Heaven sent

BY SAMANTHA GIBB

Constance West is dead. However, this does not stop her from returning to her hometown of Scheepersdorp and surveying all she left behind; her family, neighbours and friends, as well as her garden.  Connie has unfinished business, and only 12 hours to attend to it.

During her life, Connie communicated through plants. Her love of horticulture and animals saw her through tough times, and was also a method of demonstrating joy and adoration. Her prize plot of land has become unattended; this, she learns, is a symptom of greater changes since her passing.

Connie returns to a time of great change in South Africa. Scheepersdorp now bears witness to its first black mayor, despite the persistent undercurrent of tension among middle-class white neighbours. However, within this environment, happiness appears to flourish. Connie’s sister, Sylvia, seems content, and her young daughter Marianne is growing up. The only visible shadows seem to lurk around those with whom she shares secrets, and it is here that she must shed light and banish her demons. Against the backdrop of her beloved Yellowwood tree and the Kanonkop she loved to hike, Connie slowly reveals her past, and the various decisions and actions which led to her current predicament.

Rycroft deserves the highest praise; she has penned a truly mesmerising book which any reader will be driven to consume in a single sitting. A Slim Green Silence should come with a warning label. The story is so immersive that there truly is a risk of the reader neglecting their own lives as they follow Connie and uncover her secrets. The narrative is poetic and captivating, painting a rich picture demonstrating immense depth. The story itself is so beautifully crafted, slowly growing and blossoming, revealing itself carefully yet deliberately. Sensitive topics such as race and disease are handled with grace, and the sheer depth and scale of emotions is hypnotising. This is a story which elegantly weaves together comedy, tragedy and poetry. For the sake of South African literature, Beverly Rycroft should immediately commence another book; she is a literary hero we crave, a true master in the making.

A Slim Green Silence is published by Umuzi.

The talented mister mystery

BY GARETH LANGDON

People hide their scaredness, I don’t know why, but we all do. Maybe because we see people being brave in movies and stuff and we want to kind of be like them.

The decision to write anonymously is sometimes met with scorn. Critics snort and say “what are you hiding from? If you really believe what you’re saying, why not say it as yourself?” I had never read an anonymously authored novel before One Man, but I have more respect for the author now, and I fully understand the decision. There is power in anonymity.

One Man traces the events over a short period – probably about a week – in the lives of six protagonists. Characters get their own chapters. The overleaf tells us that Gwaza, an escaped convict on a revenge quest, is our lead. His chapters are written in a mix of poor English and Zulu, with some jail slang thrown in. The novel opens with Gwaza violently removing the tongue of an enemy in jail, and feeding it back to him. Not kid’s stuff, by any means. Gwaza is in hot pursuit of the lawyer who put him away, herself facing the realities of the South African legal system as she watches criminal after criminal escape conviction for violent crimes. Her young daughter Kiki also features, her chapters expertly rendered in a childlike prose that betray a much more nuanced understanding of the world around her. She is smart, but she is also spoilt. The youngster is being cared for by Mira, a twenty-something Afrikaans white woman who struggles with her career prospects after being denied a place in medical school due to affirmative action policies. Mira’s father, Mr Du Toit, features too, a chain smoking, heavy drinking oom who tries to sabotage his business before it is taken over by a young black entrepreneur with “the right connections”. The cast of six is completed by Joseph, the Du Toit’s gardener, who is actually a fully qualified doctor himself, forced to leave his home of Zimbabwe due to the lack of work.

By the character list alone, you can begin to see what this novel is doing. Between the disgruntled white tween, the angry Afrikaans man, the convict, the immigrant and the spoiled young future leader, the diverse tapestry of South African stereotype is more than well-catered for. But while a knee-jerk response may be to discount this novel as another feeble attempt at exposing stereotypes – stereotypes we all know are wrong and grow tired of – such a reaction would be misguided.

The novel is adeptly written. Without context, I cannot congratulate the author for an amazing debut in terms of literary nous. Nor can I congratulate him or her on an artful rendering of each individual voice, since it could be that this single anonymous author is a group of people familiar with these character tropes and properly equipped to write them. The anonymity has a peculiar effect then – it forced me to read the novel as novel only. As words on a page weaved together to tell a story. The “author” is well and truly silent here, and all that we are left with is the character’s voices, entities unto themselves.

The experience of reading One Man was peculiar, but revelatory. Existing outside of context and with authorial intent inscrutable, the novel excels as both exposé of South African society and as a call to readers to work harder to change what we see as wrong. One Man reflects the sometimes exhausting tragi-comedy that is the state of our nation through its nature as an artefact untethered from the political, racial or ideological assumptions we might make if we knew of the author’s identity. It tells it like it is, and also how it could be. One Man challenges the preconceptions of what a South African novel should be, and what South Africa as a nation and young democracy looks like and could be. I was deeply moved by the novel’s events but I was also frightened by the accuracy and power that it had.

I fear going into more detail may reveal the plot and the novel’s power would be shattered for you. But if you haven’t read any South African literature in a while, One Man is a great place to start.

One Man is published by Kwela Books.

A dog’s life

BY SAMANTHA GIBB

Sara Baume’s Spill Simmer Falter Wither is a frighteningly foreign love story; it is a tale of adoration which illustrates faith in the possibility of hope in a murky world. Browsing the window of a jumble shop, between broken instruments and dusty knickknacks, a lonely man stumbles upon an advertisement for a dog seeking a home from the local shelter. He decides to adopt the dog. As fate would have it, were it not for this adoption, the dog in question would have been put to sleep due to his difficult nature. Pitted with battle scars and missing an eye, the man names the dog One Eye.

