Africa, Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Zimbabwe

‘This Mournable Body’ by Tsitsi Dangarembga

Fiction – paperback; Faber & Faber; 384 pages; 2020.

Shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, Tsitsi Dangarembga’s This Mournable Body is one of the most powerful pieces of fiction I’ve read in a long time.

It’s a challenging read, in all kinds of ways, not least because of the unfamiliar (to me) African setting and cultural references, the second-person point-of-view and the author’s tendency to skip over detail so that I often had to reread passages to interpret what was happening.

But its POWER comes from the way in which it made me see the world from a completely different perspective as I walked in the shoes of the main character, Tambudzai, a woman from Zimbabwe who has fallen on hard times. Tambudzai’s struggle to keep going, to get herself back on track, despite the direst of circumstances, is deeply affecting, so much so that when I finished this book it left me in a deep funk for days afterwards.

Precarious circumstances  

When the book opens Tambudzai is living in a run-down youth hostel in downtown Harare. She’s quit her successful mid-level job in an advertising agency in protest against her white colleagues taking her ideas and presenting them as their own. It’s a decision that shows Tambudzai’s strength of character, but it has terrible repercussions, for now, without a regular income, her living arrangements have become precarious.

The novel traces Tambudzai’s various attempts to improve her situation. When she gets a job as a teacher she takes a room in a widow’s house, but even then the money is tight and she must scrimp and save — and even steal edible plants from the widow’s garden to survive. Later, when she is fired from her job — not unreasonably, it has to be said — Tambudzai must pull herself up again.

A chance encounter with her former boss from the advertising agency she fled leads to a job for a travel start-up company. It’s the perfect opportunity to start afresh, to make a good impression and to advance her career.

In the beginning, she does exactly that, but Tambudzai’s success is limited by her inability to be anything other than herself, for a younger colleague with more get up and go, more energy and more willingness to manipulate things for her own ends, effectively leapfrogs Tambudzai’s standing in the company. It’s heartbreaking to see such a resilient, fiercely independent woman being overshadowed in this way.

Final part of trilogy

This Mournable Body is the final part of a trilogy — following on from Nervous Conditions and The Book of Not — but it works as a standalone. That said, I’m sure Tambudzai’s story might resonate even more if you have read the previous instalments.

Even so, it is clear from this novel alone that Tambudzai is a complicated, complex character, someone whose family expected big things of her. She’s well educated, having fled her small village to become the first in her family to get a degree, but she struggles with her mental health and has no reliable support network — no friends, no family, no colleagues — to help her.

A series of poor decisions and an inability to get herself out of a cycle of “boom” and “bust” means she never achieves the success she feels she deserves. It’s almost as though she can’t quite tap into her full potential and can’t rise above the issues — personal and otherwise — that hold her back.

When she eventually goes back to her home village to run tours for the travel company, it’s not the recipe for success for which she might have dreamed. She’s effectively selling her own people’s poverty as a tourist gimmick and the role she plays in this is just that — a role, one which she finds increasingly more difficult to play.

This novel is a searing indictment of cultural imperialism, structural racism and gender inequality in 1990s Zimbabwe. I’ve not been so incensed by the thwarted potential of a fictional character since I read Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure more than 30 years ago. Expect to see This Mournable Body in my books of the year list come December.

2020 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Africa, Author, Book review, Edna O'Brien, Faber and Faber, Fiction, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Nigeria, Publisher, Setting

‘Girl’ by Edna O’Brien

Fiction – paperback; Faber & Faber; 240 pages; 2019.

Edna O’Brien specialises in writing about ordinary people — usually women — being thrust into extraordinary, and often dangerous, situations, then examining how things play out. (See In The Forest, published in 2002, and The Little Red Chairs, published in 2015.) Her latest novel, Girl, is cut from a similar cloth.

In this short novel, which has been longlisted for the Women’s Prize and shortlisted for the 2020 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, O’Brien tells the tale of a Nigerian schoolgirl captured by the militant Islamist group Boko Haram.

I was a girl once, but not any more. I smell. Blood dried and crusted all over me, and my wrapper in shreds. My insides, a morass. Hurtled through this forest that I saw, that first awful night, when I and my friends were snatched from the school.

A frightening and often disturbing story, Girl reveals the depths of humanity’s dark heart and puts the reader in the shoes of Maryam, a teenage girl confronted by an unimaginable horror: stolen away from her family and made to live among violent, sexually depraved men with little to no hope of escape.

Of course, she does escape (otherwise there wouldn’t be much to write about) and her journey to freedom is almost as perilous and fraught as her life in captivity. Burdened with a baby and accompanied by Buki, another kidnapped teenage girl, she is forced to live by her wits, to scrounge for food in the forest and to keep her eye out for savage men in pursuit.

