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Alexander McCall Smith's latest novel a web of mild desire, observation, constraint, delicacy and discreet disruption, writes Ken Barris

The Quiet Side of Passion ****
Alexander McCall Smith, Little Brown, R265

The Quiet Side of Passion is one of Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie novels. Isabel is a mom, spouse, editor of a philosophical journal, and an incurable busybody. She is married to the gentlest, kindest, most humorous musician of a husband, Jamie, who loses his temper only once in the novel, and then very mildly.

He also turns down his chance to say “I told you so”. They share their house with their young children Magnus and Charlie, who are more seen than heard, which is a good thing because they are not convincing.

More to the point, Isabel’s life is shared with a cast of several: her self-centred niece Cat, the comically dour housekeeper Grace, the annoying Professor Lettuce, and certain strangers and newcomers who drive the story, insofar as there is one.

I went through a few transformations on reading this novel. Initially, enjoyment – there is much to enjoy in the form of elegant writing and lightly intelligent humour, agreeable and mostly well-drawn characters, and Isabel’s strange mixture of constant self-questioning, self-restraint, and impulsiveness.

Quiet Side is also that old-fashioned thing, a novel of manners. The characters are enmeshed in a network of restrictive social mores, defined (in an undefined way) by what one does and doesn’t do; it is a relief that Isabel sometimes does what one doesn’t. Though set in Edinburgh, it is really a portrait of English middle-class conventionality.

Later on, I began to think of it as Jane Austen Lite. A delicate web of mild desire, observation, constraint, delicacy and discreet disruption, unfortunately more quiet than passionate. Then with 76 pages to go, I began to wonder what it was about.

The nuts and bolts of the tale are provided by strangers and newcomers.

Claire Richardson is Isabel’s new editorial assistant. She is beautiful, but rather too strongly linked with Professor Lettuce, who is wont to intrude unwanted on Isabel’s editorial duties.

Antonia is the new Italian au pair. She is vivacious and full of enterprise, especially when it comes to men.

Isabel meets Patricia, a mother she encounters at young Charlie’s school, who both intrigues and annoys her. There are two threatening men who give Isabel a bad turn each, and there is Leo, Cat’s leonine boyfriend, who saves the day.

The plot revolves around Isabel’s interaction with these characters.

Claire turns out to be unsuitable, and soon so does Antonia, both for reasons of highly unsuitable love. They are dismissed without playing a major role in the narrative, though they take up a fair amount of space. Isabel learns that Patricia claims child maintenance from a man who might not be the father of her child. Being incurable, Isabel is driven to solve this mystery, which generates most of the fizz in the tale, though things go – well, not quite horribly wrong, just wrong.

Hence my puzzlement with 76 pages to go. The various threads were woven together (or almost together) deftly enough, and even at this point, I was confident that a satisfactory conclusion would be reached. And in fact it was – all mysteries were solved, threats vanquished, and a happy ending trotted out at the last minute. But I wasn’t sure that it added up to anything entirely coherent or worth saying, other than all’s well that ends well.

Despite this, I found the book entertaining and its understated humour diverting. For holiday reading or relief from our force-fed diet of political angst, The Quiet Side of Passion is highly recommended.

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Book Bites: 11 November

Published in the Sunday Times

Mirror Cracked ***
Raashida Khan, Kwarts, R250

Azraa Hassim has the perfect life: successful career, a loving husband and two wonderful daughters. Her entire identity, however, is put to question when one of her children is diagnosed with a terminal illness, while her husband’s secrets come out of the closet. Khan has created a narrative that bluntly tackles subjects that are often considered taboo in Muslim society. A book whose strength lies in the conversations that it ignites after the final page is read. Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie

