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Jacqui L'Ange

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Horns and Dilemmas: Jacqui L’Ange Reviews Sindiwe Magona’s Chasing the Tails of My Father’s Cattle

Magona’s tale of a daughter’s inheritance cuts to the heart of rural patriarchy, writes Jacqui L’Ange for the Sunday Times

Chasing The Tails of My Father’s CattleChasing the Tails of My Father’s Cattle
Sindiwe Magona (Seriti sa Sechaba)

Cattle: symbol of health and prosperity. Used for ceremony, celebration, atonement, sustenance – they are at the very heart of traditional village life. The cattle in the title of this book also symbolise frail and fractured communal bonds, principles that should bind people together, but too often rend them apart. This is a small story, about a small village, and a small family. It is also a huge story, about the power of love and the strength of the human spirit.

The Eastern Cape village of Zenzele is one of many left “bereft of the vitality of men” when the goldmines take what they need and leave the rest behind to carry on as best they can.

Not many have the courage to follow their heart, if it means challenging convention. But this is what Jojo does, when the death of his beloved wife Miseka leaves him to care for his newborn daughter, Shumikazi. (It’s the name her mother gave her, but she will also be known as Nokufa, and later No-orenji, depending on which family member regards her.)

From the outset, Shumi is singularly herself: strong, smart, and gifted with seeing beyond her years. She survives where her mother and nine siblings before her didn’t. This, and the fact that she is suckled at her grandmother Manala’s breast, gives the villagers plenty to talk about. Her two jealous makotis, Maxolo and Mamkwazi, are less than kind to the young Shumi. They whisper and connive along with their gossipy neighbours. They cluck-cluck-CLUCK even more when Jojo quits the mines and returns to Zenzele to raise his daughter and “live the way our grandparents lived”, from the soil and the kraal.

Jojo is exceptionally hardworking, and also gifted in herbs and animal husbandry. His kraal grows and prospers. “Nature is bountiful,” he says, “and rewards those who care for it.” But not everyone is pleased. When the mine dust rattling in his lungs signals that his end is approaching, Jojo intuits that his selfish brothers are unlikely to take care of his daughter, or continue to support her formal education. “Who determined that [women] … through no sin, misdeed or lack of character, indeed through nothing anyone had defined – were less than men?” he laments.

Jojo takes the unprecedented step of transferring ownership of his land and his considerable herd to his daughter. He didn’t count on this break with tradition being a burden. At Jojo’s death, the grieving Shumi does what she thinks is right, and returns the assets to the protection of her uncles, her “other fathers”. It’s a tragic mistake, for which she will pay dearly.

Magona’s new novel is not a story in a hurry; it is one to be savoured. There are moments of intense lyricism and playful idiom – and in the end, Shumi will return to chase the tails of her father’s cattle. Her story is both a testament to the inherent capacity for goodness in people and a warning: “What you tolerate, you perpetuate.” The choice is ours.

Jacqui L’Ange is the author of The Seed Thief (Umuzi). Follow her on Twitter @jaxangel

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King of Heartstrings: Jacqui L’Ange Reviews Gareth Crocker’s King

Gareth Crocker (Penguin)
Book thrill

Gareth Crocker is all heart. His publishers like to bundle him together with our nation’s crime novelists, but Crocker’s books are more like emotional thrillers. He’s not interested in a high body count. Instead, he makes you care deeply about his characters, raises the emotional stakes into the stratosphere and plays cats cradle with your heartstrings.

Crocker is Joburg born and bred, but his books are based wherever they need to be (Los Angeles, Detroit, Vietnam, colonial Bechuanaland…) Setting is not as important to him as the action and the characters that drive it – and, quite frankly, he strings the tension so taut he could set his books in a paper bag and still have his readers hyperventilating.

Crocker’s fourth book doesn’t deviate from the basic pattern of his others: a stoic protagonist who carries wounds from a recent personal loss embarks on a mission and puts everything on the line. Crocker’s heroes always have a buddy to banter with, which ensures a good serving of snappy dialogue. And there is almost always an animal involved.

King begins with a bang in a Detroit drug den. Eli Rolene is a former police pilot who recently lost his wife to cancer. He is uncomfortably numbed by prescription painkillers. He’s quit his job with the Detroit PD and, when he can raise himself from his fug, helps out at his sister Lola’s animal shelter. Just until he gets back on his feet (or so that he never really has to).

