading has taught him the power of words and given him a love of books. And once he has worked out what Heb Thirteen Two’s name might mean, a new dimension of comfort is added to his life, though Hunt avoids the obvious and the cliched. The ending of the book is deeply moving but the reader can be filled with hope for Phen’s future.

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"Kindness is the core of Gail Honeyman's superb novel." Russell Clarke reviews Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
*****
Gail Honeyman, HarperCollins, R205

Now available in paperback, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine has performed astonishingly well on the bestseller lists, and recently won the Costa Award for a debut novel. And for good reason. Miss Eleanor Oliphant lives an ordinary, if slightly odd, life. Written as a first-person narrative, Eleanor is about to turn 30, lives in a flat in Glasgow and works as an accounts clerk.

She’s someone we all know; she rarely interacts with her colleagues, thinks and speaks with a terribly stiff formality, and sees the world in completely different ways. Eleanor is also routine bound. She works quietly all week, eats the same food. On Friday nights she buys herself a frozen pizza and two bottles of vodka, and avoids the world until Monday morning, when she goes back to work and begins the week again. Not much of a life, really.

It takes a little while to figure Eleanor out – she embodies what has become a standard unreliable narrator (think The Girl on the Train, and then banish the thought entirely). Just when you think you’ve got a grip on her, you realise she’s not the unreliable character you’ve taken her for at all. What reads as eccentricity is in truth Eleanor’s detachment from society, and her slight bewilderment at how other people live. And her detachment is in fact rooted in a loneliness and isolation that’s no fault of her own.

An encounter with Raymond, the IT fellow from her office, and the unfolding of human interactions that arise from this encounter, points the way to the core of Gail Honeyman’s superb novel – kindness. Small acts of human kindness; unthinking, unconditional kindness and the micro-interactions – human touch, thoughtfulness – that make modern life bearable.

Eleanor’s story is about mental illness and isolation, but it is about heart – and it’s also funny and touching without being sappy. Eleanor Oliphant will stay with you for a long time. Russell Clarke @russrussy

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The box unlocked: there are many similarities in the lives of the author and his main character, writes Michele Magwood of John Hunt's The Boy Who Could Keep a Swan in His Head

Published in the Sunday Times

The Boy Who Could Keep a Swan in His Head
*****
John Hunt, Umuzi, R260

John Hunt’s second novel is set in Hillbrow and Berea in 1967. Picture: Joanne Olivier

 
Advertising maestro John Hunt could probably walk to Hillbrow from his gracious Westcliff home, but the distance he has come from his childhood in that suburb is immeasurable. The Boy Who Could Keep a Swan in His Head is set in Hillbrow and Berea in 1967, a thronging, multicultural community where streets of tin-roofed houses are being broken down into skips and confident new buildings thrust skywards.

Eleven-year-old Stephen Baxter – known as Phen – lives in a worn Deco block of flats on O’Reilly Road. He’s a watchful, hypervigilant child who is learning “to listen with his eyes”. Phen’s father is dying in his gloomy, book-stuffed bedroom, an erudite and humorous man, looking for all the world like a Spitfire pilot behind his oxygen mask. His thick glasses are held together with sticky tape. “His magnified eyelashes stuck to the lenses like the bent legs of spiders waiting to scurry away.”

As his father slowly deteriorates, Phen must navigate a confusing world where adults speak in riddles and the atmosphere is thick with unspoken meaning. Pre-pubescence is a delicate time. “You can be lost in your Meccano set,” says Hunt, “but you also know that there’s something in the adult world you have to start understanding.”

He has borrowed generously from his childhood for this fine novel, but he prefers to keep the lines between fiction and lived experience blurred. Like Phen, Hunt’s father was terminally ill. Like Phen he would read for hours to his father, classics and adult books like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood or Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.

“Even though you could read the words, adult books had secondary meanings,” says Hunt. Phen has a severe stutter, Hunt was dyslexic, both are – or were – highly sensitive and sensitised boys. “I think the situation made a sensitive boy more sensitive, an aware child more aware,” says Hunt. It was a time of such heightened emotion and anxiety that 50 years on he is able to render the boy with crystalline empathy.

“When these things happen as a boy, in order to cope you keep them in a box. I wanted to go back and unlock the box and it just exploded from there. It was as if it was deep-frozen. It hadn’t gone away.”

Going over an old map of Hillbrow in the ’60s, memories came flowing back. Clarendon Circle, Estoril Books, the cafés and movie house. Wilson’s toffees. Mills Special cigarettes. Ford Cortinas. An immigrant from Florence named Romolo: “He was immediately renamed Romeo in acknowledgement of his tight pants and sleek hair, jet black and shaped in the front like the bonnet of Margaret Wallace’s parents’ Pontiac.”

