REVIEW: Asylum

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


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.

EXTRACT: The God Who Made Mistakes

SPONSORED: An extract from the first chapter of the new novel by Ekow Duker.Ekow Duker

It began raining the day the dogs found Sipho Sibanda. A soft, gentle patter that fell like a benediction from the hands of a loving and indulgent god. Two dogs, both of indeterminate colour and breed, approached the man lying in the bushes. With exaggerated care, they placed one muddy paw gingerly in front of the other, then stopped abruptly, taut limbed and stiff tailed, their bodies poised for flight.

The reeds sighed and parted as the dogs drew closer, sprinkling their backs with drops of water. The dogs sniffed at the man’s bare feet and nudged his cracked heels before edging their way up his legs. One of them, the male and the larger of the two, lingered over the remnants of dried blood and excrement that caked his buttocks, its nose twitching in a frenzied dialogue that only dogs understand. Then, with an almost human reverence, it began to lick at the patch of dry white residue splattered across the back of the man’s thighs. There would be no abuse or rocks hurled at them. Sipho Sibanda was dead.

Madala found Sipho Sibanda the next day and by then the river was in flood. Thin veins of white foam criss-crossed the dark muscular torrent as the river swept past, moaning like a madman to break free of its banks. It was like a giant pinned down on an operating table, its skin flayed back without anaesthetic. The carcass of a large animal flashed by, its legs stiff and pointing crookedly to heaven. A withered tree branch, a jagged piece of styrofoam, a woman’s shoe, alone and without its partner. Sodden spoils of life, soon to be deposited at the feet of a capricious and vengeful god.

Despite his limp, Madala was surprisingly nimble. He slid down the river bank with his knees bent and his arms outstretched like a surfer. He was wearing black gumboots, the only thing of value he had left from the mines. He’d sewn his olive-green tarpaulin himself and it flared outwards from his shoulders like a cape. He came to this spot on the river at the same time every year. Five thirty in the evening on the eleventh of February and it was the eleventh of February today.

Last year he’d lost his footing and been dragged a hundred metres downstream by the current. He’d never had a chance to place the flowers properly or even say a prayer. The year before that, his flowers had clung stubbornly to the far bank of the river, infuriatingly out of reach and wedged among the driftwood and plastic shopping bags, like another piece of rubbish. Each year the river conspired to mock him and each year he wondered why he came at all.

With a loud sigh, Madala rummaged inside the folds of his tarpaulin and took out a bunch of small white flowers. Seventy-five rand from the BP filling station, an extravagance for most people in Alex and especially so for him. He held the flowers to his nose, squeezed his eyes shut and took a deep breath. In the past, all it took was one smell of the flowers to conjure up a richly textured image of her face. Now his memory had faded so far into the distance, her face had become no more than an indistinct blur of shapes and sounds he barely recognised as belonging to a woman. His woman.

Madala inhaled again, more sharply this time and with greater urgency. But it was no use. He shook his head in annoyance and scowled at the flowers. He might as well have bought plastic.

Suddenly, a putrid smell wafted around him and Madala’s nostrils crinkled in distaste. He raised his head and sniffed the moist air, seeking out the source of the odour. Madala had smelled death too often not to recognise the sickly foulness that accompanied it. He stepped forward, brushing the reeds aside like they were curtains. The smell was more pungent now and yet he almost stumbled over the body. It was a man’s body. He was tall, lean and slightly muscled. He was lying face down as if there was something particularly interesting hidden there in the mud. His trousers were bunched around his ankles and his shirt was nowhere to be seen. He had bite marks on his thighs, stray dogs no doubt, and one buttock was already half eaten away. Madala swore out loud and crossed himself repeatedly, his profanity growing more pronounced with each circuit.

‘Fock! Fock! Fock!’

Madala clambered back up to the road and pondered what to do. It couldn’t be him, he’d been very careful. His instincts told him to leave the body there to rot. It was safer that way. But he knew his conscience would nag him and he didn’t have the energy for any more turmoil inside his head.

He trudged all the way to the Alexandra police station and stood hesitantly in the entrance. Except for the two framed photographs of the president and the minister of police above the counter, there was no one in sight. Water dripped off his clothes and formed a puddle around his feet.


Madala looked around him, wondering who had spoken and if indeed they were swearing at him.

