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"This book comes out of [my feelings about the fallist movement] but also out of the desire to escape from it." Imraan Coovadia on his new novel, A Spy in Time

Published in the Sunday Times

For Imraan Coovadia, the science-fiction genre provides an opportunity to think about race differently. Picture: Alon Skuy.

A Spy in Time
Imraan Coovadia, Umuzi, R260

Over the last four years since the publication of his previous novel, Tales of the Metric System, Imraan Coovadia has been watching, with scepticism and dismay, the events playing out on the campus of the University of Cape Town, where he heads the creative writing programme.

In Johannesburg last week he admitted that perhaps the disruptions and racial anger that spilt from the Rhodes Must Fall protests into the Fees Must Fall protests provided the impetus for his new novel, a time-travelling, spy-thriller science fiction tale with an Afrofuturist infusion.

He says the book – a departure for a novelist whose previous work employed a more social realist approach to issues of history, race and identity over the course of South Africa’s journey from the indignities of apartheid to the tensions of the democratic era – “comes out of [my feelings about the fallist movement] but also out of the desire to escape from it. Most things South Africans do are simultaneously super-South African and also part of a desire to escape from South Africa and its narrow problems completely.”

In Coovadia’s version of the future the world has been destroyed by a supernova, leaving only Johannesburg, with its deep mining tunnels as the sole surviving city where an agency run by robots sends members of the predominantly black surviving human race back in time to ensure that the end of the world will never be repeated.

The hero is novice agent Enver Eleven, whose journey takes him backwards and forwards in time from Marrakesh in 1955 to Brazil in 1967 and the surface of Jupiter many thousands of years in the future. In this world white people, while not part of the present, are firmly part of the past and so agents such as Enver must learn how to interact with and protect himself in a world once predominantly controlled by whites.

Coovadia sees the science-fiction genre as a useful means to “maybe think about race differently or take other more imaginative angles towards it”.

Enver’s journey provides him with an opportunity to explore the idea that, as Coovadia puts it, “beneath race we’re controlled by quite elemental qualities of who’s familiar, who’s strange to us, who’s a friend, who’s an enemy, who’s superior, who’s subordinate. I think part of this [book] is an attempt to look at those feelings and say irrespective of where you stand in the system, how do those feelings work on you and how do they propel you to do certain things?”

Unlike many time-travelling tales which focus on how small changes to the past can have drastic consequences for the future, here even the smallest of changes to the narrative of the past are frowned upon because, as Coovadia says, “the agency in this book hates the idea that there could be multiple universes because that would create extra human suffering … and so their entire philosophy and culture is devoted to suppressing butterfly effects”.

Acknowledging the influence of the classic adventure stories of Robert Louis Stevenson, Coovadia sees this book, ironically in the light of its time-travel narrative, as his best attempt at telling a “story that unfolded naturally without being overladen with sense impressions and the things I’m usually interested in. It’s a book written almost entirely without flashbacks, in which the story goes from A to B to C to D.”

Enver Eleven’s adventure is a solid, well-told science-fiction story that, like the best examples of the genre, offers imaginative and intelligent contemplation of where we might end up, while also providing a space for the contemplation of where we are now and how we got here. It’s perhaps best understood as Coovadia’s response to the idea of eternal recurrence posited by Friedrich Nietzsche, which asks if you could imagine reliving your life, would you do so in exactly the same way.

For Coovadia: “That’s one thing when you say it for an individual person but what about for history and for African history, which is full of disasters and catastrophes?”

Book details

Authentic characters and arresting imagery make Rhiannon Navin's Only Child a must-read that doesn’t moralise about gun control, writes Anna Stroud

Published in the Sunday Times

Only Child
Rhiannon Navin, Mantle, R285

Five years ago Rhiannon Navin dropped her six-year-old son at school on the same day that a 20-year-old gunman marched into an elementary school in Connecticut and killed 20 children and six adults. Since that day she has worried about her children’s safety.

