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

‘The Woman in the Blue Cloak’ by Deon Meyer (translated by K.L. Seegers)

Fiction – paperback; Hodder & Stoughton; 141 pages; 2018. Translated from Afrikaans by K.L. Seegers.

Deon Meyer’s The Woman in the Blue Cloak captured my attention when I saw it on the shelves of my local library because it was:

✔️ a novella;

✔️ a crime story;

✔️ the crime involved art from the Dutch Golden Age;

✔️ it had an evocative setting (South Africa); and

✔️ it was translated fiction.

It also helped I had read Meyer’s work before (Blood Safari in 2015, which was excellent), so I knew I could trust him to write a well crafted, intelligent crime story with plenty of social commentary.

Murder of a tourist

Despite the fact it starts with a tired old trope — the murder of a beautiful woman (sigh) — The Woman in the Blue Cloak is not a conventional murder story.

For a start, the victim, Alicia Lewis, is a foreigner on a flying visit to South Africa. She’s an American based in London who works for an organisation that recovers lost or stolen works of art.

When her body is found naked and washed in bleach, draped on a wall beside a road in Cape Town, the police investigation begins by trying to identify her, before looking into a motive for the crime and locating the perpetrator.

The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius

I’m not going to give away plot spoilers, but I think it’s safe to say Ms Lewis had been in South Africa to track down a rare painting by the Dutch Golden Age artist Carel Fabritius. (Fabritius is probably most famous for his painting The Goldfinch, from 1654, and the one that features in Donna Tartt’s novel of the same name.)

The police investigation traces the root of the crime all the way back to the 17th century, before concluding with a relatively neat ending that, to be perfectly frank, didn’t quite convince me — although it didn’t take away from the enjoyment of this well-told story.

Entertaining police procedural

The Woman in the Blue Cloak (the title refers to the name of the Fabritius painting that Ms Lewis is trying to locate) is an intriguing police procedural set in a culturally diverse part of the world grappling with all kinds of racial and political tensions, long after Apartheid has fallen by the wayside.

It’s the sixth book in Meyer’s Detective Benny Griessel series but it works as a standalone. I haven’t read the previous books in the series and it certainly didn’t impact my enjoyment or understanding of this story.

I particularly liked the camaraderie — and the lively banter — between Griessel and his colleague Vaugh Cupido, and the ways in which they worked together to achieve a result.

Griessel spends the entirety of the investigation being distracted by a personal dilemma — he’s trying to secure a bank loan so that he can buy an engagement ring. His impecunious situation is nicely contrasted with the value of the Fabritius painting, believed to be worth a hundred million dollars.

This is an enjoyable novella, tightly written, fast-paced and well plotted. What more could you want from a crime story?

I read this book for Novellas in November (#NovNov), which is hosted by Cathy of 746 Books and Rebecca of Bookish Beck 

Author, Book review, Chatto & Windus, Damon Galgut, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, South Africa

‘The Promise’ by Damon Galgut

Fiction – paperback; Chatto & Windus; 293 pages; 2021.

Damon Galgut is one of my favourite authors. Ever since I belatedly discovered him in 2015, I’ve been steadily making my way through his back catalogue, and I am yet to meet a book by him I haven’t adored.

I love the recurring themes in much of his work about religion, racism and community, all seen through the lens of South Africa’s complicated history and issues arising from the dismantling of apartheid.

His new novel, The Promise, is his first in seven years, so its arrival came with some expectation. I’m happy to report that it didn’t disappoint.

A family going to ruin

In a nutshell, The Promise is about the Swarts, a privileged white Afrikaner family, living on a farm outside of Pretoria. It charts their downfall over a period of some 40 years, using this as a metaphor for the decline of white colonial rule.

The book is structured around four family deaths, each about a decade apart, and is told in the third person using an ever-shifting perspective — pegged to different characters — to create a free-flowing big-screen narrative that wields a rather hypnotic effect.

(Admittedly, it does take a while to get used to this style, because the lines between a character’s thoughts, their actions and the commentary of the narrator do blur, but once you get “into” the story it is quite spellbinding as it ebbs and flows and weaves its magic.)

The omnipresent voice swings between intimacy and sardonicism, sometimes within the space of a paragraph, and has a gleeful, occasionally witty undertone. One of the characters, for instance, likes to hang out in a particular shopping mall because “nothing terrible could ever happen to you there”:

Though she did see a man having a fit once, maybe even a heart attack, in the pet food aisle in the supermarket. Imagine, your last sight in this world, a bag of dog food!