It is deeply telling that when she comes across a local nomadic tribe willing to provide shelter, their kind offer of help is soon withdrawn when they realise how dangerous it is to hide Maryam.

I was sitting on the bed when Madara came in. There was something wrong. […] She spoke standing and her voice was firm. ‘When the women went to the village this morning, the vendors at first refused to speak or do business with them. Word had got out that we were hiding a militant’s wife and child. Everyone down there is in terror. They know what will happen. Their gods will be confiscated, their stalls burned down and they themselves slaughtered. Then the Jihadis will come here for us, they know how to find us, they know every inch of this forest. They will destroy everything. They will take our herd. There will be nothing left of us.’
‘I will go,’ I said, half rising, wanting to thank her for the endless kindnesses, but she rebutted it.

This is an extraordinarily powerful tale, fast-moving and often confronting, but written with an exacting and sensitive eye. (O’Brien, who is in her 80s, visited Nigeria twice to research the novel and met survivors of Boko Haram’s cruel activities, so there’s a real ring of authenticity to the story.)

I liked that it didn’t get too bogged down in the machinations of the sect, but looked at the impact on one girl’s life during and after capture, shining a light on the terrible injustices and prejudices against women but also showing how a tenacious spirit can overcome the worst of what humanity throws at us.

I came away from this novel not downhearted or dispirited but feeling a sense of optimism for Maryam and the future ahead of her.

Reviewers dubbed O’Brien’s previous novel, The Little Red Chairs, her masterpiece, but I think they got it wrong. In my opinion, that accolade belongs to Girl.

Lisa Hill also liked this book.

This is my 3rd book for the 2020 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award.

Africa, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Morocco, Publisher, Scribe, Setting, Tommy Wieringa

‘The Death of Murat Idrissi’ by Tommy Wieringa

Fiction – hardcover; Scribe; 102 pages; 2019. Translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett.

This is the kind of slim book that you think won’t take very long to read, but I found Tommy Wieringa’s short, sharp novella, The Death of Murat Idrissi, so shocking in places I could only read it in intermittent bursts. I’ve been mentally processing it ever since.

It was longlisted for this year’s International Booker Prize, which is how it came to my attention, but it was this review on Dolce Bellezza that made me really want to read it. When I found it in the library I couldn’t resist borrowing it.

A fable for our times, it tells the story of two young women from the Netherlands, on holiday in Morocco, who agree — somewhat reluctantly, it has to be said — to help smuggle a young man across the border into Europe. The man’s name is Murat Idrissi and, sadly, he dies en route — hence the title of the book.

The women, abandoned by the men who set up the arrangement, have to figure out what to do with the body. They have next to no money — for food, for fuel, for overnight accommodation — and must make a perilous journey from the Spanish coast to their home in Amsterdam in their (expensive) hire car without alerting the authorities to their predicament.

A compelling read

This is a compelling read, gruesome in places, but Wieringa prevents the narrative from sliding into farce by the clever use of flashbacks, showing how the women got involved in the smuggling operation, detailing the fun aspects of their holiday beforehand and then contrasting this with Murat’s life of poverty. It’s easy to see how the guilt of a Western upbringing may have lead them to this situation.

But there’s an additional “twist” — for want of a better word — because the women, Ilham and Thouraya, are the children of African immigrants themselves and have spent their lives being regarded as Other. Visiting Morocco on holiday was supposed to be a way of discovering their roots, but they’re shocked — perhaps naively so — to find that their usual freedom as young Europeans isn’t available here. There are “rules” for women, and even if they’re European born, they still look like the locals.

This confusion over identity is a key component of the novella and Wieringa asks some important questions about what makes us who we are: is it our skin colour, our country of birth, our belief system, our education, our cultural traditions, our language, our parentage?

She stares out of the window. The trees flash by. It’s the world of her mother, a world she can’t accept. It depresses her, the quick prayers whenever death is mentioned, when there are portents. All those dos and don’ts. The countless fears her mother covers up with invocations. The things you’re not allowed to say, not allowed to think, not allowed to do. Her mother is a farmwoman — she went to the airport on the back of a donkey, as Thouraya puts it; she has a certain control over the new language. She is fairly independent, but there is no use trying to combat her primitive ideas — her reply is always that her daughter is rude, and that rude girls end up badly.

It’s written in prose that mixes long, elegant sentences with short, fragmentary ones, and the descriptions — of the landscapes, of the sights seen on the road — are vivid and beautiful:

They take the new toll road to Tangier; there’s almost no traffic. The sun comes up in a wash of peach-coloured light. They pass greenhouses and plantations, the fields full of sweet, round watermelons, ready for the harvest. The melons rest nakedly beside their furrows, like eggs the earth has pressed out.