‘Voetsek!’ the voice cried again.

He hadn’t seen the policeman. Like a dark, brooding cloud, he rose up from behind the counter and wagged a finger at Madala.

‘Don’t I know you?’ the policeman asked. He wasn’t expecting an answer and Madala knew better than to provide one. ‘You’re Madala, the crazy man who talks to the river.’

Madala stepped forward as if the policeman’s description of him was an acceptable substitute for his name.

‘I found somebody,’ he said softly. The words were lumpy and misshapen in his throat and he swallowed several times to ease their passage.

‘I told you to fuck off,’ the policeman said again. He really wasn’t interested in what Madala had to say. He stood up from his stool, all six feet of him, and pointed at Madala again. ‘You’d better get out before I charge you.’ He glanced pointedly at the handcuffs on his khaki-clad thigh and then at Madala’s muddy footprints leading from the entrance.

‘Charge me with what?’

The policeman’s eyes flew open at Madala’s apparent truculence. ‘What did you say?’ he asked. He leaned over the counter to make sure he didn’t miss a word.

‘I said I found somebody.’

Madala could tell that for all his bluster, the policeman was afraid of him. They called him Madala because ever since the accident at the mine, he dragged one foot behind him like an old man. No one even remembered his name was Jacob. It was as if the name Jacob Zwane had been erased from the public conscience the moment he’d been discharged from hospital and Madala written in its place. That made him sad.

He shouldn’t have come. He should have gone home and sat behind the small wooden table from which he sold cigarettes by the stick and sweets that cut your tongue and made it bleed. Suddenly, he longed for the wooden stool with twin indentations that cupped his arse as snugly as his woman used to do. He’d promised to look after her brother, promised that he’d take him in if anything happened to her. Well, he had, in a manner of speaking. She’d have been pleased about that – or would she? Madala wasn’t sure.

Next year he’d be back by the river, his memory more wayward than ever and with another bunch of flowers clutched in his hands. One day he’d forget the exact date the river took her. He wondered which would go first, the time of day it had happened or the date. It wouldn’t help to write it down. He was already having trouble calculating the right change for his customers. Nowadays, numbers refused to stand still and be counted. They hid behind each other and ran around in his mind like chickens. Worse still, he might forget the way to the river and have to depend on her brother to take him there. It was all very tiring. All Madala wanted to do was go home.

He was almost at the exit when a small, energetic woman barged through the aluminium doors. She swept past Madala as if he wasn’t there and hoisted herself up on her toes for she was rather short.

‘My son is missing,’ she declared in a voice made for a much larger woman. She had an air of authority about her, like a mother in a well-run household where the children were in school and the bills were paid on time.

The God Who Made Mistakes‘Sergeant Ncube,’ the policeman said introducing himself. ‘What is your son’s name?’ He asked this with a grin as if he might know the woman’s son. Then he pushed his notepad to one side and filled the space with his gut. He looked more inclined to converse with the woman than to write anything down.

‘Sipho. Sipho Sibanda,’ the woman said.

Sergeant Ncube frowned and the woman’s lips turned down in concert with his.

‘Sipho Sibanda,’ Sergeant Ncube repeated with a puzzled look. He was about to say something when he noticed Madala standing by the door.

‘What are you still doing here?’ he shouted. He had an audience now and his voice was much louder than necessary.

‘Her son. He is by the river,’ Madala said. He didn’t know how he knew, he just did.

‘Don’t pay any attention to that fool,’ Sergeant Ncube insisted. He took a pen out of his pocket and tapped it impatiently on his notebook. ‘Now, when did Sipho go missing?’

But Mrs Sibanda wasn’t listening to him. She’d turned to Madala with both hands clasped to her chest as if to stop her heart from tumbling out onto the floor.

‘Do you know my son?’ she asked. She tried to control the quiver in her voice by speaking through tightly puckered lips.

‘He is by the river,’ Madala said again. ‘I saw him.’

He felt surprisingly clear headed, more lucid than he had in a long time. He could see his woman now. She was right there in front of him, gazing at him with the same lopsided smile she’d had on her face before the river stretched out its hand and took her.

Sergeant Ncube threw his hands in the air in a gesture of disgust. ‘For God’s sake, look at him! Can’t you see he’s mad?’