War on Peace ****
Ronan Farrow, HarperCollins, R320

Well-known investigative reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner Ronan Farrow has written a must-read for 2018 and beyond. Farrow investigates the effects that the changes in US foreign policy have had on the world. Although there are many personal stories interspersed between the revelations, the decline of international diplomacy that Farrow argues is certainly not overshadowed. Farrow contends that Bill Clinton’s focus on domestic affairs, a policy that was accelerated by US presidents after him, has neglected foreign policy and state departments across the globe. War on Peace is loaded with information and may take a while to absorb, but it’s a critical read to help understand the current state of international affairs. Jessica Levitt @jesslevitt

An American Story *****
Christopher Priest, Gollancz, R350

Remember being glued to the television on 9/11 as the twin towers crashed down? Most of us probably accept the official line on what happened and why. I’m an old cynic, and inclined to dismiss conspiracy theories, so a book that bases its premise on them has to be pretty good to beguile me. And An American Story is very good indeed. Set in the near future, where science journalist Ben Matson lives with his wife and kids in an independent Scotland, the story moves backwards and forwards between that time and shortly before 9/11 when Ben had an American girlfriend who died in the plane that crashed into the Pentagon. But did American Airways flight 77 really end up there, and did she really die on it? Christopher Priest builds a sense of deep unease – much more effective than edge-of-the-seat terror – as Ben struggles to make sense of what happened, in this intelligent and thought-provoking novel. Margaret von Klemperer

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"What makes I Want to go Home Forever so powerful, is that the stories are told in the words used by the interviewees," writes Jan Bornman for New Frame

Generations of people from across Africa, Europe and Asia have turned metal from the depths of the earth into Africa’s wealthiest, most dynamic and most diverse urban centre, a mega-city where post-apartheid South Africa is being made. Yet for newcomers as well as locals, the golden possibilities of Gauteng are tinged with dangers and difficulties.

Chichi is a hairdresser from Nigeria who left for South Africa after a love affair went bad.

Azam arrived from Pakistan with a modest wad of cash and a dream.

Estiphanos trekked the continent escaping political persecution in Ethiopia, only to become the target of the May 2008 xenophobic attacks.

Nombuyiselo is the mother of 14-year-old Simphiwe Mahori, shot dead in 2015 by a Somalian shopkeeper in Snake Park, sparking a further wave of anti-foreigner violence.

After fighting white oppression for decades, Ntombi has turned her anger towards African foreigners, who, she says are taking jobs away from South Africans and fuelling crime.

Papi, a freedom fighter and activist in Katlehong, now dedicates his life to teaching the youth in his community that tolerance is the only way forward.

These are some of the thirteen stories that make up this collection. They are the stories of South Africans, some Gauteng-born, others from neighbouring provinces, striving to realise the promises of democracy. They are also the stories of newcomers from neighbouring countries and from as far afield as Pakistan and Rwanda, seeking a secure future in those very promises.

The narratives, collected by researchers, journalists and writers, reflect the many facets of South Africa’s post-apartheid decades. Taken together they give voice to the emotions and relations emanating from a paradoxical place of outrage and hope, violence and solidarity. They speak of intersections between people and their pasts, and of how, in the making of selves and the other they are also shaping South Africa. Underlying these accounts is a nostalgia for an imagined future that can never be realised. These are stories of forever seeking a place called ‘home’.

Jan Bornman recently reviewed this remarkable book for New Frame:

“Our neighbouring countries are taking advantage of the situation in South Africa. Their economies are struggling and they bring their unemployed or people who seek to survive to South Africa.

“It’s easy to go to South Africa illegally. In other countries you are asked to provide proof that you are able to maintain yourself over a period of time.

“They say in South Africa it takes R200 a day to survive and if you don’t have that, it’s hard for you.”

South African-born Kopano Lebelo, 55, was one of 13 people interviewed for a collection of stories titled I Want To Go Home Forever.

Lebelo’s story is not unique. He grew up during apartheid in a township near Pretoria before he was recruited by the ANC to recruit others into the struggle. He went into exile where he lived, studied and worked in various African countries and the United States, until his return to South Africa in 2001.

