REVIEW: Asylum

GARETH LANGDON reviews Marcus Low’s quietly devastating debut novel.

Asylum

Post apocalyptic motifs are overdone. Between The Walking Dead and The Hunger Games, contemporary media seems to scream the need for us all to be prepared for the worst – for the coming of the end. Whether or not this is a universal set of fears, or something unique to Hollywood is not much of a question. What matters is that it is a tired trope, and that anyone hoping to tackle the genre is going to have an uphill battle.

Marcus Low makes light work of this challenge in his debut novel, Asylum. The novel follows, through a series of eloquent and detailed journal entries, the plight of James Barry. Barry has been diagnosed with a fatal lung disease – likely tuberculosis – and finds himself incarcerated in a treatment facility or modern day sanitorium, in the middle of the Karoo. His days drag on at a snail’s pace as he gazes out of the window at the dry bones of the earth, watching nothing happen, and writing regularly in his notebooks. He has made some friends though, and as inmates are want to do, they begin planning their escape. The novel traces Barry’s internal struggles as well as the planning and execution of their proposed escape. Composed of notebook fragments and interjected with editor’s notes, written from what is ostensibly the point of view of whoever discovered the notebooks, the novel has an intensely personal feel.

Asylum is at once apocalyptic rendering, and psychological exploration. Barry is a sensitive character, with a painful yet mysteriously unsubstantiated past. His voice reads as hurt rather than angry, as resigned rather than determined. The notebooks function as both a solace for him, and as a way of leaving a legacy – one which is, at times, deliberately skewed. The choice of setting in the Karroo works well for this genre as the vast expanse of the landscape, as well as its dry, dusty harshness, create an atmosphere that lends itself to a story of loneliness, longing and resignation.

The plague in Asylum is more insidious however. Rather than go the obvious route of monsters or Orwellian dictatorship, the author has chosen a silent killer – a lung disease, airborne – that slowly causes deterioration in its hosts, presenting as coughing up of blood, tiredness, and the odd hallucination. Low seems far more interested in the interior conflict of Barry however, and the lung disease serves more as a measure of time, counting down the days to his death as it progresses, and as a parallel to his mental deterioration.

Like the disease that afflicts Barry, the sense of this novel overall is also insidious. The reader has the sense all along that something is very wrong, but that what’s wrong is less important than the characters’ experience of it. What matters to Low is what is going on in their heads – the humanness of it all – which explains the use of journals as the primary medium in the novel. Cleverly, by focusing on a single point of view, Low avoids many of the traps of modern end-of-the world fiction, the distractions of monsters and dictators. Instead, we are presented with a very human experience in an inhumane world, and are made to appreciate the moments of light that make our own experience bearable, even if for Barry as for some of is, these come in the form of dreams and hallucinations rather than genuine human experience.

Rather than offering escapism, Low is brave enough to dig deeper. He explores humanity without sacrificing the enticing nature of mystery that many apocalyptic-genre novels do well. The choice of the Karroo as a setting also eases the imaginative leap that a South African reader has to make, a feeling all too close to home running throughout the narrative.

As a debut, Asylum is cleverly crafted and engaging – an encouraging sign of things to come for an exciting South African talent.

Asylum is published by Picador Africa.

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.

EXTRACT: Firepool

In this extract from his collection of personal essays, HEDLEY TWIDLE explores the haunting allure of the highway.

Hedley Twidle
Photography by Nick Mulgrew

The raised carriageways of the N1/N2 bisect and cauterize all the longitudinal avenues that once led down to the water’s edge. The Foreshore is a place where the most overbearing, least self-doubting elements of twentieth-century modernism were combined with racial capitalism; today the result is acres of wind-tormented car park. It is an example too of the necrotic or infectious quality of tarmac. Building more space for traffic simply begets more traffic: the ‘induced demand’ theory of road usage. And if you have raised carriageways for cars in the middle of a city, the only option for the space below them becomes more cars; it is too noisy to do much else, hence more car parks. At the same time, there is something intriguing about these uncertain, unincorporated zones. This is an area where city planners have not managed to solve the errors of city planners before them, where the utopian visions of modernist and ‘rational’ city planning are so entirely undercut, broken off mid-argument, like the other four bridge stubs concealed hereabouts.

Looking back at proud, colour-saturated postcards of newly built British highways from the 1950s, Moran writes about how sad and strange they now seem: ‘Ford Populars and Triumph Heralds with the shiny newness of die-cast models, dotted around those impossibly empty motorways.’ These weirdly haunting images, he goes on, are a reminder that highways ‘are beginning to acquire a cultural history, but of a rather unsettling kind that evades the secure meanings of the heritage industry or the easy consolations of nostalgia’. A highway operates too fast for contemplation and affection; you normally experience it only when moving, never from a still point. But it still carries an elusive kind of pastness.

It may no longer be celebrated, but as a physical artifact the modern highway remains powerfully photogenic: its geometrically curved masses of light and shade; the powerful splay of an overpass as it hits the top of the frame. I went around clipping bits out of this urban fabric with a phone camera while Sean looked for members of Sea Power, a community of Tanzanian migrants who watch the port, trying to stow away on container ships, and who have covered the crash barriers and concrete retaining walls with (as he put it) ‘wistful sea-drunk slogans’: SEA NEVER DRY, ESCAPE FROM CAPE, TODAY AFRICA TOMORROW YUROPE. He told me the advice given to him by one of the community’s most well-travelled stowaways: that you must take a piece of metal with you, so that when your water runs out, you can begin tapping on the side of the ship, and be discovered. If you forget the piece of metal, you will likely die in the hold.

Before meeting the stowaway community, Sean writes, he viewed the docks and ocean beyond as a kind of oil painting, a changeable canvas of light and water. But now, after years of speaking to Sea Power, he saw only ‘bent palisade struts, tunnels, portals, hatches – not flaws just in a postcard perfect view but rents in a great system of human controls. And I see the human nobodies crawling through them, or lying curled up in dark spaces.’

Firepool: Experiences in an abnormal world is published by Kwela Books. Read our review here.