REVIEW: Grace

MANOSA NTHUNYA reviews the new novel by Barbara Boswell.

“Her whole life it had been drummed into Grace that every living thing had its cross to bear.” This is what Barbara Boswell’s protagonist, Grace, lives with, and accepts, from an early age. It is the knowledge that life is difficult and therefore every single being has to bear something as long as they are a part of it. The perilous aspect of this is that one bears what one cannot anticipate and it is here that Boswell’s remarkable debut novel, Grace, shows how vulnerable human life is.

The first part the novel is set in the 1980s, a tumultuous time in South African history, in the Cape Flats. Grace is a teenager who has little interest in the political matters of her day. Even though other young people, including Johnny, her first love, are engaged in the struggle, she has been taught by her parents to respect authority and to therefore not participate in actions that challenge its power. This approach to political issues is, as the reader slowly learns, also tied to how she responds to events that take place in her own home. Grace’s father, Patrick, is an abusive alcoholic who does not tolerate dissenting views from his wife, Mary, or Grace. When the novel begins, Mary has made a decision to divorce him and it is this act that informs how the plot evolves. The narrative moves between their present lives and their past and in this way allows the reader to see the devastating impact that Patrick has had on them.

Boswell’s stunning novel is about the consequences of living in a world where power is distributed in a hierarchical manner and the dehumanising effects this has. Grace admires her mother’s beauty and often compares herself to her. What she sees, however, when she looks at herself is “a pleasant round face, nut-brown skin and adequately pretty eyes”.

There is, though, a contradiction between this figure that she admires and the abuse Mary has to endure from Grace’s father. In one moving scene, after another night of beating, Grace accompanies her disgraced mother to a cosmetic store where she is going to buy make-up in order to cover her injuries. Observing her mother, Grace is distressed at her mother’s “cowering” attitude towards the store’s white assistant when she is refused to test the make-up and instead told that as a coloured woman, she has to buy the product as testing is only reserved for white women.  It is no surprise then that “Grace wished her father would just die.”

When we meet Grace in the second part of the novel, in 1997, she seems to have a stable family; she has had the advantage of going to university and lives a lifestyle that makes her a part of the new black middle class. She is married and has a child with David, a man that she met at university and who gives her care and attention in a way that is vastly different to the relationship that she witnessed between her parents. She seems to be happy until her past returns to haunt her when her first lover, Johnny, who had mysteriously disappeared in the ’80s, returns and demands that they continue where they left off.

One of the questions that the novel asks is whether societies that have experienced trauma survive or will a traumatic history recreate itself in the new. The last paragraph of this novel attempts to answer this but is somewhat unconvincing. If individuals cannot anticipate what will happen to them, it seems impossible to see how one can claim to be free, as Grace does, even if they are in a process of reinventing their lives. Freedom will always depend on a constant negotiation with others, including those who might enter one’s life to question one’s assumption of freedom as Grace is consistently forced to learn. Ultimately, though, Grace is a beautifully written novel that interrogates the history of South Africa and its continued impact on personal lives with extraordinary effect.

Grace is published by Modjaji Books.

BOOK CLUB: The Power

TARAH DARGE lauds the thrilling thought experiment that is Naomi Alderman’s latest novel, The Power, winner of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.

The Power

I am reading The Power while watching the TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, and man it’s messing with my mind. Like two sides of the same coin, both are set in dystopian future and both concern womankind’s fate. But while Atwood depicts a patriarchal theocracy in which women are enslaved and subject to endless horrors, Alderman envisions the status quo reversed to a dramatic effect almost too audacious to imagine.

The ripple of change begins with teenage girls. Worldwide, they awaken to a new power that allows them to emit shocks from their fingertips that can hurt or even kill. Videos of electric outbursts flood the internet, schools are segregated to protect boys, and men are warned not to venture out alone at night. Soon it spreads, in a collective swell that involves not just girls but older women too until nearly the entire female population is zapping their way to the top. As a female reader, there is an immense but barbed sense of satisfaction. Rapists, abusers and oligarchs get their comeuppance and women previously shackled in so many varied ways are suddenly free. However, this is no utopia, but rather a study in the corruption of power, whoever happens to wield it.

