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Peter Carey's novel about a motor race around Australia is not so much Mad Max as Thoughtful Stricken Max, writes Allison Pearson

Published in the Sunday Times


A Long Way From Home
Peter Carey, Faber & Faber, R275

There are some novelists who lift the heart through sheer exuberance and generosity on the page. Laurence Sterne was the first (in that most singular of one-offs, Tristram Shandy). Charles Dickens is another. Peter Carey belongs in that same zestful company. The 14th novel by the two-times Booker Prize winner starts as a rattling good tale about a race and ends as a painful meditation on race. In between, there are 10000 miles of Australian terrain to navigate and centuries of buried, bloody history. The narrative does a sudden, handbrake turn, and you may feel the book has lost its way, but in the hands of such a skilful driver no detour is entirely wasted.

We begin where the author began, in Bacchus Marsh, a small town 33 miles from Melbourne, where Carey was born in 1943 to parents who ran a General Motors Holden dealership. The story is told through two alternating voices, a favourite Carey device. The first, Irene Bobs, is a petite, irrepressible young woman, married (with two children) to the similarly diminutive “Titch” Bobs.

Irene’s husband may be the best Ford salesman in south-eastern Australia, but he lives in fear of his bullying father, Dan. In Irene’s disgusted description, Dan “puffed himself up like a cobra, glaring in triumph at those of us whose wallets he planned to lighten”. Carey is just as good at evoking the Bobses’ sexually replete happiness.

Observing this domestic bliss wistfully from next door is lanky, bookish Willie Bachhuber, the second narrator, a fair-haired son of a Protestant preacher who, feeling out of place in Australia, pines for what he believes to be his native Germany. A teacher and radio-quiz maestro obsessed with maps, Willie is dodging support payments for a black child who can’t possibly be his. Tortured and tentative, Willie is drawn to the life force that is Irene and we sense a romance brewing.

The Bobses, meanwhile, have a plan to open a Ford dealership stymied by a jealous Dan. To boost their chances of being awarded a franchise they enter the Redex Reliability Trial, a bonkers, round-Australia motorsport race, hugely famous in the 1950s. All they lack is a navigator.

With perfect timing, their map-reading neighbour loses his job after dangling an errant schoolboy out of a window. Something the lad said about the whites-only immigration policy of Australia made peaceable Willie snap. “What about you, sir? Why did they let you in?” Willie reflects grimly that, “No one would see the parallels between the government’s recruitment of ‘Nordic types’ and their habit of removing the paler Aboriginal children from their mother and giving them to white families with total confidence that half-castes would never give birth to throwbacks…”

It’s a shockingly cruel image and, as we shall discover, a revealing one, but Carey doesn’t let the reader linger. As the eccentric trio hits the road, we are swept along.

Redex contestants were given detailed strip maps to help them negotiate the catastrophe-strewn course. Carey has great fun with the cautionary instructions. “SUDDEN DROPS”, “BEND INTO DEEP DRAIN”. Beneath the madcap mirth, however, a darker seam is opening up like a wound. Willie may excel at reading the white man’s maps, but what he doesn’t know is that the outback is crisscrossed with lines of ceremony and ritual.

The “murderous continent” starts to give up its ugly secrets. Taking a loo break, Irene stumbles upon an open grave, the site of a massacre. “There were so many, they must be blacks.” She finds a human skull “a tiny thing, as fragile and powdery as an emu egg … I was a mother. I knew what it was to hold a tender child and I knew this must be a little boy, and all these bones around him must be his family.”

Until now, Australia’s greatest living novelist has shied away from writing about the Aborigines.

Carey said he felt that it was not the place of a white writer to tell that story. Recently, though, he declared: “You can’t be a white Australian writer and spend your whole life ignoring the greatest, most important aspect of our history, and that is that we – I – have been the beneficiaries of a genocide.”