Three years later she found her younger son hiding from the “bad guy” under the dining-room table. He and his twin brother had just entered kindergarten when they had their first lockdown drill.

“I began writing Only Child because I needed an outlet for the fear I felt for my children. It is the first story I ever wrote and I didn’t expect anyone would read it, let alone that it would be published,” Navin says of her debut novel.

The book’s release in the US coincided with the March for Our Lives demonstration in Washington DC on March 24 2018. The Washington Post reported that over two million people protested against America’s gun policy in response to the February shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, where 17 people were killed by a former student.

“It breaks my heart that my children grow up experiencing such acute fear in their lives. But on the issue of gun violence, I feel a glimmer of hope for the first time,” Navin says.

She took her eldest son to attend the protest and says she’s in awe of the young leaders.

“They are fed up with feeling unsafe at school and on the streets and they are going to fight like hell for change.”

Only Child tells the story of six-year-old narrator Zach who hides in a school closet during a shooting. The story unfolds as he tries to piece his world back together in the aftermath of devastating events. His family comes undone, and he retreats into a world of books and art to cope with the trauma. One of the ways he learns to deal with his emotions is by painting his feelings onto different pages to try to make sense of them.

“Once Zach discovers that he can separate his feelings instead of having them all mixed up they seem more manageable, easier to tackle one by one. He is able to do something adults cannot: understand that every feeling is important and valid,” Navin explains.

Zach also reads the Magic Tree House books in which two characters go on adventures in search of the secrets of happiness. Zach tries to use these secrets to mend his family, but their grief keeps them from hearing what he has to say.

“If we listen to our children and let them guide us for a change, I think there might be a chance for a safer, more just world,” Navin says.

Authentic characters and arresting imagery make Only Child a must-read that doesn’t moralise about gun control.

“I strongly believe people are best convinced by reasons they discover themselves. My hope for my book is that it will find the people it is meant to find.” Anna Stroud @annawriter_

Book details

Book Bites: 22 July

Published in the Sunday Times

When Morning Comes
Arushi Raina, Jacana, R195

This fictionalised account of the lead up to the student uprising in June 1976 is relayed through the experience of four central characters. And it is gripping. Raina has managed to bring to life one of the most painful episodes in our history in a way that neither detracts from nor glamorises the time. All the characters will stay with you. There’s Zanele, the wilful leader and daughter of a domestic worker; Meena, the curious observer and daughter of an Indian shopkeeper; Jack, the white boy from the ’burbs; and Thabo, the schoolboy-turned-tsotsi.

Each take their turn in narrating the reality of their surroundings and how their lives and that of their families and friends are affected by the apartheid government, and the chain of events that is set in motion leading to the student uprising. Zodwa Kumalo @Zoddies

White Houses
Amy Bloom, Granta, R285

There is a hefty disclaimer at the start of this book and another at the end of it, both stating that even though the story features real historical figures, everything in it is entirely fictional. This double warning is clearly meant to stop readers from being beguiled by the Eleanor Roosevelt presented by her lover Lorena Hickok, and to prevent us from warming to the eloquent, acerbic “Hick” herself.

It doesn’t work. White Houses is far too well written to allow for that sort of distance to be maintained. It grabs your throat from the first line – “No love like old love” – and holds on until the delicate Gatsbyesque glitter of the ending. In public, Roosevelt was a remarkable woman who should have been US president instead of her charming rogue of a husband. In private, she was a siren in blue, lovely and unattainable as a comet.

Hick carefully unfolds their story with mesmerising elegance, her pain cushioned by pragmatism. Of course none of it really happened, as it says in the disclaimers. But you will still live through every moment of it with them. Sue de Groot @deGrootS1

Book details

Glen David Gold’s mother has overtaken the field in the Mad Maternal Stakes, writes Michele Magwood

Published in the Sunday Times

Glen David Gold became a successful writer despite his pitiable, maddening mother. Pic: supplied.
I Will Be Complete
Glen David Gold, Sceptre, R300

In the Flaky Mater Olympics – a hotly contested subsection of memoirs – Glen David Gold’s mother is the new leader. She’s overtaken Jeannette Walls’s mother in The Glass Castle, who was free-spirited to the point of criminal neglect, and has nosed past Augusten Burroughs’s mother who gave him away as a child to her psychiatrist, as he described in his memoir Running With Scissors.