Not much is resolved in the ending, which means I’ve been thinking about Ilham and Thouraya ever since I reached the final page. What happened to them when they got back to Amsterdam? What stories have they told themselves about this incident? How have they reconciled it in their minds? And what of Murat’s family back home in Morocco? Do they know he’s dead, or do they think he’s just been too busy to get in touch?

It would make a terrific book club read for that reason — although there’s much more to discuss than that open-ended final chapter.

As you can probably tell, I thought The Death of Murat Idrissi was a really powerful book. Free from judgement and free from sentiment, it’s about the haves and the have nots and the risks people are prepared to take to bridge the gulf between them. It will stay with me for a long time.

20 books of summer (2017), Africa, Atlantic Books, Author, Book review, Damon Galgut, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, South Africa

‘In a Strange Room’ by Damon Galgut

In a strange room by Damon Galgut

Fiction – Kindle edition; Atlantic Books; 192 pages; 2010.

In a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep. And before you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep, you are not. And when you are filled with sleep, you never were.

Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room is a lush, hypnotic novel that explores longing and desire through the prism of travel.

Divided into three seemingly unrelated parts — The Follower, The Lover and The Guardian —  it merges in the reader’s mind to form a seamless whole.

If you’ve ever gone travelling/backpacking, felt alienated or not known what you want from life, it will resonate.

Melancholy sadness

Written in straightforward prose, but with a haunting lilt to it, Galgut takes the reader on a journey that feels like a blend of autobiography (in some sections the narrative switches between first person and third person, with a meta-fictional “Damon” as the focus), reportage and literary fiction.

He beautifully captures the sense of dislocation one can experience when passing through places so that nothing feels quite real and yet everything appears strange, almost threatening, especially if you are not “a traveller by nature” and are riddled with anxiety. Yet this heightened vulnerability also gives the world “a power it doesn’t have in ordinary life”.

He’s wonderful at exposing the myth that travel is always glamorous or exciting: sometimes it’s nothing more than waiting around.

A large part of travelling consists purely in waiting, with all the attendant ennui and depression. Memories come back of other places he has waited in, departure halls of airports, bus-stations, lonely kerbsides in the heat, and in all of them there is an identical strain of melancholy summed up in a few transitory details. A paper bag blowing in the wind. The mark of a dirty shoe on a tile. The irregular sputter of a fluorescent bulb. From this particular place he will retain the vision of a cracked brick wall growing hotter and hotter in the sun.

Petty squabbles on the road

And he’s very good at examining the relationships between people on the road, whether the tensions between travelling companions or friendships forged with people you meet along the way. This element is particularly well examined in the second part of the book, when the narrator goes on an extended walking holiday with Reiner, a German he meets in section one.

There is an unspoken sexual tension between the two, but neither of them acts on it and this spills over into bickering and conflicts over simple things such as where to set up their tents and what to eat. And behind all this is a further point of strain: Reiner is financing the trip for both of them and in holding the money he also wields power over his companion:

But whenever they stop to buy something there is a silent battle about what they will choose and who will be allowed to have it. Reiner continues to buy his chocolates, for example, but if I want something there is often a dispute, hmm I don’t know about that what do we need that for. And sometimes Reiner will buy something for himself, a box of sweets or a bottle of water, and wait for his companion to ask. The asking is humiliating, which Reiner knows. Money is never just money alone, it is a symbol for other deeper things, on this trip how much you have is a sign of how loved you are, Reiner hoards the love, he dispenses it as a favour, I am endlessly gnawed by the absence of love, to be loveless is to be without power.

(Notice the switching between “he” and “I” in the paragraph above.)

A realistic portrait of travel

The book also looks at the more pragmatic problems of travel, such as border crossings, finding safe accommodation in hostile territory and what happens when you or your companion falls ill on the road. There’s also the age-old problem of whether you should bother to keep in touch with people once you part ways.

And my favourite dilemma: what to do when the travel stops? Do you put down roots, or keep hitting the road? Do you sacrifice the security of a conventional life, or take a risk and lead your life in a more adventurous way?

He goes to London, but the same restlessness comes over him there, and he goes on somewhere else. And somewhere else again. Five months later he finds himself in a strange country, at the edge of a strange town, with dusk coming down. He is watching people drifting into a funfair on the other side of an overgrown expanse of ground.

If you haven’t already guessed, I really loved this book, so much so I ordered Galgut’s entire back catalogue in the wake of it (apart from The Good Doctorwhich I read a couple of years ago). But to write about it here seems almost impossible. This isn’t a book heavy on plot or even character; it’s about feelings, moods, movements and journeys. But it’s so evocative, so fleeting and ephemeral, that it’s like trying to pin clouds to paper.