In another, a woman wants to help her niece…

…but leaving now would be terrible, it would be like when Ockie erased the who-shot-JR episode of Dallas from the VHA player by mistake before she’d seen it.

The titular promise, which is broken almost as soon as it has been uttered, revolves around Salome, the family’s faithful Black housekeeper, who is supposed to inherit the house in which she lives and the land upon which it stands when Rachel Swart dies. But it is never fulfilled.

Atoning for a broken promise

There are three children in the Swart family — their names all annoyingly starting with “A” (Anton, Astrid and Amor) — but it is the youngest, Amor, who spends her whole life trying to make good on the promise. As a young girl she overheard her mother, who was on her deathbed, urging her father, Manie, to do good by Salome even though, technically, it wasn’t possible under South African law at the time for Blacks to own land.

But Manie denies the promise was made and Amor’s protestations to the contrary are dismissed  — Amor, it turns out, was struck by lightning as a young child while out on the koppie and as a result her family think she is “not quite right” in the head. Anything she says is taken with a pinch of salt.

As the story unfolds against a backdrop of constant societal changes — “Never did the middle of town look like this, so many black people drifting casually about, as if they belong here. It’s almost like an African city!” — we get to know these characters intimately. None, apart from Amor, are remotely likable. All harbour deep-seated prejudices against anyone who is not white, but they are human and all have been shaped by their upbringing and life experiences.

Manie, as the patriarch of the family, is headstrong, arrogant and ignorant. His refusal to take on board his wife’s wishes to be buried in the Jewish part of the cemetery is indicative of his whole attitude to other people.

Anton, the son, is a would-be novelist who thwarts opportunities to do good or to better himself. He seems unable to ever let go of the fact that he shot and killed a Black civilian while in the Army during national service (he went AWOL afterwards) and believes that the untimely death of his own mother, at around the same time, is his punishment.

Astrid, the oldest daughter, is spoilt and stuck-up. When she embarks on an extra-marital affair, she cannot understand why the Catholic priest, to whom she confessed, won’t absolve her of the adultery. Her sense of entitlement is palpable.

By comparison, Amor is deeply ashamed of her family. She cuts herself off from them, moves to Durban and devotes herself to helping others, becoming a  palliative care nurse on a HIV ward. It is here that she can atone for her family’s broken promise, all the while holding on to the idea that maybe at some point in the future she can honour it.

Personal made political

The Promise is a wide-ranging novel that deals with big themes, not least of which is religion, racism, integrity, honour and loyalty.

By focusing on the microcosm of a single family, Galgut highlights what has happened to South African society from the 1980s to now. As the narrative moves through time, history is brought to life in a way that feels real — using sporting events and political change, for example, as signifiers of certain periods.

The mellifluous prose is light and fluid and joyous to read. Yes, it meanders, but it’s the uncertainty of the journey and the ever-changing multiple viewpoints that provides the flavour of this accomplished novel. And while the overall subject matter is weighty, the humourous one-liners and funny commentary lighten the mood.

I’m not sure this “review” articulates the brilliance of this novel. It’s taken me two weeks to put my thoughts together, but even then I am at a loss to express how deeply affecting it is, how it marries the past with the present, how it shows the Swarts as products of their time but leaves the reader to come to their own conclusions about their place in history and whether it is ever possible to atone for past mistakes.

The Promise has been shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize, which will be announced on 3 November 2021.

For other takes on this novel, please see Lisa’s review at ANZLitLovers blog and Joe’s review at Roughghosts.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Atlantic Books, Author, Book review, Damon Galgut, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, South Africa, TBR40

‘The Impostor’ by Damon Galgut

Fiction – paperback; Atlantic Books; 249 pages; 2009.

Money, morality, loneliness and being true to yourself are the central themes in Damon Galgut’s sixth novel, The Imposter, first published in 2008.

Set in the “new” South Africa, after the dismantling of apartheid, it tells the tale of Adam Napier, an unmarried white man, who loses his job and his home and then reinvents himself as a struggling poet.

Rejecting his younger brother’s offer of a job working in his (dubious) property development company, he heads to a remote township in the Karoo, a semi-desert region in the Western Cape. He moves into a decrepit four-roomed house, with an overgrown garden, which his brother bought years ago but never lived in.