Eli gets called in to rescue some exotic animals being illegally traded from a drug den caught in gangland crossfire. He is too late: the animals all died between the shootout and the time the smell prompted the neighbours to call it in. All except one feisty survivor, a white lion cub.

The little lion does well under Lola’s care, and when he needs a bit more space to roam than the clinic cage can provide, she brings him home and integrates him into the household. The cub begins to work his magic, bringing her autistic daughter Harper out of her shell (it is Harper who names him “King”) and even breaking through Eli’s defensive barriers so that he starts to feel the stirrings of something other than despair.

Keeping a lion in a residential neighbourhood is illegal, of course, and it’s only a matter of time until King gets too big for the situation. Things go from better to bad to worse a few times in this story. The lion will face cruel challenges and Eli will pass a point of no return. To say anything more would spoil the ride. Suffice to say it’s a tearjerker – in the best possible way.

Crocker calls his novels “part thriller, part love story”. Perhaps we should just call them deeply satisfying and be happy that he is so prolific – King is his second book in 2013, and there’s another one on the way next year. – @jaxangel

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(Review originally appeared in the Sunday Times, 10 November 2013)

Very short but Bloody Satisfied (review)


Bloody Satisfied – Short Sharp Stories

Edited by Joanne Hichens (Mercury)
Book thrill
“South Africa is very sexy place for crime fiction,” Deon Meyer declares in his introduction to Bloody Satisfied. But as the twenty-four authors collected here demonstrate, South Africa is also brutal, sneaky, venal, banal, complex, murderous, proud, paranoid, colourful, guilty, greedy, arrogant, and rather twisted. From Dawn Garisch’s “What To Do About Ricky”, a looping tale of self-deception, to T.O. Molefe’s dystopian “The King”, and through all the alarming plot twists and gory who-dunnits in between, this collection is guaranteed to leave readers entirely in tune with its title. – Jacqui L’Ange @jaxangel

Michele Rowe’s ‘What Hidden Lies’ is The Next Big Thing


This ‘Next Big Thing’ guest post is by by the über-talented  Michele Rowe, who talks about her first novel…I love how this is becoming a regular feature on my BookSA blog page. More tags and previews at the end of this post.


Here’s Michele:


What is your working title of your book?

What Hidden Lies

Where did the idea come from for the book?

I heard an unsubstantiated rumour, and took to pondering how a moment of maliciousness could ruin someone’s life and even lead to murder.

What genre does your book fall under?

It’s about a murder and investigation so it would be classified under crime fiction. I prefer to call it a mystery novel.


Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

What Hidden Lies is the first of a trilogy. I am finishing the second book for Penguin titled Hour of Darkness about a mother and daughter who disappear when the lights go out during Earth Hour. The third book centres around a teenage suicide pact and is called Before Her Time. All three books have individual stand alone investigations, linked by an overarching single narrative concerning the young detective Persy Jonas. The structure lends itself to a tv series rather than a movie. When I think of a cast I naturally imagine drawing from the extraordinary talent working in film and theatre in this country. But it would be up to the director to decide on the cast.


What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

A detective hunts down her childhood sweetheart who she suspects of murder.


Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I am represented by a U.K based literary agent, and the book will be published by Penguin on June 3rd this year. I have also signed the rights to a German publisher.


How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I’d really prefer not to answer that! Some writers can get out a draft in 6 weeks but I find writing a laborious and time consuming process.


What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I can’t think of a similar book offhand. Only a small percentage of what I read is crime fiction.  I like classic American noir writers like Cornell Woolrich and Jim Thompson, and enjoy South African crime fiction because it’s new and fresh and there’s an energy to it. The Scottish crime writers are always interesting. I read everything put out by the grande dames of female mystery, writers like Ruth Rendell and PD. James. Their output is astonishing, both still writing strongly into late age, and they have a great sense of plot and social milieu. But Patricia Highsmith is the mystery and suspense writer I most admire. That does not answer the question except to say that perhaps these writers influence how I approach the genre.


Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Noordhoek inspired me. And a series of interviews I conducted with detectives and a criminal psychologist when researching a television  documentary.