In fact, Galgut describes a journey as “a gesture inscribed in space, it vanishes even as it’s made” — but he could have well been explaining what it is like to read this book.

You go from one place to another place, and on to somewhere else again, and already behind you there is no trace that you were ever there. The roads you went down yesterday are full of different people now, none of them knows who you are. In the room you slept in last night a stranger lies in the bed. Dust covers over your footprints, the marks of your fingers are wiped off the door, from the floor and table the bits and pieces of evidence that you might have dropped are swept up and thrown away and they never come back again.

In a Strange Room was shortlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize. Pieces of it originally appeared in the Paris Review.

This is my 13th book for #20booksofsummer. This is yet another Kindle special (99p) that has been lurking on my device for several years. I bought it in December 2011, but have no memory as to what prompted me to make the purchase.

1001 books, Africa, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, literary fiction, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, Setting, Sudan, Tayeb Salih

‘Season of Migration to the North’ by Tayeb Salih

Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classic; 169 pages; 2003. Translated from the Arabic by Denys Johnson-Davies.

How people bridge two diverse cultures, the impact of colonisation on Africa by the British, and the ways in which women are treated in both the East and West, are the main subjects of this Arabic language book, which was first published in 1966 as Mawsim al-Hijra ila al-Shamal. Banned in the novelist’s native Sudan for many years, it was translated into English in 1969, named as  “the most important Arabic novel of the 20th century” by the Arab Literary Academy in 2001 and listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.

I read it as part of #DiverseDecember and found myself completely drawn into the story of a Sudanese man,  Mustafa Sa’eed, an intellectual prodigy courted by aristocrats and intellectuals alike, who loses all sense of decorum when he moves to London (after being educated in Cairo)  in the 1920s. After committing a string of appalling crimes and serving a sentence for murder, he returns to the Sudan to lead a quiet, understated life with a wife and two young sons in a remote village by the Nile, in the hope that he can start afresh where no one knows his past history.

But when a young man from the same village returns home after many years living in London and befriends him, Mustafa can’t help but tell him about his exploits in the West. What follows is a no-holds barred confession about a life of sexual decadence, a tale which is, by turns, compelling, shocking — and powerful.

An arrogant man’s tale

The story is narrated by the young unnamed man who befriends Mustafa, but large chunks of it are told in Mustafa’s arrogant and conceited voice. Occasionally we meet other characters — many of whom are distinctive, if slightly two-dimensional — such as Wad Rayyes, the old man with a huge sexual appetite, and Bint Majzoub, an old uninhibited woman who smokes, drinks and swears “like a man”.

The prose style is crisp, clear, concise, but there’s a poetical beauty to it, too. The author is particularly good at scene setting, so you feel very much as if you are there, living in the village on the banks of the Nile:

I wandered off into the narrow winding lanes of the village, my face touched by the cold night breezes that blow in heavy with dew from the north, heavy too with the scent of acacia blossom and animal dung, the scent of earth that has just been irrigated after the thirst of days, and the scent of half-ripe corn cobs and the aroma of lemon trees. The village was as usual silent at that hour of the night except for the puttering of the water pump on the bank, the occasional barking of a dog, and the crowing of a lone cock who presently sensed the arrival of dawn and the answering crow of another.

Compelling read

Season of Migration to the North is one of those rare books that is quick and easy to read but is so ripe with meaning and metaphor that I could never possibly unpick it without reading it several times over. Indeed, I raced through it in a matter of hours, so I am positive much of the subtle nuances about colonisation and the differences between Arab-African and European cultures went over my head. That said, some elements did feel dated: an Arab man wreaking his vengeance on the West by simply sleeping with promiscuous women, for instance, appears relatively tame by today’s standards.

But what did jump out at me was the sexual violence that characterises women’s lives, whether living in the West in the 1920s, or the East in the 1960s, and which runs like a menacing undercurrent through the entire narrative. (Mind you, the line between sexual violence and eroticism does feel blurred in places, and the book, unsurprisingly, has been condemned in the past for being pornographic.)

In fact, the book has a menacing tone throughout, the kind of tone that gets under the skin and leaves the reader feeling slightly uncomfortable, as though you’ve been given a seat at a dining table with the devil. This all-pervasive feeling comes to a head at the climax of the novel, which is rather gruesome and bloody but entirely memorable. This is not a fun read, but an important and powerful one.

Africa, Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Deon Meyer, Fiction, Hodder, Publisher, Setting, South Africa

‘Blood Safari’ by Deon Meyer

Blood-safari

Fiction – Kindle edition; Hodder & Stoughton; 384 pages; 2009. Translated from the Afrikaans by K. L. Seegers.