The house, filled with dust and a depressing mix of furniture, is a metaphor for Adam’s falling-apart life. He is warned that the place is filled with “presences from the past” and he convinces himself that his own shadow is a ghost with whom he has conversations.

He has one neighbour, whom he dubs the “Blue Man” because he’s always wearing blue overalls, but the pair rarely speak — it takes months before either of them is prepared to acknowledge the other’s existence. And even then they “dance” around each other, frightened of what might ensue if they develop a friendship.

Struggling writer

Adam struggles to put pen to paper and fails to write a single poem. And even when the local mayor orders him to clean up his overgrown garden or risk being fined, he doesn’t pull out any weeds, nor chop down the offending trees he’s been told to remove. It’s like he settles into a gripping listlessness and doesn’t know how to shake it off.

From this ennui, he’s offered a reprieve of sorts when he runs into an old childhood friend, Canning, who has inherited a large estate called Gondwana, comprising a hunting lodge and safari park, a short drive away. He invites Adam to come to stay for the weekend and he accepts, even though he can’t quite place Canning in his memory.

As soon as he meets Canning’s exotic black wife, Baby, he’s drawn into the couple’s lavish lifestyle, spending every weekend at their home, drinking fine wine, eating great food and exploring the stunning landscape. But there’s something not quite right. Canning is too effusive, too needy, too generous and Adam is too embarrassed to admit he can’t remember a thing about him from their school days.

Meanwhile Baby, enigmatic and mysterious, become’s Adam’s muse, sparking his imagination and giving him the inspiration to finally compose those elusive poems he’s been so desperate to write.

As the narrative progresses, Adam’s friendships, with both Canning and Baby, come under strain — in different ways — and a sense of foreboding ensues. As he unwittingly becomes drawn into a web of intrigue and corruption, with all-too sinister implications, one wonders where — and how — it’s all going to end.

A literary thriller

The Imposter is the kind of novel that draws you in. It reads like a literary thriller, but it’s really a dark exposé of modern South Africa, highlighting how the new world is colliding with the old, how some people — both black and white — are becoming incredibly wealthy, while others are still living lives of servitude.

Through Adam’s eyes we see how personal ethics are challenged on every front as the country finds its new feet and we also see the deadly repercussions that can result if you put your head above the parapet.

The book features Galgut’s typically dreamy prose, which has an almost fable-like quality to it (on more than one occasion I was reminded of Magnus Mills’ Three to See the King). He uses simple language but has an eye for poetic detail and his descriptions of the savannah landscape, for instance, are especially evocative. He also has an uncanny ear for authentic dialogue.

But what made the story so compelling for me — and made me keep speedily turning the pages — was the slow build up of suspense and the dark undercurrents bubbling away underneath the surface.

If you haven’t guessed already, I thought The Imposter was a terrific read — and one that only furthers my admiration for this very talented writer.

This is my 5th book for #20BooksOfSummer and my 24th book for #TBR40. I purchased it in August 2017 as part of my plan to read his entire back catalogue. As it currently stands I’ve now read five of his novels — there are three more to go!

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

‘Small Circle of Beings’ by Damon Galgut

Small Circle of Beings

Fiction – Kindle edition; Atlantic Books; 224 pages; 2012.

First published in 2005, Small Circle of Beings, by Damon Galgut, comprises a novella and four short stories.

All five narratives in the book venture into very dark territory and all are set within the confines of the family unit, what Galgut terms a “small circle of beings”.

Childhood illness

It is the titular novella which is perhaps the most disturbing story of them all. In it we meet a cowardly mother who fails to take her nine-year-old child to hospital when he is seriously ill because she puts her needs before her son’s: she is scared of the city and does not want to leave their secluded home on a dusty road in the mountains. Her husband, a farmer, is no better. He is emotionally detached, “keeps his distance and speaks of silly things”. He does not love his son.

When a doctor pronounces that there is nothing wrong with their child they accept his proclamation, but things get worse and David is later found to have a strange growth in his throat, which puts his life at risk.

In this account of two parents struggling to come to terms with their son’s illness in vastly different ways, Galgut throws a light on the tensions and strains between husbands and wives forced to confront their greatest fears: the loss of a child. He shows how different priorities — a mother’s over a father’s, for instance — can have devastating consequences for all involved, and how incidents from our childhood can have far-reaching repercussions long into our adult lives.

