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The Guardian reviews Sarah Perry's The Essex Serpent

The Guardian recently reviewed Sarah Perry’s acclaimed and best-selling novel, The Essex Serpent. When Cora Seaborne’s controlling husband dies, she steps into her new life as a widow with as much relief as sadness. Along with her son Francis – a curious, obsessive boy – she leaves town for Essex, in the hope that fresh air and open space will provide refuge.

On arrival, rumours reach them that the mythical Essex Serpent, once said to roam the marshes claiming lives, has returned to the coastal parish of Aldwinter.

Cora, a keen amateur naturalist with no patience for superstition, is enthralled, convinced that what the local people think is a magical beast may be a yet-undiscovered species.

As she sets out on its trail, she is introduced to William Ransome, Aldwinter’s vicar, who is also deeply suspicious of the rumours, but thinks they are a distraction from true faith. As he tries to calm his parishioners, Will and Cora strike up an intense relationship, and although they agree on absolutely nothing, they find themselves at once drawn together and torn apart, affecting each other in ways that surprise them both.

The Essex Serpent is a celebration of love, and the many different shapes it can take.

In Sarah Perry’s second novel, 1890s London is mad about the sciences, especially palaeontology.

Every six months someone publishes a paper “setting out ways and places extinct animals might live on”, while smart women collect ammonites or wear necklaces of fossil teeth set in silver. New widow Cora Seagrave is patently relieved by the death of her unpleasant husband, a civil servant with “twice the power of a politician and none of the responsibility”; accompanied by her socialist companion Martha and her autistic son Francis, she leaves the capital for the wilds of Essex.

There, “never sure of the difference between thinking and believing”, she hears of the Essex Serpent, a folktale apparently come to life and terrorising the Blackwater estuary; and meets its spiritual adversary, the rector of Aldwinter, William Ransome, with whom she is soon entangled in a relationship of voluble opposition and unspoken attraction.

Perry’s excellent debut, After Me Comes the Flood, was short and strange, narrated out of a sensibility difficult to define or place, from a distance that seemed both alienated and intimate. Scenes shifted filmily across one another, characters slipped in and out of view, the effect being of something not fully told, yet fully present; not quite visible, yet producing a troubled enchantment. The Essex Serpent, by contrast, is fully acted out. Fertile, open, vocal about its own origins and passions, crammed with incident, characters and plot, it weighs in at a sturdy 441 pages. It is a novel of ideas, though its sensibility is firmly, consciously, even a little cheekily, gothic. The dreamy delivery of the previous book becomes, in this one, outright story. Narrative and voice coil together until it is very difficult to stop reading, very difficult to avoid being dragged into Aldwinter’s dark and sometimes darkly comic waters.

Continue reading here.

The Essex Serpent is locally published by Jonathan Ball.

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Jonathan Ancer's Spy "destined to become a minor classic about apartheid’s ruinous path," writes Peter Vale

SpyIn 1972 Craig Williamson, a big, burly, bearded man, walked onto Wits University and registered as a student. He joined the National Union of South African Students (Nusas), and was on the frontline in the war against apartheid. At one march he was beaten up, arrested and spent a year on trial. Williamson rose up through the student movement’s ranks to become the Nusas vice president.

After being harassed by security police and having his passport seized, he decided to flee the country to continue his activism with the International University Exchange Fund (IUEF), an anti-apartheid organisation in exile. He was eventually appointed the Fund’s deputy director. As the IUEF’s money man, Williamson had access to powerful ANC and Black Consciousness leaders. He joined the ANC and formed his own unit to carry out clandestine work to topple the National Party government.

But Williamson was not the anti-apartheid activist his friends and comrades thought he was.

In January 1980, Captain Williamson was unmasked as a South African spy. His handler, Colonel Johan Coetzee, the head of South Africa’s notorious security branch, flew to Switzerland to bring him and his wife back home. Williamson was described as South Africa’s superspy who penetrated the KGB. Williamson returned to South Africa and during the turbulent 1980s worked for the foreign section of the South African Police’s security branch.

Two years after he left Switzerland he returned to Europe under a false name and with a crack squad of special force officers to blow up the ANC’s headquarters in London. He was also responsible for a parcel bomb that killed Ruth First in Mozambique and the bomb that killed Jeanette Schoon and her 6-year-old daughter Katryn in Angola. He left the security branch to join Military Intelligence and finally the State Security Council.

Apartheid’s spies didn’t have to appear before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and a lot of information about the spies has been buried, burnt or shredded. This episode of our country’s bitter past remains murky…

Here, Peter Vale, a professor of humanities and the director of the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study at the University of Johannesburg, reviews Ancer’s remarkable book for the Mail & Guardian:

One can judge a book’s bleakness by the photograph on its cover. The Mephistophelean figure holding a teacup is Craig Williamson: police informant and apartheid spy and assassin. Prize-winning journalist Jonathan Ancer’s goal is clear from the get-go. He wants to expose the man on the cover in all his infamy to set himself free. It’s no surprise, then, that there’s no place in these pages for the political philosopher Hannah Arendt’s idea of the “banality of evil” — those who perpetuate terrible deeds are mostly thoughtless functionaries.