I seem to have been going through an (unplanned) mini South African fiction phase lately — I recently read and reviewed both Doris Lessing’s The Grass is Singing and Damon Galmut’s The Good Doctor — so when I was casting about for something easy to read when on holiday in Australia earlier this month, Deon Meyer’s Blood Safari was a good fit.

In many ways Blood Safari, the author’s fifth book, is an unconventional thriller — the protagonist, Lemmer,  is a bodyguard with a shady past, rather than a policeman or a journalist, for instance — and it’s imbued with a real sense of what it is like to live in modern South Africa, where the past and the present have an uneasy relationship, and where black and white tensions still remain despite the birth of a new nation.

But it also features some typical (or should I say lazy?) clichés: there’s a budding romance between Lemmer and his client, a beautiful young businesswoman, and there’s plenty of gun action, car chases and the like. But, to be honest, those things don’t really matter when you’re in the throes of a master storyteller — and Meyer is, indeed, one of those.

Mistaken identity?

The story, which is a heady mix of politics, environmental activism, corruption and greed, centres on a rich young woman, Emma Le Roux, who believes she has seen her long-dead brother on TV, the prime suspect in a murder case in which four poachers were killed. However, the suspect and her brother have different names, so is Emma merely mistaken or has her sibling been “reborn” under a new identity?

Not long after she contacts the police to tell them of her suspicions, her house is burgled and it seems Emma’s life may be in danger. She hires Lemmer as her bodyguard and then begins her own investigation into her brother’s disappearance, but her probing questions ruffle feathers and she’s thwarted at almost every turn.  When she is put out of action by a serious accident, Lemmer picks up the mantle and finds his own life  is suddenly on the line…

That’s when things really begin to heat up — and when the tone of the story changes from seemingly innocent “detective” work to one of pure vengeance.

Lowveld setting

Aside from the obvious drama and adrenalin-fuelled narrative, which twists and turns so you’re never quite sure who to trust or who to believe, the book’s unique selling point is its setting: the Lowveld province of Limpopo, where Kruger National Park is located, a region plagued by political unease and ongoing land claims. One character describes it as follows:

This is still the old South Africa. No, that’s not entirely true. The mindset of everyone, black and white, is in the old regime, but all the problems are New South Africa. And that makes for an ugly combination. Racism and progress, hate and cooperation, suspicion and reconciliation . . . those things do not lie well together. And then there’s the money and the poverty, the greed.

The social commentary that runs throughout the story brings to mind the likes of Australia’s Peter Temple, for Meyer is very good at painting a portrait of the deep unease between the Afrikaners and the English speakers, between the police and civilians, between black and white, between the various different black tribes keen to advance economically. He shows how corruption affects almost every level of society and he reveals how tourism —  “the lifeblood of our country, a bigger industry than our gold mines” — has become a monster growing out of control, pitting development against nature in a way that threatens to destroy the very thing the tourists pay good money to see.

Similarly, he also highlights the dangers of “the new wealth”, which is changing attitudes and behaviour, and creating a population — “white, black and brown” — frenzied by consumerism but marked by a deep unhappiness:

I couldn’t understand it. The Russians and the Romanians and the Bosnians would collect their children after the evening karate class and they would say, “This is a wonderful country. This is the land of milk and honey.” But the South Africans complained. They drove smart cars, lived in big houses and seafront flats, they ate in restaurants and bought big flat-screen TVs and designer clothes, yet no one was happy and it was always someone else’s fault. The whites complained about affirmative action and corruption, but they forget that they had benefited from the same for fifty or sixty years. The blacks blamed apartheid for everything. But it was already six years since it had been abolished.

Blood Safari isn’t the perfect thriller, but its mix of social commentary, politics and action gives it an edge over the usual run-of-the-mill fare you might expect in this genre. It kept me entertained on the road for a week or more (at a time when I didn’t want anything too challenging to read) and piqued my interest enough to make me want to explore more of this writer’s back catalogue.

Africa, Author, Book review, Doris Lessing, Fiction, Fourth Estate, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Grass is Singing’ by Doris Lessing

The-grass-is-singing

Fiction – Kindle edition; Fourth Estate; 208 pages; 2013.

The Grass is Singing, originally published in 1950, was Nobel Prize-winning author Doris Lessing‘s debut novel. It brims with tension and shimmers with insight into race relations, colonialism, marriage and rural life in what was then Southern Rhodesia.

Murder mystery

This astonishingly confident book opens in unconventional, some might say brash, style, in the form of a newspaper story by a “special correspondent”:

Mary Turner, wife of Richard Turner, a farmer at Ngesi, was found murdered on the front verandah of their homestead yesterday morning. The houseboy, who has been arrested, has confessed to the crime. No motive has been discovered. It is thought he was in search of valuables.

