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'Deeply sobering' - Margaret von Klemperer reviews Into the Laager: Afrikaners Living on the Edge by Kajsa Norman

First published in The Witness

Into The Laager

Picking up this book, I couldn’t prevent a visceral doubt about the value of an outsider’s view – Kasja Norman is a Swedish journalist. It’s a knee-jerk response: we live here, we know our country best. Any visitor, however much they think they have explored the situation, remains an outsider, unable to get under the skin of their subject. However, the outsider’s view is often the most compelling. It is salutary, as Robert Burns reminded us, to see ourselves as others see us.

In her author’s note, Norman makes a statement that is worth quoting: “I believe that all people are more or less blind to their own culture. Certainly, it has taken a decade away from my native Sweden for me to slowly begin to notice the peculiarities of my own culture.”

And so she begins her exploration of white Afrikaner society and its attitudes, ranging from the battle of Blood River in 1838 to life in the town of Orania with its attempt to create an Afrikaner island, surrounded by a sea of contemporary South Africa. The chapters alternate between historical events that shaped the Afrikaner mindset, and Norman’s interactions with Afrikaners in Orania and elsewhere over the past few years.

Those outside its bubble are inclined to see Orania as a kind of dreary joke, head deep in the sand. Somehow Norman manages to get herself accepted, particularly among the misfits who have washed up there. Some are damaged, sad people who have found a level of protection and acceptance, and whose stories are unexpectedly moving. It is more often in communities outside Orania where Norman uncovers really horrific attitudes.

You think: but I don’t know anyone like that. And then you are pulled up short by the recent news story of the two men who forced a farm worker into a coffin and threatened to set him alight. When Norman’s book ends with the expensively built Reconciliation Bridge at Blood River, ostensibly linking the two sides who fought the ancient battle, but which is still locked and barred because the representatives of the Ncome and Blood River heritage sites cannot agree on how it should be managed, you realise that mutual accommodation and tolerance are a very long way away – and receding. This is a deeply sobering book.

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Jacket Notes: Pamela Power chats about writing her book Things Unseen and what she's working on next

Published in the Sunday Times

Things UnseenThings Unseen
Pamela Power (Clockwork Books)

I started writing Things Unseen in 2010 during the Soccer World Cup, when I was in a dark place in my life. My mother-in-law had died of cancer in December 2008, my mom was diagnosed with cancer in 2009 and died a year later. Six weeks after my mother died, my nephew contracted cerebral malaria. He spent nine days in a coma with multi-organ failure and recovered, but only after having nine of his toes amputated.

I remember sitting in the carpark of Milpark Hospital and weeping uncontrollably about his toes. It was stressful and there wasn’t time to mourn my mother properly. So I did what I always do in times of crisis, I wrote about it. About how losing your mother – no matter how difficult your relationship was – is always profound.

After everything we had been through, I didn’t feel like writing something light. But I had a panic attack because my first novel, Ms Conception, published in 2012, was such a different genre – light, racy, funny and about suburban life. I kept dilly-dallying over whether I should be writing something in the same style. I whined about it to anyone who would listen until my bossy eldest brother said, “For Pete’s sake, just write both novels!”

So I did. I started writing another novel in 2013 which was grip lit (what author Marian Keyes calls thrillers so engrossing that you can’t put them down) and I wrote the psychological thriller Things Unseen.

Just as well, as my publisher, Penguin Random House South Africa, did not like Things Unseen, which was devastating at the time. Luckily, my husband loved it (probably because he was ecstatic I had stopped writing about our lives) and my independent publisher, Sarah McGregor, loved it as well. Well, obviously not that much, as she made me rewrite about 50 per cent of it.

It was such a labour of love – I had doctor and lawyer friends reading it, Karina Brink gave me notes and a wonderful shout for the front cover, and my husband did a final proofread (my knowledge of golf clubs is sadly lacking). The book’s also been getting great reviews, which came as a complete surprise. I always think everything I write is rubbish and I’m amazed that people might want to read it.

In terms of what’s next for me, the grip lit is called Delilah Now Trending and will be published by Penguin Random House South Africa in April 2017.