Despite his cosmopolitan experiences, he still holds the views and opinions echoed by many South Africans when it comes to the migration of other Africans to South Africa.

Lebelo shares views often expressed by grass-roots leaders in South Africa, as well as established political leaders such as Cope’s president Mosiuoa Lekota, who was calling for refugees to be placed in camps earlier this year. Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba has also publicly blamed “illegal foreigners” for crime in the city.

What makes I Want To Go Home Forever so powerful, is that the stories are told in the words used by the interviewees. It is a window into lived experience, and actually existing views.

Continue reading Bornman’s review here.

Book details

  • I Want to go Home Forever: Stories of Becoming and Belonging in South Africa’s Great Metropolis edited by Loren Landau, Tanya Pampalone
    EAN: 9781776142217
    Find this book with BOOK Finder!

"This is Winkler’s fourth novel, and he just gets better and better," writes Paige Nick of Mark Winkler's Theo & Flora

Published in the Sunday Times

Theo & Flora
****
Mark Winkler, Umuzi, R250

Theo

Some of the letters written by Theo and Flora. Picture: Mark Winkler

 
The story behind this novel is almost as nuanced as the one in it.

After Mark Winkler’s first novel An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Absolutely Everything was published, his father-in-law, Norman, gave him a box of letters and said: “Perhaps you might do something with these.”

There were 89 letters in total, written from 1944 to 1948, between Norman’s father, Theo, and his mistress, Flora. Norman passed away a few months later, and it took the author three years to pick them up, dust them off and piece them back together into the story of Wasserman, Theo, Flora and a dog named Troilus.

Wasserman is a writer, or rather has been a writer. His investment-banker wife, Sasha (who has money), walks out, leaving Wasserman (who doesn’t) with the dog, the house and a comfortable stipend, on condition he never sees her again.

Wasserman, being Wasserman, takes the deal and settles into a malaise and into Sasha’s desk chair, which was always more comfortable than his. He soon discovers a box of letters in Sasha’s office, dating back to 1944, between a lawyer named Theo and his mistress, Flora.

Theo no longer loves his wife, Sarah, and is feeling the pressure to make an honest woman out of his mistress. But the laws of the time stipulate that a divorce requires both partners’ agreement and the one thing Sarah will never do is agree to a divorce.

As Wasserman tries to piece together all the broken hearts, his own included, his life takes on new shape, and so does a manuscript.

The relationships in the alternating plotlines mirror, glance and reflect off each other and Winkler’s unique turn of phrase leads to a swift turn of page.

This is Winkler’s fourth novel, and he just gets better and better.

The letters in the book are reprinted verbatim.

Winkler says: “In their original form the letters reflect the different personalities of the two lovers so directly (right down to their handwriting), which gave me a great base to build on their characters. I felt from the outset that to edit or rewrite them would negate their authenticity. Leaving them the way they were originally written allows the reader to access (the real) Theo and Flora no less directly than I could.”

But Theo was no writer, as Winkler acknowledges: “His pen seems to have lacked a comma function, and his sentences often run into each other.” It’s a big decision to bring lesser writing into your own, but fortunately Winkler’s trademark easy literary style slips the reader effortlessly through times and lives and does a lot to mask the clunkiness of Theo’s pen.

You don’t really want to like Winkler, because he’s just so good at what he does, or Wasserman, because he’s so lazy and morally questionable, but how can you not ultimately adore both of them? @paigen

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Some people take Susan Lewis’s novels with them to the grave, writes Jennifer Platt

Published in the Sunday Times

The Secret Keeper is veteran author Susan Lewis’s 43rd novel.

 

The Secret Keeper ***
Susan Lewis, Century, R215

There are people who love Susan Lewis’s novels so much that they ask to be buried with them.

“I’ve never had this happen to me before. I don’t know how many writers this has happened to. But a reader told me recently that she just buried her sister-in-law and that her sister-in-law’s request was to take some of my books with her. Isn’t that amazing? I am so blown away by that – that you can touch someone with your books so much. It’s so extraordinary how readers do respond.”