Written in delicate prose from the mother’s point of view, Small Circle of Beings wavers between claustrophobia and anxiety, love and anger. It is emotionally complex and the reader will find themselves torn between empathising with the mother and hating her for her passivity. I came away from it feeling a mix of heart ache and oppression. It is one of the most memorable novellas I have ever read.

Four stories

The four short stories that follow — Lovers, Shadows, The Clay Ox and Rick — tread similar territory, focusing on dysfunctional families, abusive parents, domestic violence and exploitation of black South Africans, all with an uncanny eye for detail and an emphasis on observational nuance.

There’s not much light relief, but it’s not Galgut’s style to shy away from humanity’s deepest flaws and failings. What he presents is ordinary white people thrust into extraordinary situations. He lets them manage for awhile, then has them flounder and it’s while they’re floundering, struggling to make sense of a new situation, that he looks at what happens to them under stress or when they think their power or sense of entitlement is under threat. The result is not always pretty.

Small Circle of Beings is a book filled with hatred, violence and antagonism. But for all the angry emotion portrayed here, Galgut is a superb stylist, making every word count and creating light-as-a-cloud prose that feels as if it might float off the page. I loved it.

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

‘The Quarry’ by Damon Galgut

The Quarry by Damon Galgut

Fiction – Kindle edition; Atlantic Books; 176 pages; 2012.

Last year, having read the extraordinarily good In a Strange Room (which made my top 10 favourite reads of 2017), I decided that Damon Galgut was now one of my favourite authors. I had previously read The Good Doctor and very much enjoyed it. Now it was time to explore more of his backlist.

A compelling chase novel

The Quarry, first published in South Africa in 1995, is a novella in which a man on the run from the law switches identity with the priest he murders.

It is a brilliant depiction of horror, suspense and murder using beautiful pared back language and an evocative South African landscape as the setting.

The prose is often poetic, especially when Galgut is describing the terrain across which the protagonist is fleeing:

He saw the mountains recede like a bite-mark on the sky and then a charred plain replaced them.

Even the way he describes the chase between murderer and policeman is beautiful:

The man climbed out of the dam and went on. When he had gone for a way he stopped and he saw the policeman come to the dam too and climb in. He experienced again the taste of the water because he knew that the other man was drinking. He sat down on the ground and waited. When the policeman climbed back out of the dam he got up again and went on. He was no longer sure that there was a difference between them or that they were separate from each other and they moved on together across the surface of the world and the sun went down and it got dark and still they continued in duet. They moved through the night in faintest silhouette like dreams that the soil was having.

Narrative tension

The chapters are exceedingly short (there are 56 of them) but they are filled with so much suspense and drama, it doesn’t take long to race through the entire 176 pages. I read it in two short sittings.

It’s difficult to say much more, because the joy (for want of a better word) of reading this book is being carried along for the ride and not knowing what is going to happen next.

It’s not a conventional story by any stretch of the imagination and the dubious morality of the characters makes the reader feel complicit in their crimes. But this is not a crime novel (as I have seen it described) but a compelling chase novel where danger and violence lurk around every corner.

If you liked this, you might also like:

Beastings by Benjamin Myera dystopian-like chase novel across the wet and wild landscapes of northern England.

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.

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, 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.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Malla Nunn, Pan Macmillan Australia, Publisher, Setting, South Africa

‘A Beautiful Place to Die’ by Malla Nunn

A-Beautiful-Place-to-die

Fiction – paperback; Pan MacMillan Australia; 408 pages; 2010.

It’s hard to believe that A Beautiful Place to Die is Malla Nunn’s first novel because it’s such an accomplished piece of literature. Nunn, who was born in Swaziland but now resides in Sydney, Australia, is a filmmaker. She clearly brings her visual eye to her writing, because this is a truly evocative — and provocative — piece of work.

The story, which is set in South Africa in the spring of 1952, functions on one level as a straightforward murder mystery but at a deeper level it explores the immorality, prejudice, cruelty and violence of Apartheid rule.

It opens with the murder of a police captain in the rural town of Jacob’s Rest. Captain Willem Pretorius, an Afrikaner widely respected in the community, has been found floating face down in a river with a bullet in his head and another in his back.