The novel’s second half sees Willie Bachhuber become a living renunciation of Titch Bobs’s cheerily brazen, “I could not give a f*** about what happened a hundred years ago.”

Working with Aboriginal people, and all the while uncovering the mystery of his own past, a guilty Willie learns to draw maps far more ancient than any made for motor cars. Carey has taken great care to do his research, and rightly so. Yet there is a cautious constricting in these pages, a sense of the novelist watching his step, which feels strange after the bravura brio of the beginning. Not so much Mad Max as Thoughtful Stricken Max.

Some critics have praised A Long Way from Home as evidence of a new “complexity” in Peter Carey’s work because, in literature, darkness is too often valued over light. I’m afraid I found the ending opaque to the point of bafflement, even after reading it several times. — ©The Telegraph, London

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"An illuminating and brilliant addition to Mbembe's corpus" - The Conversation reviews Achille Mbembe's Critique of Black Reason

Critique of Black Reason

In Critique of Black Reason eminent critic Achille Mbembe offers a capacious genealogy of the category of Blackness – from the Atlantic slave trade to the present – to critically reevaluate history, racism, and the future of humanity.

Mbembe teases out the intellectual consequences of the reality that Europe is no longer the world’s center of gravity while mapping the relations between colonialism, slavery, and contemporary financial and extractive capital.

Tracing the conjunction of Blackness with the biological fiction of race, he theorizes Black reason as the collection of discourses and practices that equated Blackness with the nonhuman in order to uphold forms of oppression.

Mbembe powerfully argues that this equation of Blackness with the nonhuman will serve as the template for all new forms of exclusion. With Critique of Black Reason, Mbembe offers nothing less than a map of the world as it has been constituted through colonialism and racial thinking while providing the first glimpses of a more just future.

Manosa Nthunya recently reviewed Critique of Black Reason for The Conversation:

African philosopher, Achille Mbembe, has gained an enviable reputation as a scholar that challenges the tenets of modernity. Some aspects of modernity Mbembe is known to challenge are characterised by the move towards more capitalistic economies, an increase in social stratifications and the universalisation of Western European thought. From On Private Indirect Government (2000) to his recent book, Critique of Black Reason (2017), his interest has always been on how the world can account for the construction and consequences of race and racism.

In “Critique of Black Reason” Mbembe challenges us to rethink the present with the view of charting a future that, according to Mbembe, will differ from the past and the present.

A key interest of the book is on how race and racism have played a role in how the modern world is organised. However much the world might have benefited from modernity, what is unavoidable is the integral role of race and racism in the construction of modernity. This is why for Mbembe it is of utmost importance that we examine this aspect of modernity as it continues to exclude subjects and create new and old victims that are “the wretched of the earth”.

He writes:

race, operating over the past centuries as a fundamental category that is at once material and phantasmic, has been at the root of catastrophe, the cause of extraordinary psychic destruction and of innumerable crimes and massacres.

For Mbembe, the construction of race emanates from the symbolic. It accounts for the ways in which subjects live and where they live. It explains the kinds of debates that prohibit – or allow them – to lead meaningful lives.

The book focuses more on how discourses of race and other differences emerged in the eighteenth century during what is popularly known as the Age of Reason or the Enlightenment.

This was a period in which science, philosophy and other disciplines, and social debates, constructed differences between people.This was driven by two factors: material interests and an unwillingness to live with the unfamiliar. Mbembe’s book takes to task this idea of Enlightenment to show how it is responsible for the construction of race and racism:

The Black Man is the one (or the thing) that one sees when one sees nothing, when one understands nothing, and above all, when one wishes to understand nothing.

This, for Mbembe, is not coincidental.

Continue reading Nthunya’s review here.

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Fiona Snyckers's first book in a new series is fun, fast-paced and features a strong female protagonist, writes Tiah Beautement

Published in the Sunday Times

Fiona Snyckers, Indie Publishers,
Available on Amazon, R40

This fun and fast-paced read is the start of the six-book Eulalie Park murder-mystery series, which includes a hint of romance.