What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Maybe because I am a screenwriter, What Hidden Lies has interlinking narratives and characters similar in structure to a tv series. It’s as much a study of a place and milieu as a crime novel, although I hope it also delivers on the expectations of the genre. The book has been well received by publishers and agents and recognised by a Dagger Award, but the acid test will be how readers receive it. I recently joined a couple of book clubs for the first time. It was horribly sobering to hear books being casually savaged in someone’s sitting room, and imagining mine suffering the same fate.  Crime readers are unforgiving because they know all the tricks. There’s very little new in the genre, so it’s all in the telling.


Michele is passing the baton on to Richard Beynon, Joanne Hichens and Melissa Madore.  Jump to their pages to see their Next Big Thing posts in about a week’s time. And come back here to read Anne Rogers’ post in a few days…

Melissa Siebert’s ‘The Garden of Dreams’ is The Next Big Thing

Melissa Siebert is a writer and journalist, lecturer in narrative non-fiction (among other things) and very cool guitar-slinging blues maven. I have the pleasure of hosting her Next Big Thing post here this week. Can’t wait to read this book!

Melissa’s Q & A:

What is your working title of your book?

The Garden of Dreams


Where did the idea come from for the book?

From many places, some I am sure remain undiscovered. The book takes up the conflict between the personal and the political – asking how grand a stage we choose to play our lives out upon, and at what cost. More specifically, how far we are willing to sacrifice those closest to us for something perceptibly ‘larger’. The horrific global reality of child trafficking informs the novel, but it was an experience closer to home that probably seeded it. Plus I’m an insatiable Indiaphile, so India itself plays a huge role, in all its crazy chaos and humanity.


What genre does your book fall under?

Somewhere between literary and commercial fiction.  Cross-cultural. Something of a thriller, but also a coming-of-age adventure story. I’d say the writing is strong, evocative and cinematic — I hope without the kind of self-conscious ‘polishing’ often found in ‘literary’ fiction, sometimes to the narrative’s detriment, in my mind.


Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Funny you should ask. As many writers have with their books, I have envisioned The Garden of Dreams as a film.  When I sent the novel to Vikas Swarup (author of Slumdog Millionaire, formerly Q&A, Six Suspects and his latest, The Accidental Apprentice) for an ‘authenticity check’, he kindly read the whole book, and responded enthusiastically, adding that he can’t wait for the film version. Here’s hoping! This is a tough call, though. The main character is a 13 year-old American/South African boy, Eli; there are four other primary characters, all having point of view. Can’t think of an ‘Eli’ – maybe an unknown, someone who could transform from a troubled, lonely boy obsessed with rock music and derailed by his parents’ estrangement to a wise, much more confident and courageous leader more at home in the world…His dad, Anton, a South African international mediator who has virtually abandoned his family to serve children in other countries – and ultimately goes into the jungles of Nepal to look for his missing son…Maybe Leonardo di Caprio?! As for Margo, Eli’s crazy, self-destructive mom – probably many contenders for this one.  Naomi Watts, maybe? The two main Indian roles – the villain (child trafficker, madam) Auntie Lakshmi and her nemesis, Inspector V.J. Gupta, head of Delhi’s Child Crimes Unit – should go to Indian actors. Not sure who would play Lakshmi – someone capable of being diabolical as well as amusing. Then there’s Gupta – an offbeat cop who dresses up in drag to cruise Delhi’s G.B. Road (red-light district) and interrogate his sources – wish he could be played by Saeed Jaffrey. I’ve always loved Jaffrey’s performances; he’s in his eighties now, though. Maybe he could still do it, if interested?! He’d be perfect. Minor roles include Lakshmi’s gum-cracking goonda/henchman, a Bollywood actress-turned-madam, a Maoist guerrilla commander hiding out in Nepal’s jungles, and a hijra (eunuch) who works as one of Gupta’s informants. Among other characters…


What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

A coming-of-age adventure tale collides with the underworlds of child trafficking in India and Nepal.


 Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

At the moment I am trying to get it published by a reputable publishing company, without an agent.


How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Three years, part-time. I also worked as a freelance writer and editor, and full-time mom, during that period.


What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

That’s a tricky one. Nothing comes to mind as a really close comparison. I think the book has aspects of Slumdog Millionaire and maybe even Shantaram, dealing as it does with the criminal, sordid worlds and victimization of the poor in Indian cities (and globally).  Much of the story is told through the eyes of a young boy; some people have compared it vaguely to Kipling’s Kim, though I hope without the colonial perspective! (Like Kim, Eli goes on a picaresque journey through India – and in Eli’s case, into Nepal.) I’d like to think there may even be elements of Le Carre’s The Constant Gardener, just about my favourite novel – in terms of taking a hard look at how the poor are exploited, further victimized – by their own people and by foreigners professing to be there to help. At how certain individuals dare to rise up against these crimes/perpetrators and fight for justice.