‘He knows where my son is,’ Mrs Sibanda retorted. The assurance had returned to her voice and Sergeant Ncube wilted under her glare.

‘The patrol cars are all busy,’ he muttered, implying that the station had several patrol cars when in fact there was only one. His notebook suddenly became of great interest to him and he began to turn the pages briskly. Flap. Flap. Flap. They sounded like the wings of a large bird as it streaks away into the sky.

‘I have a car outside,’ Mrs Sibanda countered.

‘I’m the only one on duty,’ Sergeant Ncube said. ‘It is forbidden to leave my post.’

Mrs Sibanda raised an eyebrow at the absurdity of what the policeman had just said. She was one of those women who spoke as much with her body as with her lips.

‘You don’t even know if it is your son,’ Sergeant Ncube said. He had written ‘SIPHO SIBANDA’ across the page and he tapped at the letters again as if imploring them to speak.

‘I know it is him,’ Madala said quietly. He had joined Mrs Sibanda at the wooden counter.

‘All right,’ Sergeant Ncube said at last. ‘Let’s go. But if it’s not Sipho Sibanda, if it’s not your son …’ He lifted the flap in the counter and strode through, letting it drop behind him with a loud bang.


Sergeant Ncube whirled on Madala for it was he who had spoken. ‘What is it now?’

‘You will need an ambulance,’ Madala said and on hearing this

Mrs Sibanda lost all strength in her limbs and fell to the floor in a crumpled heap.

The God Who Made Mistakes is published by Picador Africa. Read our interview with Ekow Duker on his writing life here.

10 QUESTIONS: Paul McNally

Paul McNally


Paul McNally is a journalist living in Johannesburg covering criminal justice, health and science. A 2016 Knight Visiting Nieman Fellow at Harvard, he’s also the founder of The Citizen Justice Network, which develops journalism in under-reported areas in indigenous languages. The Street – which zeroes in on the crime and punishment unfolding in Ontdekkers Road, Johannesburg – is his first book.

What inspired you to write The Street?

The moment when I realised that what was happening in Johannesburg (and possibly the rest of the country) should be a book rather than an article (as was originally intended) was when I saw that the bribes happening between the police and the drug dealers was for small amounts. These weren’t occasional and large amounts of money, but rather constant and small – just enough for a police officer to buy lunch, or a few groceries to take home. That is when I realised that the problem was systemic and was really the fuel for a much larger ecosystem that involved the police, the drug dealers and the South African public.

You demonstrate through your writing what appears to be a close personal bond with Raymond (a shop-owner), Khaba (a middle-aged police officer) and Wendy (ageing police reservist). Did this make it difficult to maintain objectivity when conducting research?

Absolutely. You are committed to being as objective as possible, but you find yourself spending a great deal of time with people that you are committed to figuring out. And the strategy I took was to be upfront with what I was feeling about the different people I was interviewing. The book developed into a journalist’s journey into this world of drugs and corrupt cops and then when they are brought into that story the reader can make a judgement call as to how good a job the journalist is doing, but the honestly is key.The Street

The Street is non-fiction, but it uses narrative techniques usually found in novels, such as a careful focus on character, place and emotion. What was the motivation for this?

The way we engage with narrative is we have a character that we empathise with and then we see how they endure challenges and change. That’s the type of story that is exciting to read. This trajectory happens in real life all the time. You don’t need to contrive this to happen. You just need to wait and wait and eventually you’ll see.

What were you reading as you prepared for and wrote the book?

I read a few books from the amazing Jonny Steinberg (Midlands, A Man of Good Hope). Also, I am a big fan of trying to read things that are out of your usual comfort sphere while you are writing so you don’t get too locked on to a specific style – this can be copies of You magazine or forcing yourself through a Dan Brown paperback, just to hear different voices.

What’s the thing that surprised you the most while you were researching the book?

I think how people could be brave and optimistic in the face of incredible adversity.

What would you like South African readers to take as a key lesson in the book?

During writing the book I developed a strong sympathy for the police. And though the book’s premise is about the police being involved in taking bribes from drug dealers there are dimensions to how the police live and what they are forced to endure that truly shocked me. I don’t want to preach to readers, but I hope that they feel from reading The Street that they are given moments of insight into the police that they didn’t have before. It feels like these huge structural problems of our country need to be crowd-sourced – we all need to be thinking about what could be shifted to make our lives better.