The story unfolds through the lives of four main characters, representative of the religious, political, cultural and criminal impact of the growing ‘crisis’. There is Allie – the American foster kid who refashions herself into the new world faith leader ‘Mother Eve’, Roxy, the tough-as-nails daughter of an infamous London mobster who uses her immense strength to rule the drug and arms trade, Margot – the ambitious senator with eyes on an increasing larger prize and Tunde – the lone male character who documents the tide of change as it happens across the globe, posting his vlogger footage on a YouTube-esque channel while the growing vitriol from disenfranchised men rages in online forums.

The structure is set to thrill, each chapter a countdown towards the global cataclysm, while the book itself is presented as a ‘historical novel’ – written by one Neil Adam Armon thousands of years into the future. In it, he questions how women came to be the dominant sex, and, in a playful spin, writes to lauded novelist ‘Naomi Alderman’, who, in turn, rejects his notion of a patriarchal society in a brilliant suggestion that cements the inevitability of the dominance of women. ‘With babies to protect’, women have always had to be ‘aggressive and violent’. There are also jabs at the male dominated publishing industry that hit home – an extra nail surely inspired by correspondence Alderman might have actually received.

Where it falls down in places, is the dialogue. The rough speak is a little twee and excessively sweary, with the action sequences reading more like the TV adaptation it’s bound to become partially obscuring the nuanced criticism it offers. But if Sci-Fi, comic-book like battles are your bag, it’s compelling, as is the well-researched commentary on rape-culture, porn, religious extremism and mercenary armies.

Zaps, fucks, and mafia rule book lines aside, The Power is fast-paced, important thought experiment and deft at illuminating the absurdity of our gender inequality gap, bound as we are in a world where the dysfunction is all too real.

The Power is published by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

THE BOOKSELLER: Kate Rogan – Love Books

Kate Rogan

Kate Rogan is the owner of Love Books, a delightful independent bookshop in Melville, Johannesburg. Offering a wonderfully edited selection of fiction, non-fiction and children’s books, the space also frequently hosts lively launches.

The book you’re currently most excited about selling?

Impossible to answer, there is so much at this time of year. But Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad left me excited, bowled over, entertained and satisfied. The seamless integration of the slave story with the fantasy elements is remarkable and, love it or hate it, I feel confident that our customers will recognize its brilliance. Firepool by Hedley Twidle is a gem of a book. A collection of essays by a subtle, observant, self-deprecating mind that we are loving selling. And I cannot wait to start selling 100 Objects of the Boer War.

Which title gets shoplifted the most frequently?

Without a doubt, anything in the Jacana Pocket History series. We have hidden them, placed them on unreachable shelves, and still they go. So now we put dummy copies out and keep the sale copies in the office. Close second is Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. But shoplifting is not a big problem for us thankfully.

The biggest seller of the past year?

For sales outside of launches, it’s a wipe-out for Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. If we had to include launch sales, our biggest seller is Reflecting Rogue by Pumla Dineo-Gqola, by a long shot!

The most underwhelming book you’ve read in the last year?

It has to be Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life. I must have read that dreary opening scene at least ten times until I finally got beyond it. It improved a bit after that, and I know it’s full of quiet and gentle universal truths, but my imagination was just not captured by the main character or the snowy scenery.

Which book do you wish all your customers would read?

Since we have customers from the age of 0 to 99, I am going to choose RJ Pallacio’s Wonder. It’s an extraordinary book with a huge heart that somehow speaks as powerfully to me as it did to my 9-year-old daughter.

The last thing you read that made you cry?

Is this allowed in a literary magazine? Me Before You by Jojo Moyes – because it was an emotionally charged read, and I, like everyone, was rooting for love to win. It didn’t, but it also did. I also suspect I cried because Jojo Moyes is a clever writer and that’s just what she wanted me to do!

Is there a book you’d never sell? If so, what is it, and why?

Anything by Steve Hofmeyr. He’s an obnoxious racist poser and I don’t want his stuff in my shop!

What’s the most surprising thing about your bookshop?

I love to quote from Mark Forsyth’s The Unknown Unknown: Bookshops and the delight of not getting what you wanted, where he quotes Donald Rumsfeld on the necessity of book shops: “There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don’t know.”

Rumsfeld was of course warming up for war in Iraq, but what I’m trying to say is that Love Books is full of wonderful, surprising books that you never knew you wanted. You will also meet bookseller Anna Joubert in the shop, and she is a wonderful surprise! She knows what you want before you do!

The three writers you admire the most?