The first (shocking) chapter charts what happens immediately following the discovery of the body — a muddled confusion of white colonial types acting as judge, jury and executioner. But then the narrative takes an interesting twist and what starts off as a murder mystery becomes the story of how the woman came to live in the area several decades earlier.

The woman — Mary — was once bright, young and independent, living a relatively carefree life in the city. But then, with the clock ticking, she succumbed to social convention and got married, despite the fact she had never felt the need to have a partner and was frightened of sex (in today’s parlance we would probably describe her as “asexual”). Her husband, Dick Turner, is a struggling farmer, who whisks her away to the bush, where she is expected to live a life of rural isolation in a shabby “shack”, running the household and managing the black servant who cooks and cleans for the couple.

This is a shock to Mary’s system, a town girl used to leading a busy work and social life, who must now spend a lot of time alone, in the bush, where the heat is unbearable and her living conditions impoverished. She only sees her husband at breakfast and supper (he spends the intervening hours out in the field running the farm) and she struggles to cope with managing the houseboy, whom she abuses and treats with disdain:

She had never come into contact with natives before, as an employer on her own account. Her mother’s servants she had been forbidden to talk to; in the club she had been kind to the waiters; but the ‘native problem’ meant for her other women’s complaints of their servants at tea parties. She was afraid of them, of course. Every woman in South Africa is brought up to be. In her childhood she had been forbidden to walk out alone and when she had asked why, she had been told in the furtive, lowered, but matter-of-fact voice she associated with her mother, that they were nasty and might do horrible things to her.

Unfortunately, she can’t seem to control her temper and fires a succession of houseboys, one after the other. This frustrates Dick, who bemoans her lack of consideration and tact, and wonders if something is wrong:

What was the matter with her? With him she seemed at ease, quiet, almost maternal. With the natives she was a virago.

But this works both ways, for Mary wonders what is wrong with Dick, whom she soon realises is hopeless with money and hopeless at farming. When she sticks her nose in to help him at one stage, she reaps success, but later, for some inexplicable reason, she gives up and a deep-seated ennui sets in. This later turns into something akin to a kind of madness, which is heartbreaking — and frightening — to follow in the pages of this short novel.

Race relations

As you can probably tell, there’s a lot going on in this book (which is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die — you can see reviews of all the other books I’ve read and reviewed from his helpful guide here). The relationship between Mary and Dick, especially as it begins to unravel over time, is intriguing and sharply observed, but it is the relationship they each have with the natives — Dick considerate, if exploitative; Mary, harsh and belittling — that makes the book such a thought-provoking read about relations between black and white.

And the mystery element of the story makes it a compelling read. Because you know from the outset that Mary meets a violent end, you’re waiting for the moment that might indicate a motivation for her murder: is it something she does or says to the houseboy? Or is it something else entirely? (I chose this book for our book group and we all had different theories — it is certainly not cut and dried.)

Finally, I can’t finish this review without mentioning Lessing’s prose style, which is simple and clean, but often dressed with quietly beautiful phrases. Indeed, I underlined so many passages in my copy, I’m only grateful it was an ebook; a paper edition might not have survived all the pen marks! This is a good example:

It was a wet, sultry morning. The sky was a tumult of discoloured clouds: it looked full of billowing dirty washing. Puddles on the pale soil held a sheen of sky.

 

Africa, Atlantic Books, Author, Book review, Damon Galgut, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, South Africa

‘The Good Doctor’ by Damon Galgut

The-Good-Doctor

Fiction – Kindle edition; Atlantic Books; 216 pages; 2011.

The end of the year might be four months off, but The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut is certainly going to be on my list of favourite reads for 2015. I read it over the course of a couple of days, but every time I put the book down, I kept thinking about it, and now, a fortnight later, the characters and the story still remain with me — the sign of an exceptionally good novel.

Two doctors, two room-mates

First published in 2003, The Good Doctor is set in the “new” post-apartheid South Africa. It tells the story of Frank Eloff, a staff doctor working in a deserted rural hospital, who is forced to share his room with a blow-in: a younger doctor, Laurence Waters, who is newly qualified, green behind the years and brimming with energy and new ideas.

From the very start, Frank, who narrates the story in a cool yet forthright manner, is unhappy about Laurence’s arrival:

When he said, ‘I would never do that to you,’ he was telling me that he was a true friend. I think he felt that way almost from the first day. Yet the feeling wasn’t mutual. He was a room-mate to me, a temporary presence who was disturbing my life.

But despite Frank’s best efforts not to become too close to his new colleague, he finds himself drawn into Laurence’s orbit. Yet Frank has secrets he wishes to keep — an affair with a black woman living outside the village, for instance, and a troubled past in the army — which makes it difficult for him to truly open up to the man everyone thinks is his best friend. This creates a narrative tension, a kind of suspenseful atmosphere, that builds throughout the story.

