Going against type this year for my top four reads, I’ve included four male authors, but the woman writers are not neglected at all in this list.
1. The most accomplished novel I read last year was without doubt Ivan Vladislavic’s Double Negative. I’ll quote from my initial LitNet review here: “When is a photograph not a photograph? When it captures a moment before a subject expects to be noticed. When it traps the flicker of private thoughts. When it observes the unconscious just before it’s noticed. That’s when a photograph becomes more than just a photograph. That’s when it becomes a moment of veracity, frozen in time. That’s when it becomes art.
“And when is a novel not a novel? When it’s written in a seemingly artless way. When the story seems not to be about story at all. When the plot isn’t hammered out on the anvil of structure. When a moment of verisimilitude is pinned down, suspended, its wings tempered for an infinitesimal second, without its noticing. That is when a novel becomes art. This is what Ivan Vladislavic has succeeded in creating in his latest novel, Double Negative.”
Vladislavic’s protagonist is called Mr Frosty by his peers because he is one of those rare photographers who snaps the liminal moment between real life and artifice. This could be a definition of the nature of art itself and it is certainly the definition of Double Negative. It’s an exquisitely written book, a work of art, which depicts defining aspects of South Africa through a sharply focused lens. This novel has moved South African writing into an age beyond the merely representational. It has taken it to a more mature and self-reflexive place. With its delicate solipsism I’d venture to say that Double Negative has taken South African writing into the realm of art.
2. My second best read of the year is McIntosh Polela’s memoir of his brutal childhood, My Father, My Monster. It’s a searing examination of the lives of McIntosh and his sister, who found themselves parentless and living with uncaring relatives in the Bulwer area in KwaZulu-Natal when they were very young. It’s a story of triumph over adversity and his sensitive story reassures those of us who believe we can make a difference that sometimes a helpful hand can change one person’s life. I read it from cover to cover in a single sitting and it wasn’t long before I picked it up and read it right through again. It’s a beautiful book, and something our rather jaded rainbow nation needs right now.
3. Thirdly I read the republication of Rian Malan’s superb journalistic accounts of the contradictions of life in Southern Africa in Resident Alien. His cynical, truth-seeking voice cuts through the obfuscation which is South African politics and culture today. Our very own John Pilger tells it like it is, whether it makes us uncomfortable or not.
4. My fourth best read is another memoir. Once in a while a book comes along which breaks all boundaries. Martin Pistorius’ Ghost Boy falls into the genre of memoir, yet because it is so well written and its subject matter is so compelling it felt more like a page-turning novel. Martin Pistorius describes his years which were nothing short of hell as he lived in a silent world with locked-in syndrome. After falling ill with an undiagnosed disease at the age of 12 he became physically and mentally weaker until he was completely wheelchair-bound and mute. Within a matter of months he changed from being a normal, healthy young boy into a completely dependent, paralysed body with the mind of a baby, according to medical experts. As he says in the book, for years he was just a “job” to most people around him, someone to be changed, fed and put to bed. At first he was completely unaware of his surroundings, but then, when he turned 16, his consciousness returned, slowly but surely. When he was 19, he was fully aware of everything around him, able to understand words spoken to and about him, able to follow television programmes and work out complex personal relationships between his caretakers. But the horror was that no one around him knew that he had “come back to life”. This story falls into the classic tradition of the hero’s journey. Pistorius is the ultimate underdog whose indomitable spirit conquers insurmountable obstacles. It is with disbelief and relief that the reader finally learns of one person’s ability to see the soul behind the disabled body. The ending of his story is almost unbelievably perfect. You will be moved by this book.
5. My fifth best read this year has to be Finuala Dowling’s Homemaking for the Down-at-Heart. If you find yourself caught between concerns for the well-being of your parents and fears for your children’s future, then you are in the unenviable stage of middle age. Finuala Dowling has written a gem of a book to comfort those of us living through this difficult stage. Homemaking for the Down-at-Heart finds the main character, Margot, caught up in a cycle of chores, caring for those dependent on her and work. There’s Curtis, her gentle lover who may just be passing through. Then there’s Mr Morland, who spends his life in a psychic haze. And her daughter Pia, breaking through puberty into adulthood with all the complications that accompany this rite of passage. To top it all, Margot’s aging mother, Zoe, once a famous and much-lauded author of a book called Homemaking for the Down-at-Heart, has full-blown Alzheimer’s disease. To complete the mix there’s Leroy, an ex-husband who is incapable of earning money or keeping friends for long.