Gold, best known for his bestselling novel Carter Beats the Devil, was born and raised in California as the ’60s swung into the ’70s.

The family was wealthy for a while, living in a vast ranch house in a shiny new suburb, with “a living room conversation pit with hidden television cabinet, executed by contractors who’d worked on the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland”.

His engineer father was proud of his success, showing off his smart modern art and his ethereal British wife who used to be mistaken for the actress Linda Evans.

Gold was an anxious, precocious child who his parents labelled as gifted; so serious that someone commented “that’s not a child, it’s a 36-year-old midget”.

His father’s business tanked and his parents separated when he was 10. His father quickly met and married a much younger woman and moved to Chicago to start a new family. Gold’s mother (she is never named) dreamed of being a novelist but slipped into a life of spiralling failure, starting off with a decadent conman in San Francisco then an abusive fashion designer in New York and a violent, illiterate meth addict who dragged her through various states.

Even when reduced to living in a woman’s shelter she always believed her ship was about to come in. She is a pitiable figure, but a maddening one. The faultline in Gold’s life was the day she went off to New York for a few days and left him in their apartment in San Francisco to fend for himself.

She was gone for months. He was 12 years old.

And fend for himself is what he did, making himself fit in, first at boarding school, then at college, working in a rackety bookstore to make ends meet and trying to fill in the emotional chasms that his adolescence had opened in him. How many times could he rescue his mother? How much longer could he believe she just had bad luck rather than that she was the architect of her own failure?

It would be years of rejections (from both publishers and women) before Gold achieved success with Carter Beats the Devil and he married the novelist Alice Sebold (they have since divorced). It would be years before he could revisit his fractured past with the clear eyes that he does in this superb memoir.

“I’m looking for my mother, or what remains of her,” he writes. “There is not going to be redemption here; nor am I going to indict her as a monster. There is another way to go for those of us who can no longer love our mothers.”

One needs to stay with him through his neuroses and compulsive emotional auditing which slow things down. When he finally reveals, at the end of the book, the faultlines he uncovers in his mother’s own life, it’s like a physical blow. @michelemagwood

Book details
I Will Be Complete by Glen David Gold
EAN: 9781473620179
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Book Bites: 15 July

The Sunday Times

The CraftsmanThe Craftsman
Sharon Bolton, Orion, R275

Thirty years ago, Florence Lovelady made her name when she solved the mystery behind a series of teen coffin murders. But now their killer Larry Glassbrook is as dead as the children he buried alive. So when a teen goes missing, with the same tell-tale signs as Glassbrook’s work, Lovelady is forced to reopen the case. Is it a copycat? Or did she apprehend the wrong man 30 years ago? This chilling novel pulls readers in and does not let go as the story twists and turns. There are modern-day witches, devious cricket players and a wise grave digger, all with a fascinating role to play. Captivating. Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie

Shame on YouShame on You
Amy Heydenrych, Bonnier, R270

This darkly humorous debut by South African writer Amy Heydenrych looks at the way social media can be manipulated and how it can turn around and bite you. Holly is a star blogger. Thin, sexy, fit and beautiful. Every woman wants to be just like her. So what is her claim to fame? She “cured” her breast cancer through healthy eating and her legion of followers are lapping it up and doing as she does. She’s published recipe books, has sponsorships and a business empire. But when she is attacked in the street by a stranger who slashes her face with a scalpel, her world starts to crumble. Is she living a lie? This soapie thriller gets more intriguing with every revelation the characters have about their online and offline lives. Gabriella Bekes @gabrikwa