Who or what inspired you to write this book?

My family situation – fractured, and somewhat similar to the ‘triangle’ – Eli and his parents – in the novel. And my ongoing interest in children’s rights and abhorrence of trafficking. I’m a journalist, and these are issues that I wish were much more boldly and consistently covered in the media. But covering trafficking is obviously dangerous – so I wimped out and wrote about it in fiction – though any stats/`facts’ in the novel are accurate. Trafficking from Nepal, one of the world’s poorest countries, into India, one of the world’s biggest trafficking networks, is rife. I did a lot of research for the book, both online and through interviews/observation in India and Nepal.


What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

I think/hope that readers will especially warm up to Auntie Lakshmi, the madam/trafficker, and her rival, Inspector V.J. Gupta – I can’t let go of them. They are both slightly mad, with quirkiness that I hope entertains. One reader at a publishing house has suggested writing a series of books based on Gupta, she was so fond of him (he’s my fave character in the book, too). But I’m not planning a series. I’ve already started my next novel – about child witches (or children being – mostly falsely — accused of witchcraft) in Limpopo, one of SA’s weirdest and most fascinating places. I’ve spent a good deal of time there. It’s a growing phenomenon across Africa – and most of the time it’s the church leaders, in cahoots with the sangomas – all trying to make a buck, shore up their power – making the accusations. My American ancestors are from Salem, Massachusetts, famous for the witch trials in the late 1600s, so I’ll probably be working in this somehow as well.

Melissa is passing the blog baton to Carol Graham, Carol Campbell and Anne Rogers, who will be posting next week.  Details of where to find their posts coming soon.

(Come back tomorrow to read about Michele Rowe’s literary Next Big Thing…)


Jacqui L’Ange’s ‘The Seed Thief’ is The Next Big Thing

Thank you to Consuelo Roland for tagging me in ‘The Next Big Thing’. If you haven’t come across it before, it’s an exercise in self-promotional positivity, and an invitation to talk about your most recent writing work, or work in progress, through a set of standard questions. Then you pass the baton on to a handful of other writers, who’ll do the same in a week’s time. And so it rolls…


What is your working title of your book?

The Seed Thief


Where did the idea come from for the book?

I was interested in exploring the links between Brazil and Africa, and the obvious route was slavery and the sea passage between West Africa and Bahia. Somewhere along the way a seed presented itself as the perfect cross continental time capsule. So a lost seed became the vehicle for the story, and linked the historical practice of colonialism and slavery to a modern-day method of appropriation: control of genetic resources and bio-piracy.


What genre does your book fall under?

Literary thriller or ecological fiction.


Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

My characters for The Seed Thief are so real to me; they look the way they do, which is to say, like themselves. It I were to put Hollywood faces to them, they would become different people.


I know this because it happened to me when I wrote a film script a few years ago (Murmur) and was involved in the production of the movie. Before we went on set, the characters looked a particular way in my mind. Once we started shooting, they started to take on the actors’ characteristics. It’s a wonderful process, watching actors bringing new dimensions to written characters. But when I try to remember what the characters looked like to me pre-movie, I can hardly conjure up their images…


Having said all that, while writing an earlier draft of The Seed Thief I told my partner that I thought Maddy, the narrator and protagonist, was a little like Ellen Page (of Juno, Inception, Whip It). He had a different picture of her in his head, but that’s the way she is for me. Maddy is small and slight and dark-haired. And she has great knees.


What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

A young botanist in search of an endangered plant gets caught up in a parallel world of Afro-Brazilian spiritualism, and finds out some home truths, where she really stands, and what she is prepared to sell out in order to survive.


Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency? 

I will be seeking agency representation.


How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I wrote the book as part of an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Cape Town. It should have taken me two years, but it took three because but I fell ill in the middle of it and had to take some time off. I found that it’s not a bad thing to put a project on a back burner and let it simmer for a while. I’m currently editing the manuscript so will probably have to add another year onto that total by the time it is ‘finished’. (Almost there now…)


What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer, Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, or TC Boyle’s When the Killing’s Done.


Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I was convinced that I was going to write a book about the sea. I’d had an idea for some time to write something with the deity Yamanja – the Yoruba and candomblé orixa, or goddess, of the sea – in a cameo role. Yamanja is still there, but so are a lot of other orixas who confuse the hell out of my rational-minded protagonist. I liked the possibilities of putting someone into a situation that throws them completely off-kilter, and seeing what comes up out of that.


Researching the botanical aspects of the book I became fascinated with seed banking, and came across some incredible stories of botanical survival against all odds – many of them found their way into the book.


But I think my original urge was to re-connect with one of the places I grew up in (Brazil), in a way that felt new and interesting. On a trip to Brazil a friend of mine suggested I visit Salvador in Bahia. I became fascinated with how African the city is, in a uniquely Brazilian way.


These days so many people are displaced, or come from, or live between, many places, and I also wanted to explore what that does to our sense of where we belong. My initial working title for the book was ‘In Transit’ – part of the story takes place with Maddy stranded in an airport transit lounge. I think it’s a state a lot of people relate to…


What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

If I tell people The Seed Thief is about bio-piracy, they tend to look cautiously baffled. If I tell them it is about sex in Brazil, they lean in for more. It really has a good dose of both.


And now to pass on the love … ‘The Next Big Thing’ has been pinging around the blogosphere for a while, so a lot of established writers have been here, done this. But I think its true value is in introducing new names that are not yet, but have the explosive potential to be, big literary news.


I was privileged to find myself in a hugely talented (and immensely likeable) bunch of writers in UCT’s creative writing programme. Many of them are already doing big things: Aoife Lennon-Ritchie has just started a literary agency and will share her latest work next week. Melissa Siebert is a journalist with an explosive story that I can’t wait to read more about – I’ll be guest hosting her blog post here next week. And Michele Rowe is a scriptwriter whose thriller What Hidden Lies won the 2011 Crime Writer’s Association Debut Dagger for its opening chapters – before the book was even finished! Roll on, and power to your virtual pens…

Old Trick in Africa: A Review of Hear Me Alone

Hear Me AloneThe book’s title, Hear Me Alone, rings out an injunction: it could mean “hear only me” or “listen in solitude”. Or it could mean something much more profound; something that will never fully reveal itself.

Thando Mgqolozana‘s novella is designed to baffle and challenge, as much as delight, with puzzles and in-jokes, whimsical descriptions, lyrical landscapes, blue-headed lizards that dance to a shepherd’s song, a dog called Omen and another called Brown.

Its language feels simultaneously ancient and of indeterminate time. And its plot includes a sly take on one of the oldest tricks in the book.

The setting is the Old Testament – with an African flavour. There’s a village called Nazareth, a king named Herod, prophets false and true, and a baby born under a wandering star in a stable in Bethlehem.

There’s a young man on the run because of passion’s unintended consequences. True love has been thwarted, in time-honoured fashion, by parents intent on an arranged marriage that has nothing to do with the heart’s compass, and everything to do with hand-made wooden furniture.

Joseph is a woodwork merchant, and a widower. He has been promised the reluctant young Miriam, while her childhood playmate, Epher, has been away in the province’s capital, studying to become a surgeon.

Epher comes home for a visit. He proves his mettle when he breaks into the women’s circle to assist in a difficult birth. The villagers are grateful to him for saving the baby and its mother, but not quite ready for his heretical opinions.

If the world needs some form of doctrine, Epher suggests, “it must not be based on the existence of a superman, because the image of a man represents violence to women”.

It so happens that the “virgin” the villagers worship is a “him”.

Epher plans to ask for his sweetheart Miriam’s hand. But when he comes to see her father, the castrator (a terrifying vocation, under the circumstances), he bumps up against new furniture in their living room, and realises he is too late.

There is plenty of playful fun in this book. But you have to work hard to get at it. There are implications embedded in the village repartee, there are deep meanings and sly allusions.

But perhaps the intensely allegorical style is only as convoluted, overwrought, and obscure as all guilty excuses. For this is Epher’s account, his reckoning to a respected friend. The young man’s story is a mea culpa.

But what, exactly, is his “hear me alone”? It is unnameable, mysterious. It is private and personal.

“The truth of a hear me alone stays with a person,” Epher’s friend and servant Kush (the story’s true wise man) tells him.