For Ancer, the man on the cover of the book — not apartheid, nor his handlers — was responsible for a two-decade career of falsehood, cover-up, betrayal and murder. They were Williamson’s choice, and his alone.

Class, rather than race

So who is (or was) Williamson? Born into an English-speaking Johannesburg family, he was schooled at one of the city’s great institutions, St John’s College.

Gently, Ancer opens to the idea that class, rather than race, may have been at the core of Williamson’s inability to tell right from wrong. Awkward and always overweight, the boy was bullied and, in turn, learned to bully.

Other writers might have been tempted to position a propensity for violence at the centre of their narrative. Ancer is near playful when discussing Williamson’s school days.

But trawling through old copies of the school magazine, Ancer discovers that, when Williamson’s politics emerged, they were of a raw, racist strain, which was integral to the search for a white South African patriotism after World War II.

In 1966, Williamson won a school debatecum-mock election by drawing on the racial ideology espoused by the (now long-forgotten) Republican Party, a right-wing splinter group of the National Party (NP).

If this was the direction of his politics, his “gap year” confirmed it: this national served not with apartheid’s South African Defence Force, as was the case for most young white men, but with the South African Police (SAP).

It was 1968. Maintaining domestic order and the travails of white-ruled Rhodesia were uppermost in the thinking of prime minister John Vorster, apartheid architect Hendrik Verwoerd’s successor. Their NP embarked on an offensive to charm English-speakers, an approach that drew on the pervasive anti-communism of the time.

So, young Williamson’s choice of national service in the SAP, which was then at the sharp end of racial repression, didn’t seem untoward, even in Johannesburg’s supposedly more liberal, white, English-speaking northern suburbs.

Student politics

After his year in the SAP, he enrolled to read politics and law at the University of the Witwatersrand. There Williamson began his decade-long career of subterfuge.

He immersed himself in student politics, first in the Wits Students’ Representative Council and, later, the leftist National Union of South African Students (Nusas).

During these years, Williamson interacted with (and reported on) several generations of student leaders from almost every English-speaking university.

Interviewed by Ancer, several of them report that suspicions about Williamson abounded, but the liberal impulse to believe, forgive and understand stayed any serious investigations of a double life.

After Nusas, and purportedly without a passport, Williamson was catapulted (accompanied by his medical student wife, Ingrid) into the Geneva-based International University Exchange Fund (IUEF). This Nordic-funded body fronted for liberation movements around the world, but particularly in Southern Africa.

This was when the police informant turned to espionage by passing information to apartheid’s notorious Special Branch.

Continue reading Vale’s review here.

This review first appeared in The Conversation.

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Jacket Notes: Niël Barnard discusses the backstory of his book Peaceful Revolution

Published in the Sunday Times

Peaceful RevolutionPeaceful Revolution
Niël Barnard (Tafelberg)

There was no shortage of inspiration for this book, a sequel to Secret Revolution (Tafelberg, 2015). In fact, here and there I was asked to tone down my “enthusiasm” for some politicians and their not-so-admirable ways.

From a young age I never shied from the heat at the proverbial coalface. To be honest, I was attracted to it – not for the sake of sensation but for the opportunity to make a contribution where and when it really mattered.

While lecturing in political science at the age of 30, I was asked to head the National Intelligence Service. A defining part of my stint there was the secret talks, started in May 1988, which I held with Nelson Mandela while he was still in prison. This led to his release, the unbanning of the liberation movements and almost four years of tense transitional negotiations – the topic of Peaceful Revolution. For good reason the subtitle speaks of the “war room” at the negotiations. Fight, we surely did, and not only with political opponents but also among ourselves on the government’s side. So much was at stake: a lasting conflict or prospects for peace, for starters.

I try to shed light on the real issues, the personalities and the forces that determined the outcome of the peace process. As a member of the government’s negotiating team and having had the experience of (informally) negotiating with Mandela, I was in a unique position to observe, take part in and assess the momentous events leading to April 27 1994.

Acquaintances will know that I am a straight-talker who doesn’t mince words. I see no reason to spare ex-president FW de Klerk or his security czar, Kobie Coetsee, any criticism – the former for his wavering and lacklustre leadership and the latter for his baffling manoeuvres. The same applies to the obstinate Mangosuthu Buthelezi (often equalled by Cyril Ramaphosa) and the sometimes petulant Mandela.

But despite the heated debates and public posturing on all sides we shared a deep commitment to work towards peace and prosperity.

On numerous occasions this patriotic spirit provided the glue which kept the process on track.

