Darlings of Durban by Shafinaaz Hassim: a book review

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Darlings of Durban
Shafinaaz Hassim
Publisher: Kwela
ISBN: 9780795710964

Which Durban is it in Shafinaaz Hassim’s Darlings of Durban, a novel which studies a group of wealthy middle-aged women? Is it the Durban of Jacob Zuma, mayor Thomas Kaunda, and former mayor Zandile Gumede? The recent Durban of looting and bloodshed, the collapse of water, sanitation and electricity provision, joblessness and unprecedented urban decay? Hassim’s four friends live in another Durban, one of Porsche Carreras, Versace perfume, Louis Vuitton suits, and Gucci shoes (to name just the brands and products which are checked on the very first page of the book).

This Durban is not entirely fantastical if you have ever seen multimillion rand sports cars racing down the strip in Ballito and wondered who might be driving them and how exactly, given the province’s economy, their drivers might be making the necessary money. But it is fantastical, in ways which aren’t entirely positive, to read a contemporary novel which treats the very thin bubble of glamour in the city without asking about the facts lying right within the bubble: a place falling apart in every way with a vanishingly small parasitical class, centred around the ANC, partying its way through the disintegration.

But it is fantastical, in ways which aren’t entirely positive, to read a contemporary novel which treats the very thin bubble of glamour in the city without asking about the facts lying right within the bubble ...

How widespread is the party atmosphere? Mayor Kaunda has been known to lay down his tracks, recorded with his son, at major civic events, while former mayor Gumede, a sensitive soul who never appears in public without being decked out to the nines, surely notices that witnesses prepared to testify against her in her ongoing criminal trials suffer a surprising number of drive-by shootings. And if there is a better example of a man who degraded himself, his wives, his children, his party, his tribe, his country, and his continent more successfully than Jacob Zuma, it doesn’t easily come to mind. If anything, two cities show off the civilisational tendencies of the ANC: Durban and Johannesburg. They show a ruling party which is not much more than a collection of criminals in charge of a nation of sixty million.

I mention these facts not because they are mysteries, but because they are so utterly invisible in Hassim’s novel, and in some ways the same blankness of ANC rule underlies the blankness of the narrative. It is true that the central figure in Darlings of Durban is Natasha Nana, with her multicultural background – “her Pedi grandmother had married her Zulu grandfather” and her father, Zak Nana, was “himself born of an Indian Muslim father and a Tamil mother” – and her wariness of her boyfriend’s Zulu family’s expectations. Natasha’s tricky situation with her potential in-laws is the most interesting aspect of the novel, but it is soon replaced as a locus of interest by a mysterious businessman, Fahim, driving the inevitable Lamborghini, who rescues her from an attempted hijacking, and whose “striking good looks made him easy on the eye … he wore black formal pants and a black shirt that accentuated his muscular form.” Their interactions develop according to the strictest rules of magazine writing: “Fahima ordered a peri-peri prawn platter and, taking his lead, Natasha opted for the seared calamari steak. This basic coffee outing was graduating to a leisurely brunch.”

A writer has to balance the everyday qualities of novelistic writing with the dangers of excessive triviality and mundanity.

Novels are often preoccupied with the everyday circumstances of life – it’s part of what makes them special as a form – but in Darlings of Durban these everyday events are seen through a kind of gauze which doesn’t offer insight, understanding, or even a certain beauty of representational detail, but rather suggests an unending series of trivialities as seen through the prism of Fair Lady (or Huisgenoot). Take, for example, the parade of outfits which the novel describes in unnecessary detail. One character is “the picture of grace and sophistication in a lengthy white dress that hung off one shoulder, draped in Grecian style”. Natasha wears “a mustard hotpants suit and a fitted white shirt”. Sofia: “a white cotton shirtdress with blue arabesque print, offset with tanzanite jewelry”. Razia: a “summer dress, her youthful skin glowing from the sunscreen she had lathered on herself” This is language borrowed from the captions of an airline magazine (when we had airlines).

A writer has to balance the everyday qualities of novelistic writing with the dangers of excessive triviality and mundanity. Instead of working through this dilemma, which is a central part of creativity, Darlings of Durban simply replicates language which doesn’t enlighten, interest, analyse, or charm, but alienates through sheer vapidity. It’s taking the gamble that as a society, at least perhaps in our book clubs, we can no longer distinguish between what’s interesting and what’s vapid. And there’s one added mystery: Is there a market for Darlings of Durban? In another country, with a significant reading public, the novel might be flying off the shelves, a darling of book clubs and shopping malls. But in the La Lucia and Umhlanga world that Darlings of Durban sets out to reproduce and replicate, will the novel find any living readers? I fear not, but perhaps the novel would fit nicely in the glove compartment of Fahim’s “slate-grey Lamborghini”.

Also read:

Shafinaaz Hassim in conversation with Janet van Eeden

Durban’s water crisis: far more than pipes and taps at stake

In what is vanishing: a reader’s impression of Durban’s Casbah by Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed

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  • Jonathan Amid

    Surely this is more of a takedown and rather harsh and unfair take on the author's work than a fair review? Is there nothing redeeming or of value here at all?

  • I think this reviewer missed the whole point of the book. It's a novel about sisterhood, family, friendship and love. It has nothing to do with the ANC and their lives - I don't see what this review is trying to accomplish?

  • My thoughts on Imraan Covadia's review of Darlings of Durban:
    Unnecessarily harsh. Reviews like this, whether intended or not, come across as pulling the moral high ground card rather than offering anything constructive. Novel-writing in South Africa is a tricky balancing act, no question. We're a hard country to represent in all our multifold complexity within a reader-pleasing narrative. Michael Chapman's South African Literatures noted that truth decades ago, that our skewed demographics and irreconcilable polarities of experience means that we can only write for and about a segment of our society, not the representative 'whole'. The real debate is what the purpose of a novel is. 'Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth', said Albert Camus. If we make our novel repositories of the unrelenting dismays of our daily living then it becomes unpalatable. If we try to offer a slice of well-observed society that doesn't delve into the toilet pit of SA experience then our novel is said to be in denial of the realities. Is there no room in South African literature for simple reading pleasure? Recognisable characters, however un-PC their lives? Is it the role of every novel to forcefeed political expose while it tries to engage and entertain readers? Does the mirror you hold up always have to show the collapsing society? Is it not through the collective vision of varied writing perspectives that the more authentic picture is revealed?

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