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Intense, witty and sharp: Pearl Boshomane reviews Ekow Duker's The God Who Made Mistakes

Published in the Sunday Times

Intense, witty and sharp: Pearl Boshomane reviews Ekow Duker’s The God Who Made Mistakes

 
The God Who Made MistakesThe God Who Made Mistakes
Ekow Duker (Picador Africa)
****

I don’t know how I feel about it. That was my initial thought after reading Ekow Duker’s The God Who Made Mistakes, a novel about a black man living what might be the South African dream (corporate job, German car, house in the suburbs, pretty wife), but stands to lose it all because of a secret that’s threatening to disturb the performed perfection of his life. It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out what Themba’s life-altering secret is, but Duker writes about it with such delicateness and simultaneously in such a raw manner that its reveal doesn’t feel cheap or fake.

Ayanda, the pretty wife, feels trapped in a marriage with a husband like Themba who doesn’t love her and doesn’t even pretend to. Unappreciated at home and at work, she takes to dancing as a refuge from her otherwise unpleasant life.

Themba is his mother’s favourite son: he’s an attorney, has his own home in the suburbs, he’s married (although it’s to a woman she detests). He made it out of the streets of Alex, to the pride of his mother and the dismay of his older brother, Bongani.

Bongani’s resentment for Themba is amplified by the thought that Themba might be the one who inherits their mother’s house when she dies, even though Bongani is the one who has never moved out of home.

Duker is not an emotional writer. So if you’re looking to clutch your chest in despair over a lethal combination of adjectives and adverbs, please read something else or turn on a soppy Lifetime channel movie.

The God Who Made Mistakes is intense. It’s interesting that the author can deliver a book this potent while using simple, to-the-point language. Duker has no time to explain the intricacies and complexities of human beings: he just rips off the skin to show us the bare bones of the worst in people.

There is no “good guy” in this book. The closest to a decent person we get is Ayanda. His mother is an overbearing, controlling woman (the proverbial mother-in-law from hell) and his brother is a loser who blames everyone but himself for the way his life has turned out.

This is not to say Themba is a saint; far from it. He’s quite unlikeable – a mentally weak man who thinks the only way to prove his masculinity is by treating his wife terribly. But once Themba admits his secret to himself and eventually those around him, it humanises him, softens him.

For all its intensity, The God Who Made Mistakes is surprisingly witty and sharp, with acerbic asides like this one on the current state of menswear: “All the men wore blue suits these days, even the president. They thought it expressed their individuality when in fact it did the opposite.”

(He also writes great analogies and figures of speech.)

The book makes for great – and at times difficult – reading. One of its strengths is that Duker presents his characters, their lives, their thoughts, emotions and actions (and sometimes the disconnect between the last two) to the reader and leaves them there. It’s not Duker’s job to tell you how to feel; he’s not pushing the reader’s thoughts in any particular direction.

That doesn’t mean it feels as though he does not care about the subject matter and topics raised: quite the opposite.

No one could write so fiercely about something unless they cared about it deeply. But refraining from forcing your views down the reader’s throat is a skill to be admired, and The God Who Made Mistakes does this so well.

Follow Pearl Boshomane on Twitter @Pearloysias

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Book bites: 4 December 2016

Published in the Sunday Times

The Perplexing Theft of the Jewel in the CrownThe Perplexing Theft of the Jewel in the Crown
Vaseem Khan (Hodder & Stoughton)
Book mystery
****
Readers will rejoice at this reunion with venerable Inspector Chopra, his wife Poppy and chocolate-guzzling elephant Ganesha! Chopra visits a heavily guarded exhibition on the very day when the priceless Koh-i-Noor diamond is stolen. He leads us on a helter-skelter hunt for the gem, now part of the British crown jewels, but historically a source of legendary covetousness. Unsavoury characters from Mumbai’s dark underbelly join in the chase, as do more endearing ones. Laced with raucous humour, pathos and occasionally disturbing realism, this caper has serious undertones in its examinations of Indian politics, corruption and post-Raj Anglo-Indian diplomacy. – Ayesha Kajee @ayeshakajee