Despite One Eye’s change in fortune, his past is riddled with abuse and aggression, a shadow he struggles to shake in his new environment. Similarly, his owner was subjected to abuse and mistreatment in his own past. Never leaving the house for school or social calls, the young man grew to be an old man plagued by anxiety and awkwardness, a hermit viewing life from the safety of his windows and, by his own admission, never being the type of person to do things.

The relationship between man and dog is complex and fragile, as each slowly deciphers the nuances of the other. A deep connection, perhaps melded by their common dark pasts, is forged between the two, and soon it is impossible for the owner to imagine his life before its newest addition. The keen sense of loss which follows both characters is lessened somewhat when they pool their grief, accept the other’s flaws and learn to trust and love anew.

In time One Eye, always led by his instinct and slave to his fury, is involved in an unfortunate incident with another dog and a child. When the authorities request that the dog be taken into their custody until an outcome is reached, his owner reacts on impulse and, for the first time, acts. His action, as instinctive and animalistic as that of his dog, is to flee. Thus commences an epic journey, in which it is man and dog – family – against the world.

Spill Simmer Falter Wither is narrated in an unusual style; detached and yet incredibly detailed. An intricate narration in which a man’s small world is revealed through closeted eyes to one who has never seen it before – One Eye, with his visual limitations, sees the world anew, as every detail from the mundane to the exciting is retold in a distinctly poetic manner.

Baume presents more than a story; hers is a painstakingly crafted experience which transforms the reader – no longer human; we are taught to see as the distinctly unhuman One Eye. It is for the reader that the narrator describes his world – our world –in order for us to see afresh. Through this technique, the ordinary becomes extraordinary, and Baume creates a sensory journey for the reader.

The unusual freshness of the narrative is interspersed with a creeping sadness, in which the weight of the narrator’s gloom can almost be tasted, falling like dust from every page. Spill Simmer Falter Wither is quietly filled with a sense of nostalgia and the importance of remembrance, as past experiences are measured by their impact on current circumstances. While the owner describes his present and reveals his gloomy past, his narrative leaves the reader raw and exposed, through the burning connections made to the insecurities and inadequacies he unleashes, binding the reader to this damaged man. The narrator voices the unvoiceable, laying bare his past and present as a parting gift heavy with regret.

Baume is a remarkable writer. To say the book is beautiful is not enough; it is revelatory. Spill Simmer Falter Wither leaves the reader emotionally shaken, purely because the story is so crushingly beautiful. It accuses the reader of taking things for granted, of not always seeking the beauty in the ordinary. The ending is bittersweet, and I daresay it is impossible to read this book and remain unchanged.

Spill Simmer Falter Wither is published by Windmill.

A quiet descent

BY GARETH LANGDON

The Road of Excess is the English translation of Die Benederyk, the 2011 M-Net Prize-winning novel by Ingrid Winterbach. It takes its name from William Blake’s Proverbs of Hell: “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom” is quoted as an epigraph to the work. The novel reveals itself to be a close examination of the truth of this claim.

Aaron, protagonist and narrator, is an artist living out his twilight years in a quiet Durban suburb, occasionally making art, but mostly sleeping late and worrying about his future. He has suffered through his own severe illness and his wife’s passing and now faces the beginning of the end of his career. His brother, Stefaans, is a recovering drug addict, alcoholic and energetic writer who returns to Aaron seeking redemption after disappearing for a number of years around the time of their mother’s death. Through the brothers’ eyes we learn about their family, their world and how they deal with life and the road of excess. Plot details are sparse in the novel. Instead, emphasis is placed on the characters’ minds and emotions and their respective failures and struggles.

By drawing the focus away from plot details, Winterbach is left with space for a detailed examination of emotional experience. Using lengthy, often complex and even poetic passages of conversation and inner monologue, Stefaans and Aaron examine themselves – they contemplate their own reactions, experiences and thoughts with a view to their family history and the people who surround them. They both find further expression in their respective arts – for Stefaans, it is writing (and most interestingly, the short form “art” of the SMS, which he sends in abundance to his brother) and for Aaron, it is painting.

Aaron’s paintings are often vivid depictions of his personal turmoil and they lend a powerful visual element to the character and the novel as a whole. Stefaans’s SMS bursts have a similar effect, miming his own energetic bursts of creativity – a cavalcade of now incoherent, now poetic, now brilliant thought processes distilled into a few characters.

Secondary characters aid the plot, but are a minimal feature, care being taken to not distract our focus from Aaron or Stefaans. Characters like Bubbles, for example, Aaron’s implacable and eccentric neighbour of indeterminate career, add spice to the novel. She makes the reader laugh, makes Aaron think and is the catalyst for some of the darker events the book. On the other hand, the terminal illness of eddie Knuvelder, Aaron’s agent, hangs over Aaron, a spectral reminder of his own mortality and suffering. These characters do very little for the bit of plot there is, though, and one feels they are there only for Aaron to think about rather than interact with.

As Aaron and Stefaans contemplate the consequences of their own roads of excess – an excess of misery and an excess of drugs, respectively – the words of Blake reverberate in the mind of the reader in the form of a question: Where is their palace of wisdom? Winterbach weaves this question artfully through the novel, and the translation maintains a level of prose and tone which compliments the complexity of the subject. An exciting read from one of South Africa’s greats, this is a contemplative and stimulating read.

The Road of Excess is published by Human & Rousseau.