We are reminded that Hillbrow was always a landing ground for immigrants coming to South Africa. Hunt paints this world with assured impressionistic strokes, and his characters leap off the page: Phen’s grandmother, a doughty Scotswoman, given to observations like “When life turns as black as the Earl of Hell’s waistcoat, you don’t want a man who’s all bum and parsley”; the school groundsman with shrapnel in his head from the Korean war; the shoving, mocking, almost-hormonal schoolmates and his just-coping mother.

And then there is Heb Thirteen Two, the character around whom the story revolves, an eccentric homeless man who Phen meets in the park. He might, or might not, exist in Phen’s imagination. He might be an unsavoury old hobo or he may be an angel sent to guide a boy through an unbearable time.

While Hunt received warmth and support in his childhood from the neighbourhood adults, “I’d love to have met someone like Heb in the park.”

Instead he is able to look back over the decades and pour the wisdom he needed then into this figure.

His writing is poignant without being sentimental, moving without being mawkish. This is a perceptive, affectionate view of a splintering world through a child’s wide-open eyes. It’s also a homage to the power of books and words to contain and comfort us.

It would seem that Hunt has made a life out of the words he imbibed at his father’s bedside – first as a copywriter and visionary adman (he was a co-founder of TBWA\Hunt Lascaris) – and now as an award-winning playwright and author of two novels. He is a steadfast believer in the value of reading over watching, of pages over screens.

“When you read you engage your brain differently,” he says. “You release a sort of imaginary serotonin. It’s different from when you’re watching something on an Ipad. Between the written word and the reader there’s something in between. You think not just about the characters but about yourself, where you are in the world.” @michelemagwood

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The links between southwest France and the Cape inspired Kate Mosse's latest novel, writes Kate Sidley

Published in the Sunday Times


Kate Mosse has a house in Carcassonne, again the setting of a novel. Picture: Supplied

The Burning Chambers
****
Kate Mosse, Mantle, R285

Bestselling author Kate Mosse visited the graveyard in Franschhoek several years ago and felt such a strong sense of the links between the southwest of France and the Cape, the landscape and Huguenot history that, she says, a shiver ran down her spine. It inspired The Burning Chambers.

Readers are plunged into 16th-century France, to a time of bloody strife between Protestants and Catholics, persecution of the Huguenots and the massacre of Toulouse. Like her Languedoc trilogy (Labyrinth, Sepulchre and Citadel), this novel is set predominantly in Carcassonne.

“All my fiction is inspired by place, by landscape,” she says. Mosse knows the place – she goes there every month to write. When she’s there the history of this fortified medieval city is palpable to her. She’s walked the ancient streets and climbed the towers and seen the sun on the citadel, and this intimate knowledge she bring to The Burning Chambers.

It’s a lot of complex history to wrangle, and Mosse handles it deftly, bringing the setting and its events vividly to life while interweaving the familial and romantic stories. At its heart is a love story, between young Minou Joubert, the daughter of a Catholic bookshop owner, and Piet Reydon, a Dutch-born Protestant convert and supporter of the Protestant army.

Minou receives a mysterious anonymous letter: SHE KNOWS THAT YOU LIVE. Piet has secrets and a dangerous mission. The characters’ converging storylines are interspersed with extracts from a mysterious diary. The book proceeds with plenty of threads, twists and turns to keep the reader engaged. A priceless religious relic, treachery, torture and murder add to the intrigue.

Mosse’s characters – Minou’s family, the political and religious plotters and planners, and a mysterious and nasty villain – keep us emotionally connected.

“I have an idea of the sort of people I need, and it’s as if I build a set, and the characters start to show themselves. I’m intrigued. ‘Ah, so that’s who you are. I see. And you have red hair.’ It’s like a developing photograph. Sometimes, someone who I thought was a chorus member will say no, she’s a supporting lead. Other times it turns out a character just isn’t up to the job.”

Women’s stories are often at the heart of Mosse’s books. “I like to write about older women,” she says. “They hear more and see more than people realise.”

Mosse points out that certain themes and experiences – prejudice and persecution, family, exile, political power, tolerance, love – are timeless and universal. It’s these that drive the novel.

This novel is the first in a quartet tracing Huguenot history through three centuries. Fans of Mosse’s big, engrossing historical novels will be delight to have three more to look forward to, following the descendants of some of the characters in The Burning Chambers. @KateSidley

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