The Comet SeekersThe Comet Seekers
Helen Sedgwick (Harvill Secker)
Book buff
****
The Comet Seekers is an epic ballad. The lyrical story follows the comets visible from Earth over a 1000-year span. At its core are two lives, destined to meet in Antarctica: Róisín, a scientist who studies the sky, and François, a chef whose ancestors are linked to the scenes on the Bayeux Tapestry. The story gently weaves in and out of generations, littered with ghosts, depicting lives that are stuck and people who cannot stop wandering. A tale of magical realism that encourages dreaming, with a caveat to not dismiss the ground beneath our feet. – Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie

The NixThe Nix
Nathan Hill (Picador)
Book buff
*****
In the opening scene of The Nix, an elderly woman throws stones at a right-wing politician, causing a media frenzy that brandishes her as a terrorist. It’s a scenario that plants this novel firmly in the here and now, and captures the rift between left and right in the US. Would-be novelist/college professor Samuel Andresen-Anderson sees this and it’s not how he pictured being re-united with his estranged mother. Samuel is forced to make a difficult choice: continue hiding in his office, or write a tell-all book portraying his mother as a monster. It’s brilliantly executed political satire, anchored by the powerful drama unfolding between mother and son. The hefty 600-plus page novel is well worth taking your time absorbing. If John Irving compared The Nix to Dickens, you know it’s a classic in the making. – Sally Partridge @Sapartridge

The Hummingbird's CageThe Hummingbird’s Cage
Tamara Dietrich (Orion)
Book fling
****
This debut novel is a believable exercise in magic realism, a gentle observation of a woman conditioned to accept anything, until she realises she needs to escape. Joanna is violently abused by her husband Jim, a popular and protected cop in a small town. She has given up, but is rescued by Jim’s ex, a wild biker, and ends up in the idyllic and unmapped village of Morro. The only problem is that all the good folk of Morro are dead: Joanna can remain in limbo, but knows she should go back and confront her demons. – Aubrey Paton

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Tango and tears: Annetjie van Wynegaard reviews Zadie Smith's Swing Time

Swing Time is a dramatic dance, but it’s also about race, class, sexuality, and identity, writes Annetjie van Wynegaard for the Sunday Times

Swing TimeSwing Time
Zadie Smith (Hamish Hamilton)
*****

Win a signed copy of Swing Time here!

“It was the first day of my humiliation.” These are the opening lines to Zadie Smith’s exuberant new novel, Swing Time. The story starts just as it’s about to end, with exile and a scandal. In present-day London, the unnamed narrator finds herself in a hotel room with the curtains drawn and her phone switched off – shamed, shunned and shut off from the world.

Like the Sankofa bird with its neck eternally bent backwards, a recurring motif in the novel, the narrator looks to the beginning of her life, which she marks not as her birth but the day she met her best friend Tracey. The first thing she notes is the difference between their mothers – the narrator’s mother is a determined yet aloof autodidact from Jamaica; Tracey’s white mother’s only ambition is to “get on the disability”. Despite their differences – the narrator’s family is slightly better off than Tracey’s, yet the latter is the one with all the expensive toys – the two girls become closer than sisters. Their friendship is cemented in their shared passion for dance. The first part of the novel is a beautiful coming-of-age story of two very different girls who continue to have a lasting effect on each other’s lives into adulthood, even from a distance.

The adult narrator is, not unlike her mother, not a very likeable character. Neither is Tracey. Both girls grow up and away from each other, into roles they didn’t so much choose as submit to. Tracey, the ambitious one, makes it into dance school, while the more academically minded narrator sabotages her own chances of getting into a good school as an act of rebellion against her mother. Still driven by her love for music and dance, she becomes a personal assistant to a superstar celebrity named Aimee.

Her relationship with Aimee echoes the passive-aggressive patterns of her friendship with Tracey. Aimee is happy to have her around, as long as she’s at her beck and call and knows who the real star is. When Aimee decides to build a school in a rural West African village, the narrator starts to see her for who she really is – someone who takes and exploits and dominates. From here the story unravels fast, until the two ends meet once again.

Swing Time is a story about relationships – between two mixed-race girls, between mothers and daughters, between fathers and daughters, between friends and co-workers – and the power relations within these relationships and how they shift over time.

It’s also about race, class, sexuality, and identity. Early on in the novel little Tracey informs the unnamed narrator that having a white father is different from having a white mother.