Do you think vigilante justice (like that of Raymond) is a valid way of combating crime?

Well, I don’t think he’s a vigilante. I think he is someone who reached out repeatedly and his cries went largely ignored. The decisions he makes in the book and his actions feel like they come from a host of places. There is a difference when someone is being violent with a sense of self- righteousness (I think Raymond is aware of how peculiar his actions are). I think some pockets of community policing (which I visit in the book) have this vigilante problem of believing they are doing the law’s work when they are putting drug dealers in the boots of cars and driving them around (a lot of community policing people and neighbourhood watch folk were incredibly friendly and scornful of this activity).

How can the South African police force conquer corruption within its own ranks?

What I discovered is that conquering corruption isn’t about raising wages. You can’t fight corruption, you need to neutralise it by building up morale from within. There needs to be a sense of accountability brought into the police from station level all the way to the top (and ideally up to the president).

How did you adjust from your work as a journalist focusing on shorter pieces, to writing your first book, and what were the contrasts and similarities between each process?

I spent the last year or so developing a citizen journalism organisation called Citizen Justice Network. We train paralegals in areas around South Africa to be radio journalists. So my job became largely managing people and budget reports and figuring out how to manage work flow. So writing the book became a good contrast to this type of work.

In a country where newsrooms are facing enormous financial and staffing constraints, what are the ways in which considered, long-form reportage can be kept alive?

People have to buy the books. That’s the long and short of it. But I think because it’s a time and place when long-form is struggling in the newsroom that should mean narrative non-fiction books have become relatively unique. I don’t think people have lost their attention span, but they just need to have what they are reading framed properly. It is an exciting time that you can access all the books that have ever been written by using a kindle and still people are drawn to the new as long as it is relevant and interesting for them.

The Street is published by Picador Africa.

Into the gloom


Past and present collide with iridescent effect on a misty evening in The Dream House, the new novel by Craig Higginson. As it observes the intersections between its small cast of deeply-etched characters, the novel tears open a set of truths far broader in scope than the claustrophobic confines of its Natal Midlands farm setting. Here is the complexity of contemporary South Africa — in all its anger and unease.

Inhabiting the book’s core is Patricia, who is halfheartedly packing up for the move to Durban the next morning: after decades of country life, it is time to downsize. She’s elderly but razor-sharp, assisted with quiet strength and grace by her domestic helper, Beauty, and her driver, Bheki. Outside, her senile husband roams, lost, confused by the new buildings that mysteriously now dot the farm.

And then – a visitor, from Patricia’s past (actually, from all of their pasts) arrives – not expected, and not quite welcome. The encounter sparks a remarkable meditation on forgiveness and forgetting, and on memory – both its inadequacies and its haunting power.

It’s a pleasure to read a novel this good: meticulously crafted sentences, vivid yet restrained — not a superfluous word in sight — depicting characters that are fleshy and flawed and fully realised.

Unsentimental but never cold, and capable of aching poignancy, The Dream House has one eyebrow arched wryly at the drama unfolding on its pages. That Higginson has achieved great acclaim as a playwright is hardly surprising. Not only does he have an acute ear, able to craft dialogue that rings true — but the book is also constructed rather like a play. The farmhouse is a set, and in the hours that span the novel’s length, the action never shifts far from it, with characters winding onto and off the pages like actors gracing a stage.

The politically correct thought police may well be outraged that a middle class white male has dared to imagine the internal landscape of two black servants. I think it should be applauded. Why? Because imagination is a powerful bridge, helping us connect to lives that aren’t are own.

It’s unfashionable, admittedly, to believe this, but I think everyone – black, white; male, female; straight, gay – should endeavour to write outside themselves, because doing so is a means of striving towards understanding. Even if full understanding won’t ever be reached, surely partial understanding is better than none whatsoever? It’s certainly better than indifference.

Literature enables both the writer and the reader to inhabit other worlds, other lives; to think, to question, to look beyond. It pulls head out of sand. It makes us care. It reminds us that there are other views, other perspectives, other experiences — that between black and white there are many different shades of grey.

In The Dream House’s dusky murk, that is what Higginson achieves: not strident answers or misguided moralising, but rather a finely nuanced and restless questing that reverberates far beyond the final page.

The Dream House is published by Picador Africa.