This is aided by the sudden arrival in the village of a group of soldiers and an Army General — from Frank’s dark past — who are on the trail of a self-made dictator from the apartheid era rumoured to be living nearby.

Compelling portrait

But, to be honest, there’s not much of a plot. The book works on the basis of simple yet effortless writing, which makes for an effortless, almost dream-like read — the closest thing to floating on clouds — and a compelling portrait of two men and the friendship that develops between them over time.

It’s also an intriguing look at what happens to people living in isolated communities, where relationships between people can become strained and oppressive because they are living in such close proximity to one another: privacy is non-existent, which might go some way to explaining Frank’s fierce protection of what little private life he does have.

Essentially, the two doctors could be seen to be a metaphor for “old” and “new” South Africa: Frank is set in his ways, a loner, comfortable in his own skin, who resents change; while Laurence is idealistic, passionate and eager to take on new responsibilities in order to prove himself. Neither is unlikable but they are poles apart — in so many different ways.

I looked at him, but I didn’t see him. I was seeing something else. A picture had come to me, and it was of Laurence and me as two strands in a rope. We were twined together in a tension that united us; we were different to each other, though it was in our nature to be joined and woven in this way. As for the points that we were spanned between — a rope doesn’t know what its own purpose is.

This is a dramatic story about guilt and honour, loyalty and friendship, politics and fear — and probably the best book I’ve read all summer.

The Good Doctor won the 2004 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book from the Africa region and was shortlisted for both the 2003 Man Booker Prize and the 2005 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

Africa, Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Sebastian Barry, Setting

‘The Temporary Gentleman’ by Sebastian Barry

Temporary-gentleman

Fiction – hardcover; Faber and Faber; 288 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Sebastian Barry has mined both sides of his family’s history for his fiction, and his latest novel, The Temporary Gentleman, is no exception. In this case we meet his grandfather, Jack McNulty, a man with an interesting — and dark — story to tell.

An intimate voice

Written in the form of a memoir, the book details Jack’s rather colourful life. It covers his time as a doltish student who meets and falls in love with the beautiful Mai Kirwan in the west of Ireland through to their rather tumultuous (and sad) marriage. He also relays his experiences as a “temporary gentleman” in the British Army during the Second World War to his later career as an engineer and UN observer, mainly in Africa, where he now resides.

Throughout his tale, Jack’s tone of voice is raw and intimate. You get the impression you are the person to whom he wishes to confess all his past sins. But Jack is not all he seems — and the further you get into the book, the more you realise he’s being slightly economical with the truth.

And yet, despite all his flaws, Jack appears to be a likeable man, genuinely perplexed by the trouble and pain in his life, never quite frank or brave enough to properly confront his demons, all of which makes him such a delicious fictional character to follow.

Rhythm of the prose

As ever with a Sebastian Barry novel, the prose in The Temporary Gentleman is distinctive in its lyricism and musicality. There are sentences here which “sing”, and it’s the rhythm of them that makes reading Barry such a joy. You know when something particularly exciting (or dreadful) is about to happen because there’s a sudden absence of full stops — an entire sentence can span two pages, punctuated by well-spaced commas, so that a kind of breathless quality ensues, one that is only matched by the hammering of the reader’s heartbeat.

And my heart did, indeed, hammer quite a lot while reading this book. And I also found myself becoming quietly shocked by Jack’s behaviour and his inability to take real responsibility for his actions.

In fact, the more I read, the more I wanted to hear Mai’s side of the story, and when I met Barry at his book launch in London and asked if he would ever tell her tale he said he already had — in the 1998 theatre production Our Lady of Sligo.

Family connections

Readers who are familiar with Barry’s The Secret Scripture are bound to get a new insight into Rose McNultry from this new novel — Rose is Jack’s sister-in-law and she is mentioned in passing several times during the course of The Temporary Gentleman. Similarly, Eneas McNulty, who stars in Barry’s first novel, The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, is also referenced.

It’s not that you need to have read these books beforehand (I’ve not read the one about Eneas), but they certainly deepen your appreciation for Barry’s skill as a novelist when you notice the connections between family members and their various storylines interleaved across several volumes. It’s an impressive achievement.

If I was to fault anything with the book it is that Jack’s main narrative is regularly interrupted by short interludes describing what he did last night, for instance, or what he plans to do tomorrow. Sometimes these feel a little like a prop (or a crutch), while Barry tries to figure out what to write next. But that’s a truly minor quibble.

On the whole, I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Jack McNulty’s company — even if he turned out to be the bad guy or, as the title makes clear, the temporary gentleman in Barry’s family tree.