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Love and hurt: Jessica Levitt reviews Chwayita Ngamlana's novel If I Stay Right Here

Published in the Sunday Times

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

Chwayita Ngamlana’s debut novel is a spectacular one: a tale of a woman’s inability to let go of a relationship that she cherishes but which ultimately breaks her down. Shay, a journalism student out on a story, meets Sip, an unemployed varsity dropout who is in jail. Shay is attracted to the slight-figured convict and breaks the cardinal rule of journalism: don’t get personally involved with your subject.

Sip is released and soon they’re living together. Sip turns out to be an aggressive partner. Shay loses her friends and lives in fear as Sip gets progressively more jealous and physically violent. Yet Shay stays. Sip has got a hold on her and knows how to use her raw and alluring sexuality on Shay.

From the beginning the odds are against them in a story that asks: is love ever enough? The author has said she wrote in an experimental format to make the story more relatable. And boy did she succeed. The flow and structure of the novel glides smoothly. Ngamlana’s style is raw and honest. You’ll feel an extra hurt if you have ever been in a destructive relationship, or know anyone who is in one. If this is what Ngamlana is starting off with, then we’re signing up to her fan club, like, immediately.

Follow Jessica Levitt @jesslevitt

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Book Bites: 2 July 2017

Published in the Sunday Times

Find MeFind Me
JS Monroe (Head of Zeus)
Book thrill
Intelligent, fast-paced, and intriguing, Find Me is an excellent thriller in the classic English mould, written by Cambridge graduate and freelance journalist JS Monroe. Dubliner Jarlath Costello is a promising writer who works as a click-bait journalist for an entertainment site. He falls in love with Rosa, a brilliant young student, and he cannot recover from her supposed suicide. Then two things happen to change his life: he starts seeing Rosa, and he receives her encrypted diary – which he has decoded. But her death still makes no sense and since her body was never found, Jarlath is convinced she is still alive. His investigation reveals more than he, or the reader, ever suspected. – Aubrey Paton

A Dangerous CrossingA Dangerous Crossing
Rachel Rhys (Doubleday)
Book fling
The Great Gatsby goes to sea in Rhys’s genteel A Dangerous Crossing. On the brink of Britain entering World War 2, Lily Shepherd flees bad memories and sets off to Australia to take up domestic service and begin again. Life at sea is unique; class lines blur and allow people to act out fantasies in a way they’d never dare to while on land. Aboard the ship, Lily is quickly swept up by dashing new friends, brimming with wealth and fabulous clothes. Together, the odd menagerie of pals have grand adventures while guarding many secrets. But with the murder of two passengers, Lily is to discover that there is much tarnish behind the glamour of the upper class. – Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie

Here and GoneHere and Gone
Haylen Beck (Harvill Secker)
Book thrill
I love thrillers that have been recommended by Lee Child. He doesn’t praise many, but those he chooses are winners. This is no exception. Audra is running from New York, her abusive husband and the possibility of losing custody of her children to him. She runs before the judge can rule. In Arizona, she is pulled over by a shady sheriff who finds marijuana in her car and arrests her. Her 11-year-old son and three-year-old daughter are taken by a deputy to a “safe place”. So intense, this book never lets up. Like Audra, the reader can only really breathe at the end. – Jennifer Platt @Jenniferdplatt

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A ringing argument for the classic values of pragmatic liberalism - J Brooks Spector reviews Between Two Fires

Between Two Fires John Kane-Berman is uniquely qualified to look back over the enormous political and social changes that have taken place in his lifetime in this fractious country.

In his career as student leader, Rhodes Scholar, newspaperman, independent columnist, speech maker, commentator, and Chief Executive, for thirty years, of the South African Institute of Race Relations, Kane-Berman has been at the coal face of political change in South Africa.

The breadth and depth of ideas and events covered here are striking: the disintegration of apartheid, the chaos of the ‘people’s war’ and its contribution to the broader societal breakdown we see today, the liberal slide-away, the authoritarian ANC with its racial ideology and revolutionary goals, to mention only a few.

J Brooks Spector recently reviewed Kane-Berman’s autobiographical memoir for the Daily Maverick. An excerpt reads:

There is a theory that an autobiographer always gives his protagonist the best lines in every discussion; wins every argument he engages in; and always has the very best discussion-ending quip to lock down that win.

In John Kane-Berman’s polished political memoir from a particularly difficult contentious period in South African history, to his credit, he doesn’t win every debate. Nevertheless, he does maintain his arguments were always the better ones, even if they didn’t carry the day on any particular day …

John Kane-Berman’s memoir is a ringing argument for the classic values of pragmatic liberalism, as opposed to dogmatic ideologies – the two fires of the title.

Thus the question, not yet answered, is whether such a struggle over ideas will come down on the side of open politics and pragmatic decisions or – as some increasingly fear – unhappily on the side of dogmatic, doctrinaire solutions to social, political and economic issues.

Between Two Fires
is a fine read with a rich depth of detail about his struggle in waving that banner of liberalism in a very tough neighbourhood. But – necessarily, perhaps – it leaves open the pending question of what will happen next in South Africa’s evolution.

Read the full review here.

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