Margot’s life is never her own, except when she manages to escape for an early morning walk along the beach. However, this peace, too, is threatened by thugs who prey on people as they pass the subways.
Dowling, in her simple rendering of events, uncovers remarkable depths of character in her creations. As life ticks by, Zoe’s book seems to hold the essence of comfort for her. As Margot rereads the original manuscript, she realises that the only way to live life is in the moments. Whether these moments are cleaning up dog poo – again! – or cleaning up her mother’s or ex-husband’s messes, the secret of happiness seems to be in appreciating the details in all their messy glory.
6. The biography of Emily Dickinson, Lives Like Loaded Guns, Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds, written by my favourite biographer, Lyndall Gordon, should almost be in a class of its own. Gordon is known for her thoroughness of research and meticulous attention to detail. This latest work is no different from her other biographies in this regard. It differs from the others, however, due to the complexity of the secrets and rumours surrounding her chosen subject. Gordon also chooses to make her own deductions about Dickinson’s unusual lifestyle, and her well-deduced revelations give this biography the edge. Lyndall Gordon blows a lid on much of the speculation about Dickinson’s life. She uses her fine researcher’s eye to put one and one together and to solve the cause of the mystery behind Emily Dickinson’s reclusive lifestyle. Once Gordon states the reason she believes is behind Emily Dickinson’s seclusion, it seems obvious, like all problems once solved. But it takes an exceptional and unusual mind to break the initial code of secrecy. Gordon is highly skilled at piecing together apparently insignificant details about the poet’s life while remaining resistant to received wisdom. Her revelation makes enormous sense when she finally exposes it, pointing out crucial evidence which backs up her claims. I was completely convinced – but I won’t give the plot away here.
7. Daddy’s Girl by Margie Orford started off my reads of the year and is still memorable. As her next novel, Gallows Hill, is still unread on my bedside table, it is fitting she is mentioned in the top ten reads. Orford’s writing is elegant, intelligent, well-conceived and perfectly nuanced. Many of these qualities are echoed by her main protagonist, Dr Clare Hart, who is equally elegant, intelligent and full of subtlety. Orford has created an attractive and irresistible heroine who has morality and integrity on her side too. This clever move ensures that a reader is hooked inevitably into Clare Hart’s journey from the opening pages.
In Daddy’s Girl Dr Clare Hart is working on the Persephone project, a project she’s set up to trace the alarming number of girls who go missing in Cape Town and surrounds with appalling regularity. In the harsh world of the Numbers gangs who rule the notorious Cape Flats, the life of a little girl is cheaper and less highly valued than a packet of cigarettes – especially when killing and raping a young girl is a common initiation practice for gangsters who need to prove themselves worthy of inclusion or promotion in a gang.
Orford’s delicate writing is unusual in crime novels, but this is what makes Orford a cut above the rest. Daddy’s Girl is a crime novel of unusual depth. On the one hand Orford writes about the brutal atrocities which take place daily in our country with more than enough detail to drive home the horrors of the crimes. As such, this novel is undeniably part of the now well-respected crime novel genre. Where Orford takes it beyond the genre, however, is through her ability to write about characters and places with immense subtlety. She describes the minutiae of settings, the unspoken feelings of her characters, and creates with skill, delicacy and flair an intricately woven, multi-stranded plot. This is a finely crafted crime novel. Daddy’s Girl doesn’t exploit women in the same way that some crime writers do, by making them the standard victims in their novels. This is where Orford succeeds. Not only is her heroine working against the exploitation and dehumanisation of women, but her descriptions of the deaths and violations of the victims in the novel are written with a woman’s awareness, through her character Clare Hart, of how appalling and offensive the crimes actually are. If her novel succeeds in creating a lack of tolerance for the horrendous acts committed against women and children in this country then I will be the first to champion it. Perhaps this is one of the few ways we can hope to slow down the abuses of such horrific proportions in our so-called civilised society.