Africa, Author, Book review, Canada, crime/thriller, Fiction, literary fiction, Nigeria, Publisher, Setting, Viking, Will Ferguson

‘419’ by Will Ferguson

419

Fiction – hardcover; Viking Books; 399 pages; 2012.

For me, the best kind of literature is the kind that makes you look at something afresh or takes you to a location (or time in history) that you would never normally visit. Will Ferguson’s 419 is that kind of literature.

In short, it is about a Canadian man who gets stung by a Nigerian email scam, but it is also about the cultural and financial disparity between Africa and the West. It is a heady mix of adventure story, crime fiction and global thriller — albeit with a distinctive 21st century twist.

Caught in a web of deception

This rather ambitious novel has multiple storylines and a wide cast of characters. The central thread revolves around the death of Henry Curtis, a retired school teacher now working as a part-time watchman, who dies in an unusual traffic accident: his car, travelling at very high speeds, runs off the road one night and tumbles into a snowy ravine underneath a bridge. Initially, it is thought he may have hit a patch of black ice, but later, when it is revealed that his car made two attempts to leave the road, his death is chalked up as suicide.

When the home he shares with his wife — also a retired school teacher — is repossessed by the bank, it appears that Mr Curtis had numerous, and hefty, financial debts. He had, rather naively, been taken in my an email scam (known in Nigeria as “419” after the criminal code which makes this kind of activity illegal), the type most of us would ignore or delete if they made their way through our SPAM filter.

SUBJECT: Urgent Matter to the Attention of Mr. Henry Curtis. Please do not turn away!
RECEIVED: September 12, 11:42PM

Complements of the season! With warm heart I offer you wishes of good health from Africa. I am contacting you today regarding an urgent business proposal, and though this letter may reach you as a surprise, I implore you to take the time to go through it carefully as the decision you make will go a long ways toward determining the future and continued existence of a young woman’s happiness.
Sir, I am writing today on behalf of Miss Sandra, daughter of Dr. Atta, late Director & Chairman of the Contract Award Committee for the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation. As you may know, Dr. Atta died tragically in a helicopter crash in the Niger Delta under circumstances most suspicious. Miss Sandra’s uncle vowed to care for her, but he too has fallen afoul of government-backed criminals…

His two adult children — Warren and Laura — take his death and the impending loss of the family home in different ways. Warren, a married man with children, is prone to loud outbursts, all air and fury, while Laura, a single woman who makes her living as a copy editor, decides to beat the scammers at their own game.

Multiple storylines

In a second storyline, we meet the scammer — Winston — who runs his one-man operation out of a cyber cafe in Lagos. Winston is cleverer than most — he’s figured out that it pays to choose your targets carefully and “once hooked, it became a matter of playing them, of reeling in the line, overcoming their initial resistance, giving them slack at certain times, pulling taut at others”. But Winston is playing a dangerous game, because the world of cyberscamming is deftly controlled by street-gang syndicates who don’t appreciate those who go it alone.

A third storyline introduces Nnamdi, an innocent boy from a fishing village in the Niger Delta, who becomes unwittingly tied up with a Nigerian “mafia” boss who runs many of these internet scams. But when we first meet Nnamdi, he is working on Bonny Island — the terminus of the Trans-Niger Pipeline at the mouth of the Delta — where he “took motors apart and put them back together. He oiled bearings, cleaned cogs, replaced timing belts”. His situation is in stark contrast to the rest of his peers, many of whom are blowing up pipelines and kidnapping Western employees to get the message across that the global oil corporations are not welcome in the Delta.

Later, he meets and rescues a pregnant woman, who is from the Sahel “from a clan rumoured to carry Arabian blood in their veins”. This storyline — perhaps the weakest of the multiple ones that Ferguson juggles in choppy, sometimes staccato fashion — serves to show us how innocent, well-meaning people, such as Nmadi, can get caught up in events bigger than themselves. And it also shows us how corruption permeates through almost every facet of Nigerian life.

Ambitious novel

From my description above, it’s pretty clear that 419 is a big, sprawling novel, filled with all kinds of social, political and economic messages about the state of the world today.

It’s by no means a perfect novel — sometimes it feels like facts, especially the ways in which these “419 scams” work are being shoe-horned in, and it can never seem to work out its mind whether it’s a literary novel, a travel adventure or a sociopolitical thriller. It also experiments with style — sometimes the chapters are only several paragraphs long, and the section about Nnamdi could almost be extracted as a stand alone novella — not always successfully.

But, on the whole, this is a gripping read, one that feels authentic and edgy. It takes a big picture view and marries a cracking good plot with finely crafted prose and believable characters. And I suspect it would make a brilliant film, not least because of Ferguson’s eye for detail and the visual quality of his writing.

Of the three Giller Prize shortlisted novels I have reviewed so far, I would be more than happy to see this one win it.