No doubt people will respond to her latest book as well.

The Secret Keeper is Lewis’s 43rd book (including two memoirs). Set in Lewis’s fictional Kesterly-on-Sea, this time the focus is on Olivia, who is unwittingly drawn into intrigue. Her first love Sean is back on the scene, after she learnt to live without him for years. He is disrupting the life she has made with her husband, Richmond, and two children in the picturesque seaside town. Like Cabot Cove, there are quite a few murders in Kesterly-on-Sea but this book focuses more on how this tiny town gets dragged into the higher stakes of corruption and money laundering.

Lewis said she invented Kesterly-On-Sea when she started writing books about child abuse and social services.

“The best thing was to make it fictitious so I was never pointing a finger at any specific social services department. And then it moved on to writing something about the police, someone in the medical world, and I realised this was an extremely useful place to have as I didn’t offend people. And now I feel like I’m the mayor of Kersterly. The hilarious thing is that people write to me and say that they love Kesterly and want to know how to get to the city. People latch on to it.”

Lewis wanted this book to focus on how crime and corruption seep into our lives.

“Money laundering is a big issue. My book is a story of gullibility, and of how a man can get himself into a complete mess. I think it’s a warning to men.”

Lewis brings back one of her readers’ favourite characters, the ex-detective with a heart of gold, Andee Lawrence.

“When I introduced her in Behind Closed Doors, I never thought she would be a recurring character. Readers enjoy her and feel comfortable with her. Each time I bring her into a book it’s like reconnecting with an old friend.”

As for the title of the book, Lewis said she came up with it before she wrote it. “But having said that, I do think there is one person keeping a lot of secrets.”

Lewis is a prolific writer who releases two books a year. “I’ve been doing it a long time. I get into a rhythm. I have to deliver a book in June and one in December. I think the pace of that keeps me going. If I only did one book a year maybe things would collapse. Although maybe I’d have a life …” @Jenniferdplatt

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"Just stick to cricket, Shane." Good ol' Warney has been indulged once more in this tedious biography, writes Archie Henderson

Published in the Sunday Times

No Spin: My Autobiography **
Shane Warne with Mark Nicholas, Penguin Random House, R320

Shane Warne deserves a good biography.

This is not it, even with Mark Nicholas as his amanuensis.

Nicholas, an accomplished broadcaster and writer, played a marathon innings, listening to his subject, recording him, transcribing their conversations and bringing some coherence to the garrulous Warne’s ramblings.

He fails to rein in Warne and a book of almost 400 pages (including seven of fascinating statistics) could have been half the length, enough to accommodate the best part of the book, the cricket.

Warne was a great cricketer – many aficionados believe he was one of the greatest – but he can also be a great bore.

His peccadillos with a variety of women and his affair with film star Liz Hurley are tedious.

His obsequiousness toward the rich (Kerry Packer et al) is embarrassing, especially his blatant pleading to be invited to Johann Rupert’s next golf outing at St Andrews.

And his participation during a TV reality show in the “jungle” near the Kruger Park is ludicrous and irrelevant.

Stick to cricket, a strong captain – Steve Waugh, perhaps, whom Warne loathes – might have advised.

But good ol’ Warney has been indulged once more.

When he does stick to cricket, he redeems himself and his book.

He is a deep thinker on the game, was a brilliant exponent of the difficult art of leg-spin bowling and would have made a very good Australian captain.

Sadly, part of his behaviour cost him that job. Now it’s cost him a good book.

One day, when time has created some distance for dispassion, Warne will get his deserved biography. It might even be by Gideon Haigh, the Australian who is as good a writer as Warne is a bowler and who has already compiled a series of essays on the player. In them Haigh describes Warne’s bowling action as being “both dainty and menacing, like Ernst Blofeld stroking his white cat”.

Now that’s a book that would be worth reading.

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