Ivan Vladislavić because no one captures the soul of Joburg and its unique urban landscape like he does. And he is simply one of the best writers I know.

Maggie O’Farrell because I love writing that makes the ordinary extraordinary, and she deals with domestic themes in a most extraordinary way.

Alexandra Fuller, for the way she writes about Africa, and the power of her storytelling.

The biggest challenge you face in bookselling?

Balancing cash flow and stock levels. It’s a daily dance, and some days it’s beautiful and other days we’re tripping over ourselves!

Describe your archetypal customer

Someone who’s read (and understood) The Unknown Unknown.

The best part of being a bookseller?

Buying new books – I really love seeing the reps and get terribly excited about what’s coming. Meeting the most extraordinary people (Paul Beatty, Barbara Kingsolver and Helen MacDonald come to mind). Making a difference in our local community by bringing them fantastic launches and a great space to engage with books and the mind.

And the worst part?

Admin. There’s LOTS of it.

FICTION: Smiley

BY KIMBERLY BETH WATSON

I used to visit her Facebook profile sometimes and shake my head because she’d become a statistic of small town living. You know, married at like 20. Spawned a couple kids. It was always kind of shocking, though. Like she was smart. Definitely smarter than me. She even did a semester at New Mexico State studying biology. But when I ran into her mom, Kathy (who “could have been gay”, my own mother told me), she said it had been “too far away from home”. Home, that illusive concept. Both of ours were somewhere in the litter of houses scattered on the borders of large forests, or along the winding interstate parallel to the Lamoille River. It might have even been picturesque as long as you passed through at 50 miles an hour. When it’s a blur you can’t see the addiction, the bi-weekly visits from child protective services, the well-meaning moms who chain-smoke with their minivan doors rolled up, passing out Capri-suns.

 

I remember an email she wrote to the Hotmail address my mother made for me in our early high school days when we were still kind of in touch. She was writing to say she had “done everything except for vaginal sex” with the older brother of our mutual friend Alicia. Her parents had found out and she was definitely going to get in trouble. The frustration of conservative parents trying to control a girl who has discovered herself was beyond the boundaries of my imagination.  She had been top of her class in bible study. She did that shit out of school, like, on her own free time, voluntarily. Yet she was always kind of wild, in that backwoods eclectic podunk way that lets you have god but also tie-dye everything and country music.

But yeah, that guy wasn’t the best dude. Once when the bus dropped me off he yelled, “Don’t you live with a bunch of fags?” and I went home and asked what “fags” was. In retrospect, his family had all kinds of their own problems. Alicia told me her step-dad used to, you know, to her and her little sister. She told her mom Helen but the woman stayed with him. I know he’s still on the sex offender registry because I’ve looked. I hear Helen drives the school bus now.

 

There were weird shows her parents wouldn’t let her watch, like CatDog on Nickelodeon. In retrospect I guess it is perverted that an animal has two heads and no ass. When I was 9 her 10-year-old brother asked me out while we were sitting on the couch but when I told her she was grossed out and I broke up with him 5 minutes later. In between her bible study wins and obscure trips, like the time she went to Australia, at least three boys in our school fell in love with her. I remember one of them was literally obsessed with her in the fourth grade. It was even cooler because he was in grade five. That was the year our teacher let us assign our own nicknames he promised to use all year.

“Smiley”, she said.

 

I guess wanting more for someone is kind of selfish. Like having the audacity to “see more” for someone demeans their personal life agenda of important and fulfilling things.

But on the other hand, your life does kind of end when you have a kid young in a small town and also lack higher education, right?

I mean, she works at the village pizza place now. Okay, it’s the co-op local organic Vermont version of pizza, but it’s still in a village.

She’s probably happier than I am. Actually, I can say that for sure. In an organic way, not like in the way that people crop and edit their pictures because she’s not on Facebook that often and doesn’t even care that she has a double chin in her profile picture because she’s just happily laughing with her son. Plus, she’s definitely learned all those things you presumably learn when you become a mother: the innate selflessness, the radiating beauty of creation, the self-sacrifice.

So I guess that’s happiness.

I always felt bad for mauling her with attention when she schlepped all the way to visit me in the city. I was 11 and lonely and didn’t know why my own uprooting happened. But also thank god it did.

Anyway babies are gross or barely tolerable.  We’re not friends on Facebook.