“Hear me alones have been there since creation,” Epher’s grandmother Kishoma tells him. “But Epha, child of my child, a hear me alone is a hear me alone. It speaks to its hearer, is heard by its hearer.”

So is it an angel? An inner voice? A conscience? A soul? Perhaps the greatest clue is Epher’s own observation: “All the artist does is pay attention to his ‘hear me alone’ and then carves it out for others.” In which case, Mgqolozana is carving out a singular space in our collective inner ear.

This review is brought to you by Books LIVE Wire. Books LIVE Wire books sponsored by Exclusive Books

Exhume the Past: A Review of Margie Orford’s Gallows Hill

Gallows HillMargie Orford has again delivered a tightly plotted thriller with solid political credentials.

It’s got the snappy dialogue and the meticulous forensic detail you’ve come to expect from a Clare Hart thriller. But it’s also got something different.

Instead of a woman or a child in mortal danger with a relentlessly ticking clock, we have a body that’s been dead for 23 years – a cold case that connects apartheid horrors to present-day political profligacy.

The body is unearthed at Gallows Hill, near the Green Point traffic centre, where Cape Town’s notorious gibbets once stood. Two centuries ago the unfortunates hanged there were left to sink into the soft sands beneath the gallows, forgotten and untended.

Their bones are exposed when excavation begins for a development near the Waterfront.

The 200-year-old remains, possibly those of slaves, ignite imagination – and deep-rooted grievances. Fat cats’ luxury apartments are put on hold, pending due process.

Clare is a film-maker and investigative profiler. She is ostensibly on site to film a documentary on slavery. But a newer body is different; the young woman crammed into a tiny coffin under a concrete foundation slab is a case for police, not anthropologists.

Clare believes she can piece together the woman’s past. She can’t know that this wooden box will unleash more troubles than Pandora’s box. Her search will lead from the world of rarefied high art to that scarcely redeemed low life.

And to a confrontation with “Hond”, a Cape Flats gangster cleaned up just enough to associate with tenderpreneurs.

But the real villain is the system that has failed its people.

Between February 1988 and February this year, South Africa has swung on a pendulum from repressive apartheid regime through land of hopeful freedom.

Now it’s snagged on a knot of crime, corruption and cronyism.

There is a weary cynicism in the way all the principals regard the state of their nation. Top cop (and Hart’s chief love interest) Riedwaan Faizal bemoans a South Africa where you watch your taxes being squandered, but are lucky to have a job that earns enough to pay tax.

He sends his partner in crime-fighting, Rita Mkhize, to Mpumalanga, where violence and tragedy await.

Clare and Riedwaan’s relationship has deepened, but is complicated by spectres from the past; not least the re-emergence of Clare’s old flame, cameraman Pedro da Silva.

Orford has a knack for revealing hidden parts of Cape Town – not just the criminal underbelly, but raw, elemental places under its physical surface. In Like Clockwork it was the cavernous culverts under Sea Point’s promenade; in this fourth book it is a dank dungeon under the Slave Lodge, once the Women’s Quarters, where company slaves were kept overnight, and where the sea still reaches up right under Adderley Street.

The author treats her characters like a lepidopterist pins specimens to a board – precisely, delicately.

Still, the real good guys emerge quietly; they are the indigent, the homeless, the voiceless. They are the bergies sharing a papsak on a bench outside parliament. They represent another kind of struggle survivor in a book that spans the spectrum between right and wrong

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Apocalypse Now: A Review of Then by Julie Myerson

ThenThere are two tricky things about reviewing Then. The first is that the story is so spoiler-prone it’s hard to say anything substantive about it without giving key plot twists away.

The second is that urging people to read it is to submit them to a harrowing experience. This book is bleak, brutal, devastating – and utterly unputdownable.

Sometime in the middle of summer, the temperature drops so low that animals bite off their own tails and small birds come falling down out of the sky.

How do you walk away from a first line like that?

Like all the best post-apocalyptic fiction, the book’s future premise is just close enough, just imaginable enough, to infuse a reading of it with a real sense of foreboding.

The setting is London, turned suddenly from quotidian to nightmarish as a fresh February day grows hellishly hot before it freezes over. The cause is unspecified – seismic, nuclear, a sun flare or some climactic tipping point – but its aftermath is unstintingly detailed. Myerson’s descriptions are evocative, and often horrifyingly beautiful.