Daddy’s Girl is an excellent read. It’s captivating and creates each step of the complicated storyline with inevitable compulsion. Its ending is deeply satisfying and I look forward with great anticipation to the next Clare Hart crime novel. All I hope is that the protagonist continues to fight for the rights of women and children in the hope that awareness will lead to lessening the abuses against those most vulnerable in our communities.
8. Another favourite was Tracey Farren’s Snake. Snake is a story about love, loss, a magic flute and a chicken called Mugabe. Well, the flute isn’t exactly magic, but the man who brings the flute into the lives of a poverty-stricken family seems to enchant them all and turn them into different versions of themselves. Farren’s second novel is told from the point of view of a twelve-year-old girl as she recounts recent troubled events to a magazine journalist from Truth Magazine. The “Truth Lady”, as Stella calls her, gets her to talk about a trauma that happened on the farm in recent months. Through this narrative device of Stella’s being interviewed by a third party the reader becomes aware of the inevitable unfolding of a family tragedy. Farren has followed the success of Whiplash with another idiosyncratic novel which, even though it deals with brutal subject matter, is a delight to read. This is largely due to the attractive nature of her protagonist, Stella. The reader can’t help warming to the quirky little girl with her bizarre take on life. This novel is well worth reading and it adds merit to Farren’s reputation as a writer of note in this country.
9. Joanne Hichens’s first solo krimmi novel, Divine Justice, leaps into a world of bizarre characters, tensely twisted plots, chilling hatred and a denouement to die for. Divine Justice is a page-turning chiller, with flashes of black humour to illuminate the very large cracks in the dark nature of some of her characters. PI Rae Valentine, disabled from a past which entailed addiction to seriously destructive substances, is left with only one of her two partners when her usual sidekick, Mullet Mendes, is taken into custody. The fact that he’s under police scrutiny for killing two rapists who’d brutalised Valentine, his then girlfriend, is not enough to stop the police from taking him in. Valentine is left with a depressed and alcoholic colleague, Vince Saldana, to help her with the latest case. It seems simple enough. Elderly Rosa Dieter’s jewellery was stolen on its way to being sold to legitimate buyers. Straightforward robbery, it seems. But, as in all good crime novels, things are not what they seem. The plot begins to twist when Valentine receives a call from Rosa’s middle-aged son, Dieter. Unknown to Valentine, he is a pharmacist with a fetish. Neither does Valentine plan for the re-emergence of one her sworn enemies, Arno Loots. Valentine discovers that the path to Rosa’s jewels is not so smooth, and a coven of characters unfolds, bringing her worst nightmare back into sharp focus. It seems she may face the horror of being raped again by a group of right-wing extremists. Will she get away from them before they get her? Or is any hope for the future futile?
Hichens is a powerful writer, getting into her stride as her characters expose their sometimes truly awful sides. The author is not above laughing with us at her characters, though. While there are gruesome and heartless murders throughout, some moments, especially the denouement, are pure black comedy. Hichens has written a cracking good crime novel set in familiar landmarks in the Cape and Namibia. It’s an excellent book to take along on holiday. It will keep you entertained even if the sun doesn’t shine.
10. A new horror kid on the block this year was SL Grey with their first novel, The Mall. The Mall makes a bold and dramatic debut on the South African horror fiction stage. This fresh and sassy horror/thriller moves into a class of its own, yet it shares the territory with works by Lauren Beukes, who has made her mark as the queen of the street-smart, punk-grunge South African novel. When Dan, a shop assistant for Only Books in an upmarket Johannesburg mall with a penchant for Emo style meets Rhoda, a black South African girl with a British accent who looks like she’s been living on the streets for some time, their worlds shift off their axes. Every familiar aspect of their lives is tweaked just enough to make them realise that something is very wrong with the environment they find themselves in after they meet. The Mall is a fast-paced, compelling read, a thrill-a-minute ride into an Alice in Wonderland world which delves into the heart of consumerist culture. The novel displays aspects of 1984 and A Clockwork Orange, but has a uniquely South African flavour. Read The Mall for a roller coaster ride into your worst nightmare. It’s an excellent read which left me feeling slightly exhausted by its imaginative twists and turns and strangely wary of ever going shopping again.