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Jacqui L'Ange

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

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)

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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.

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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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