All communication is down. All transport is stopped. Savage stragglers range around a looted city of broken storefronts (such survivalist self-service less unimaginable now than it might have been pre-riots, when Myerson wrote this book).

The reader wakes into the narrator’s nightmare as she herself does, over and over, experiencing the horror of her immediate surroundings with a sense of startled confusion. She does not remember who she is, or how she came to be hiding out with a small band of survivors, on the 16th floor of a high rise in what was once London’s financial district.

This is trauma amnesia at its most chilling.

She has to be repeatedly reminded who she is with: teenagers Sophie and Ted, disaffected even in these vulnerable times; changeable Matthew – she cannot get a handle on him, or her tender-violent impulses toward him; Graham in his filthy suit, who seems more than any of them to have once belonged there.

There is no heat, no lights, little food. The lifts don’t work. They use the side entrance to remain undetected.

Our narrator spends her time wandering the building, and the ravaged streets outside it, searching, aimless. Her perceptions are vivid and hallucinatory, straddling the line between literal and psychological, exterior and interior. The obvious comparison is to McCarthy’s The Road – but this wanderer doesn’t have the comfort of family to keep her going. She has no idea whether she ever had one.

Gradually she begins to remember things, and as her history is divulged to her, so it comes to the reader. The book’s skilful structuring, its slow reveal, is one of its greatest strengths.

Another is the segue between the outer and inner worlds as the narrator wanders with no sense of self or time or purpose. As she begins to put together what happened to her in the days and months leading up to the event, we realise that the seismic events in her personal life were enough to cause a psychic apocalypse – a devastation of internal landscape so thorough that the narrator’s desire to keep a grip on her world could conceivably have come to an end.

Myerson weathered intense controversy with her last book, The Lost Child. Her project to document the life of a 19th century girl was hijacked by her own personal circumstances, and she ended up paralleling details of her teenage son’s drug abuse, and the family’s tough-love response to it. The media hounds bayed for her blood, accusing her of serving her son up as publicity fodder for her literary career.

All this is important only in as much as it might inform Then, a work of fiction which is bleakly affecting in a way only someone who has experienced extreme personal upheaval can write it.

  • Catch Jacqui L’Ange in conversation with Julie Myerson at the Open Book Festival on Friday 23 September

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A Review of Is Just a Movie by Earl Lovelace

This review originally appeared in Psychologies magazine. Earl Lovelace will appear at the Open Book Cape Town literary festival this September.

Is Just a MovieTitle: Is Just a Movie
By Earl Lovelace
(Faber and Faber)

Trinidad in the 1970s in the wake of the Black Power rebellion, and some are still struggling to make sense of the way things change and the way things don’t and their place in the middle of it all.

One of them is Sonnyboy Apparicio, chance revolutionary, son of the streets, who refuses to die a choreographed death – even if, like his hapless friends, he is just playing a bit part in an American movie.

Sonnyboy finds his position in refusal, and his voice in the clang of the steel drum like his father before him. Sonnyboy has a swagger that is part bravado, part polio limp, but he puts on muscle as he grows from young boy to badjohn on Rouff Street, between the Shango yard and Mother Olga’s Shouters church, between the streetfights and the cornerstore scams.

He is just one of a cast of characters living in Cascadu, each one as deftly drawn, as lovingly flawed as the next. There are girls that smell of mystery and Oil of Olay, and boys that grow up crooked; there are women who could put a light on you, and ones who can make you go blind if you look them bold in the eye. There are people who live rejoicing in other people’s sorrow to keep it away from their own door.

There is Dorlene whose wedding wasn’t to be, and Claude, an idealist taken in by the system, marking time, doing distractions along with everyone else to hide from the fact that the land is being poisoned while power is being centralised.

And there is Kangkala, the book’s master narrator, an aging calypso player, ‘maker of confusion, recorder of gossip, destroyer of reputations, revealer of secrets’. When Sonnyboy beats iron in the steelband, he tells us, ‘what he produced was not the insistent percussive sound to keep the band on the beat, but the discordant chiming clanging clataclanging that opened up the belly of the music to make women start to wine, young fellars square off to fight and big men put their two hands in their head and weep’.

Winner of the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 1997 for his previous book, Salt, Lovelace has lived all his life on Trinidad and Tabago, and the lilt of the islands permeates his pages. Like Sonnyboy’s steel drum, Lovelace’s prose beats right through you, every word in this glorious story ringing with the rhythm of place.

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