Private investigator Eulalie Park is used to working alone. But the new chief of police, Donal Macgregor, is not easy to ignore, especially after he accuses Park’s best friend of murder. As Park sets off on her cherry-red Vespa to prove her friend’s innocence, sparks ignite between the detective and the chief.

“Chief Macgregor is a series regular,” says Snyckers. “I like to think he would be played by fellow Scot James McAvoy if this series made it to the big screen.”

Hacked is set on the fictitious Prince William Island, near Madagascar.

“I’m fascinated by the way in which parts of the world were carved up on paper by Europeans sitting at a conference table thousands of miles away,” says Snyckers. “I wanted Prince William Island to be a real melting-pot of cultures, with a strong Francophone influence.”

The novel’s pacing is smooth, keeps readers guessing, and the narrative avoids deus ex machina to resolve the case.

“It is very important that readers should feel satisfied after reading a murder mystery,” Snyckers says.

“You don’t want want your readers actually to solve the mystery themselves, but you want them to look back on the build-up of evidence in the book and to feel as though they could have solved it if only they had been a little more alert.”

Snyckers’s long-time fans expect stories that feature strong and intriguing female characters. Park is no exception – a heroine with larger-than-life abilities, she’ll be admired by readers young and old. Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie

Edith Eger's account of surviving the Holocaust shows us all how to embrace freedom, writes Nikki Temkin

Published in the Sunday Times

The Choice
Edith Eger, Rider, R320

Edith Eger was a 16-year-old ballet dancer in 1944 when, together with her Hungarian family, she was forced into the hell of Auschwitz. The last words her mother ever said to here as they were wrenched apart were, “Remember – no one can take away from you what you’ve put in your mind.”

Eger survived unimaginable trauma in the camp, including being singled out by the infamous Josef Mengele, who ordered her to dance for him.

She closed her eyes and transported herself to the opera house in Budapest, dancing Romeo and Juliet, petrified that if she displeased him she would be killed.

“I dance. I dance. I am dancing in hell.”

At the end of the war she and her sister were sent on a death march, ending up at a camp in Austria. Unable to walk (it later emerged that she had broken her back), she was thrown onto a pile of corpses. She was found, barely alive, by an American soldier who saw her hand move.

After the war she suffered severe depression and what she realised was survivor’s guilt. She married and emigrated to the US.

Before reading Man’s Search for Meaning by fellow Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, Eger shut away this part of her life and attempted to forget about it, not even discussing it with her children.

But then, influenced and mentored by Frankl, she decided to heal herself by consciously facing her inner shadows. They can only control or destroy us if we fear them and leave them to rampage.

Nelson Mandela’s quote, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison,” chimed strongly while I read this book.

Is it the ability to transcend the unforgivable, the unacceptable and the abhorrent that leads to humans achieving greatness? Being able, amid despair and depravity, to retain hope and wrest meaning and purpose from life?

This is a Holocaust memoir and so much more besides. It’s predicated on the belief that we always have a choice. We may not be able to control what happens to us, but we can choose how to respond to it.

Eger eventually returned to Auschwitz in 1990, where she made a choice: “To forgive my flaws and reclaim my innocence. To stop asking why I deserved to survive.”

There’s no changing what happened, “but there is a life I can save. It is mine. The one I am living right now, this precious moment.”

In her 50s she became an internationally acclaimed psychologist focusing on abuse survivors and soldiers suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, some of whose stories of healing she shares.