Detective Sergeant Emmanuel Cooper, an “English” South African from Jo’berg, is called to investigate.

Cooper, still haunted by the battlefields of the Second World War, has no truck with the race laws. He sees his job in very simple terms: to find the perpetrator of the crime regardless of their skin colour.

But Cooper’s code of ethics makes his task more difficult, because as far as the captain’s wife and five adult sons are concerned, only a black man would kill a white. And when the police Security Branch step in to take over the investigation they’re already eyeing up potential suspects that suit the outcome they desire, regardless of the truth.

Cooper finds himself in a difficult position (his life is put at risk on more than one occasion), but continues his work undaunted. He is aided by two allies, Zulu policeman Constable Samuel Shabalala and Dr Zweigman, a Jewish German who owns the town’s general store.

The quick-paced narrative is filled with plenty of surprises, as Cooper sets out to unearth Pretorius’ secret life while trying to hide secrets of his own…

A Beautiful Place to Die, first published in 2008, is a highly intelligent literary crime novel, one that brims with a slow burning anger. Not only does it reveal the sheer injustice (and stupidity) of The Immorality Act — one of the first Apartheid laws — which bans all sexual relations between whites and non-whites, it highlights the subjugation of black women and the volatile tension of racial segregation.

In Cooper, Nunn has created a slightly damaged but wise man with a strong moral compass and plenty of courage. It will be interesting to follow his development in the second instalment, Let the Dead Lie, which was published last year to critical acclaim.

Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Nadine Gordimer, Publisher, Setting, South Africa

‘The Pickup’ by Nadine Gordimer

Pickup

Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury Publishing; 288 pages; 2002.

The prospect of reading Nobel Prize winning author Nadine Gordimer used to make me tremble in my boots. But earlier this year I read July’s People and found her style and her subject matter refreshing. I was keen to try more of her work, and when Kinga recently mentioned The Pickup in her Triple Choice Tuesday selection I decided to give this one a whirl.

The dictionary defines “pickup” as: “an instance of approaching someone and engaging in romantic flirtation and courting with the intent to pursue romance, a date, or a sexual encounter”.

In this novel, which begins in South Africa, it’s not really clear who’s picking up who, when Julie, a white woman from a privileged background, starts going out with Abdu, the mechanic who fixes her car. The relationship seems destined to be short-lived because Abdu, who is from an unnamed Middle Eastern country, is an illegal immigrant. But Julie, a PR professional, couldn’t care less about the stigma attached to this new relationship, because she’s determined to carve her own way in life, free from her overbearing father’s money, his expectations and his much younger second wife.

The authorities eventually catch up with Abdu. As his deportation looms, Julie makes a surprising decision: she will marry him and move to his home country that he hates so much.

The bulk of the book is therefore set in an unspecified Islamic country, where poverty is the natural order and the family is the glue which holds society together. To Julie, an only child who’s survived her parent’s divorce, living with a rather large and extended family is not the claustrophobic experience one might expect. She treats this new life as an adventure and adapts surprisingly well. But all the while Abdu is applying for legal asylum in other countries in the hope to provide them both with a better life.

As one by one, his applications are turned down, Abdu’s resentment, frustration and anger builds. Will their relationship stand the strain? Will Julie abandon him and run back to South Africa? Or will Abdu come to terms with the good things in his life rather than searching for something he cannot have?

The Pickup is one of those books that is rich with meaning and motifs, exploring as it does the notion of race, culture and identity. It also examines the divide between East and West, rich and poor, the freedom of movement versus immigration controls. But in Gordimer’s hands these universal issues are handled in an understated way. She merely plants the seeds and it’s you, the reader, who joins the dots and mulls things over and wonders how on earth she has said so much using so few words!

But this is a demanding read, one that requires plenty of space and time to digest properly. Gordimer’s sentence structure is diametrically opposed to the normal rigours of Plain English and takes some time to get used to. This is not a criticism. Indeed, I like that a writer can use the language in such a way that it forces me to change my reading habits: instead of racing through the text, eager to find out what happens next, I took my time and lingered over each sentence, absorbing each one slowly but surely, before moving onto the next one.

There’s no doubt that The Pickup is hard work, but I so enjoyed the story and the issues it throws up it has only made me more determined to explore more of Gordimer’s extensive back catalogue. Suggestions for other titles to try are more than welcome.