“It turned out Tracey was as curious about my family as I was about hers, arguing, with a certain authority, that we had things ‘the wrong way round’. I listened to her theory one day during break, dipping a biscuit anxiously into my orange squash. ‘With everyone else it’s the dad,’ she said, and because I knew this to be more or less accurate I could think of nothing more to say. ‘When your dad’s white it means —’ she continued, but at that moment Lily Bingham came and stood next to us and I never did learn what it meant when your dad was white.”

In a recent essay in The Guardian, Smith writes: “I feel dance has something to tell me about what I do.” The inspiration of dance is evident between the pages of Swing Time. The novel moves effortlessly between the different timelines, pulsing and vibrating with its own rhythmic energy, flawless in its execution, demanding that you hold your breath until the very last beat.

Follow Annetjie van Wynegaard on Twitter @Annetjievw

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Lessons from a heartbreaking Zulu heritage: Jennifer Platt chats to Nomavenda Mathiane about her book Eyes in the Night: An Untold Zulu Story

Published in the Sunday Times

Nomavenda Mathiane

 

Eyes in the NightEyes in the Night: An Untold Zulu Story
Nomavenda Mathiane (Bookstorm)
****

Nomavenda Mathiane is one of those people you immediately feel comfortable talking to, but at the same time you want to impress her. Her book Eyes in the Night: An Untold Zulu Story sticks in your head and plays with your emotions. Mathiane was one helluva journalist who worked on most major South African newspapers. She started off at The World during the uprisings of 1976. Later she worked at Frontline magazine – one of the few black women journalists who wrote about how people really lived in Soweto and other townships.

In her latest book, Mathiane tells the story of her grandmother. It’s a story she didn’t know, one she stumbled upon at her mother’s funeral.

“There was no other time I could have written it,” Mathiane says. “Because I didn’t know about my grandmother’s life. I heard about the story two years before I retired. In retrospect, if I had known the story a long time ago, I wouldn’t have done a proper job. I would’ve been too emotional. I found my voice and now I am able to sit back and look back at my life and their lives.”

It’s the story of how her grandmother, Nombhosho (which means bullet), survived the Anglo-Zulu war as a young girl. “A tale of woe and triumph,” Mathiane writes.

It’s a story of hardship and dispossession that traces the fate of one Zulu family since 1897. Mathiane says the British colonialists were “ruthless” with the Zulus. “The English torched their homes. People had no homes. That narrative [of what] happened to the Zulu people still hasn’t been told properly.”

During the time of the Anglo-Zulu war, after their land was stolen by the Abelumbi (literally “sorcerers”, the term King Shaka used for white people), her grandmother and great-grandmother and their family had to live in a cave. They had only roots and rats to eat.

There’s a heartbreaking moment when Nombhosho’s mother realises her husband is dead. She finds his shield and assegai at the entrance of the cave. That was a sign from his fellow warriors that he had died.

“It was challenging to write,” Mathiane says. “I was an alien coming into Zululand and listening to the stories. We hardly know where my grandmother’s home was. All we know is she lived next to ‘the shadow mountain’.” Mathiane had to question family members and make many visits to KZN to piece together Nombhosho’s life.

The accounts of what Nombhosho was subjected to as a young girl make the reader angry and sad. Her mother is forced to marry a man she doesn’t know and work with him on a farm, “hell on earth”, as Mathiane describes it. The white farmer beats Nombhosho and tries to rape her.

But it’s not all dire. Mathiane tells her own story of discovering the past, and discovering who she really is. There are light moments when she talks about her family and her visits to them. “There we were, young and old females sharing this huge bedroom. We were like high-school girls having a pyjama party.”

Mathiane hopes that Eyes in the Night will inspire readers to examine the past more closely.

“I want my book to make young people question who they are. When we were told about the Zulu wars at school, we were taught superficially about what happened. We never learned about the Zulu warriors.

“My father was Christian, we lived in the townships. My sister [Sis Ahh] was different, she lived with my grandmother. She was in touch with the soil. She was brought up in the Zulu rituals. None of us other six girls performed the rituals. But I’m richer for knowing what happened. I know who I am now, after writing this book.

“There are so many stories still to be told about that era. This book is just a drop in the ocean. We need people to tell and write these stories.”

Follow Jennifer Platt on Twitter @Jenniferdplatt

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