Three Little LiesThree Little Lies
Laura Marshall, Sphere, R295

The title is in the spirit of the trendy thriller popularised by Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, which was made into the spectacular TV series with Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon. It’s interesting enough at first: Ellen searches for her friend Sasha, who has gone missing. They’ve been BFFs since they were teenagers when the golden Sasha and her bohemian family, the Monktons, moved into Ellen’s suburban London neighbourhood. It opens with a rape trial – that of Daniel Monkton. It’s a she said, she said, she said and even though Marshall’s characters say the right thing about believing the victim, the story does not have the depth to explore such a weighty theme. Jennifer Platt @Jenniferdplatt

Book details

Free Woman: Life, Liberation and Doris Lessing a tour de force of biography writing and self-discovery, writes Karina M. Szczurek

Published in the Sunday Times

Doris Lessing, née Taylor, born in 1919. Photographed here in 1958. Picture: Getty Images.

Free Woman: Life, Liberation and Doris Lessing
Lara Feigel, Bloomsbury, R540 (hardcover)

“There were too many weddings that summer,” writes Lara Feigel in the opening line of her brilliant and daring Free Woman: Life, Liberation and Doris Lessing. At the end of the first paragraph she promises herself that she “would work out why I minded it all so much”.

The resulting quest is a tour de force of biography writing and self-discovery. Literary scholars are often drawn to topics that are of interest and consequence for their own lives. Yet, even if that spark of private recognition is openly acknowledged, it is seldom explored in the official research.

The inclusion of intimate, personal reflections by the author when writing a biography of someone else is usually frowned upon. And it can be risqué. To do so anyway is heroic.

Feigel is a Reader in Modern Literature and Culture at King’s College London. In her most recent books, The Love-charm of Bombs and The Bitter Taste of Victory, she traced the public and private lives of writers and intellectuals during and after World War 2.

Published to great critical acclaim, they established Feigel as a cultural historian and literary critic of note. Both books are focused on the intersection of life and literature in history.

Free Woman follows in their footsteps, but this time Feigel herself becomes one of the book’s subjects. While exploring Lessing’s work and dedication to, in the words of one of her famous characters, “living as fully as I can”, Feigel searches for what the “right to live fully” would entail in her own life and writing.

“It seemed that Lessing was a writer to discover in your 30s; a writer who wrote about the lives of grown-up women with an honesty and fullness I had not found in any novelist before or since.”

We are mysteries, even to ourselves, and not many have had the ability to penetrate the silences shrouding our lives. In 1931, Virginia Woolf spoke about not having solved the problem of articulating “the truth about my own experience as a body… I doubt that any woman has solved it yet.”

Feigel’s attempt to do just that is fascinating. Facing her own sense of claustrophobia, frustration and lack of fulfilment as a woman, sexual being, wife and mother, Feigel seeks to understand what it means to be a truly “free woman” – most importantly, one “who is also happy”.

The journey she embarks on and the inner truths she discovers about herself through the lens of Lessing’s striking, often contradictory, life demand a lot of courage. And reading Feigel’s account is equally empowering. Outside of her writing, Lessing is remembered for two facts: that she abandoned two of her children and that she had an awkward affair with communism. Feigel goes into the details of both these relationships.

No matter what else can be said about Lessing, there is little doubt that she was bold. She was not afraid to reach for what she felt she required to live a meaningful life as a woman and writer.

“It seems true of all enduring novelists … that they illuminate our lives, and that we live differently as a result of reading them,” Feigel states. Confronting her own body – its realities, longings and failures – as well as the relationships in her life and the need to be her own person, Feigel is just as fearless in trying to define what is crucial in making her own existence worthwhile.

Free Woman is simultaneously an incisive book of scholarship and a brave, liberating memoir. It will not only bring further, highly deserved recognition for its author, but undoubtedly inspire many readers to turn to Lessing’s work, afresh or for the first time. @KarinaMSzczurek

Book details
Free Woman: Life, Liberation and Doris Lessing by Lara Feigel
EAN: 9781635570953
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