Deeply affecting and inspiring, Eger’s book is a plea for all of us to find true freedom in whatever way is meaningful for us. It’s not about how she survived despite what happened, but how she thrived because of it. – @NikkiTemkin

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Book Bites: 4 February

Published in the Sunday Times

Trade SecretsTrade Secrets
Short.Sharp.Stories, Tattoo Press, R240

As Yewande Omotoso remarks in the foreword, the stories in Trade Secrets range from the futuristic to the bad old days: “You’re a fighter pilot, you’re a young girl getting a haircut, suddenly you know magic…” But a decent collection also emphasises the connections among the stories, like a good mixtape. Trade Secrets does. My favourites were Mishka Hoosen’s powerful take on gay longing and girlhood, Wedding Henna; Kamil Naicker’s story of intimacy and euthanasia, The Liberator, and Darrel Bristow-Bovey’s funny/terrible tale with a wheelchair as its axis, An Act of God – his best fiction yet. Buy this book. – Diane Awerbuck

In the Midst of WinterIn the Midst of Winter
Isabel Allende, Simon & Schuster, R285

Despite its improbable plot, the novel’s concerns with the plight of displaced people make it a worthwhile read. It is literally and metaphorically midwinter for the three protagonists. During the worst snowstorm in memory, in Brooklyn in 2016, academic Richard Bowmaster collides with a vehicle driven by Evelyn Ortega, an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala. Although the damage is minimal, the situation is serious: Evelyn has taken the car without the permission of her employer; and there is a corpse in the boot. At a loss, Richard calls on his Chilean colleague Lucia Maraz for assistance. The trio, all of whom have harrowing backgrounds, contrive to solve the problem. – Moira Lovell

Robin Sloan, Penguin Random House, R295

As good if not better than Sloan’s debut novel Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore. This is a book hug, set in San Francisco, one to chase away the new year blues. Lois Clary is a coder for a robotics company. Working constantly and not taking care of herself, Lois and her colleagues – most of them men – survive on Slurry, a nutritive drink like Soylent. She is unhappy, lonely and depressed until she meets two brothers who own an illegal eatery. They feed her sourdough and spicy soup. When they’re deported, they leave her their sourdough starter. It’s more alive than any starter and this begins Lois’s odyssey into the mysterious and warm world of food. – Jennifer Platt @jenniferdplatt

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Margaret von Klemperer reviews Rehana Rossouw's New Times

By Margaret von Klemperer for The Witness, 31/01/2018)

Rehana Rossouw’s glorious debut novel, What Will People Say? set a very high standard for her fiction career.

In New Times, her second novel, she has shifted the action forward nine years to 1995, Mandela’s second year as President and the time of the rugby World Cup. It was also when the first patches of tarnish began to stain the bloom of the rainbow nation – the silence over Aids, an economic vision that was not what many of the poor had longed for and hints of bribery and corruption in the top echelons of government.

Rossouw places her central character and narrator into this scenario. Ali (short for Aaliyah) Adams is a political journalist, starting a new job at a weekly paper, The New Times. Rossouw, writing here about something she knows well, is excellent on the atmosphere and internal politics of a busy newsroom – and this is important as the investigative stuff Ali is involved in is often complex and potentially indigestible in a fictional setting, and the human reality around Ali is necessary to keep the story moving.

The other very human strand is Ali’s home life in Bo-Kaap, where she lives with her mother, suffering from depression since the death of her husband, and her strong-minded grandmother, whose expectations of Ali are not something she can fulfil. As in her earlier novel, Rossouw draws a compelling and affectionate picture of a community with its own dynamics and characters.

There is a lot to like in this novel with Rossouw tackling a period when the idealism of the transition to democracy was taking its first hard knock. And in Ali, she has created a character who is going to have to face up to her own personal circumstances – living in a community where conformity is the watchword, particularly for women, is one problem. Hopes unfulfilled in both her own life and the wider society are taking their toll.

But Rossouw doesn’t always manage to mesh her themes successfully. As the political part of the novel veers perilously close to didacticism, in an effort to keep the storytelling lively Rossouw offers too many descriptive flourishes that tend to stop the reader in their tracks. Particularly towards the end of the book, the two strands of her story sit a trifle uneasily together.

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