Book 27: Arja Salafranca: The Thin Line

Books I've read

Arja Salafranca, The Thin Line, South Africa, fiction, short story

Real people have complex lives. The ones who, from the outside, look as though they are enjoying idyllic stress-free existences are often the sources of the most conflict. It takes work to look fine all the time. That’s often why love is such a respite – it’s an opportunity to relax the guard we construct for others. To breathe above the water, if only for a moment. But, it is reckless to believe in stability, always.

The Thin Line, a collection of short stories from South African writer Arja Salafranca, provides snapshots into the lives of real, flawed humans. Short stories seem to place more pressure on a sentence, and Salafranca’s prose is tight. Many of her descriptions had me nodding jealously, aptly capturing some characteristic of South Africanisms.

That’ is because these short stories are not only about people, but also reflect the changing context and themes of South African middle-class existence. The theme of crime, emmigration, the fear of violence travel through many of the stories, revealing the characters through their reactions to these themes. Her devices are slick and impressive.

This collection is well-worth a read, especially for anyone who wants to write short fiction. I definitely learned a lot from her use of style and descriptions.


Book 26: Henrietta Rose-Innes: Nineveh

Books I've read

Nineveh, Henrietta Rose-Innes, Cape Town, South Africa, fiction

The first short story I ever read and enjoyed, Promenade, was written by South African writer, Henrietta Rose-Innes. Every time I’ve walked on the Sea Point promenade since I have thought of the story, of the dodges and play fights, and of the loss experienced by the protagonist. I read the story six years ago.

Like many other books I’ve reviewed for this project, I had been meaning to read Nineveh for ages, partly because I had enjoyed Promenade so much, and partly because I loved the cover design. It follows a female protagonist, Katya Grubbs who runs a pest relocation company (Painless Pest Relocations) in Cape Town.

Katya is a bit of a solitary figure, struggles with her familial relationships and at times seems more strongly connected to the words of insects and pests than to people. Somehow, despite this awkwardness, you feel deeply for her, perhaps as you would for that slightly odd member of your family who you want to hug despite their unwillingness. What an interesting character to read – cranky, business savvy, involved in an intensely masculine industry without much comment, and passionate. I found her fascinating.

She’s called in for a special job – an infestation of insects at Nineveh, a luxury estate just outside of Cape Town. The setting is eerie – and that has nothing to do with the mysterious bugs that don’t appear when she visits the site. The setting is made even stranger when Katya’s father appears, causing physical and emotional turmoil as it seems he often does. I found myself turning the pages unsure what to expect, but completely captivated by the characters and setting. The end of a story is often referred to as a climax, and in Nineveh that word finally seems appropriate.

Exciting news is that Rose-Innes’ latest book Green Lion is just out, has another excellent cover, and will soon be added to the other four of her novels on my (real and online) bookshelf.

Lauren Liebenberg, Peanut Butter and Jam, fiction. Zimbabwe, South Africa

Book 25: Lauren Liebenberg: The Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam

Books I've read
Lauren Liebenberg, Peanut Butter and Jam, fiction. Zimbabwe, South Africa

The Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam

Having a sister is one of the best elements of my life. We used to fight a lot growing up, about almost everything (even who got to eat out of which particular bowl at breakfast). She is now one of my best friends and I love spending time with her. The thought of growing up together delights me.

The Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam is a story set in the late 1970s about two sisters Nyree and Cia O’Callohan who live on a remote farm in east Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia). We learn of their farm, the workers on it, the war, and their parents relationship through Nyree’s eyes and as with We Need New Names and Gemsquash Tokoloshe this vantage point allows us to see and hear so much more than we could through the eyes of an adult protagonist. It also shapes the importance of certain elements – the war happening at that time is only relevant in so much as it affects their parents or the workers on the farm. More important is the relationship between the two sisters, and the way in which they experience the world together as a magical and mysterious place.

A more significant source of tension in their lives is the arrival of Ronin, their orphaned cousin, who is the product of a traumatic home background as well as the challenges of being an outcast at school. Added to this is their Grandfather’s dislike of the boy for reasons we only later discover, a dislike which spills over into their every interaction and which even at their young age, Nyree and Cia know goes too far. This exclusion of Ronin in many areas of his life creates a menace within him which causes chaos in the lives of the whole O’Callohan family at a time when the broader world around them also turns chaotic.

The book is gripping and requires that the reader explore their own sense of forgiveness and ideas such as social conditioning, trauma and healing. I found it very painful to read at some points, having to bite back tears on the train. It is powerfully moving because the bond that Liebenberg creates between the sisters feels so real and powerful. You want to protect all of the characters from the cruelty of the world, but the world within the book carries on beyond your control, much like the world outside of it.

Perhaps it is this that has stayed with me the most after the book. There isn’t much that we can control in this life except ourselves. The world will take the people we love from us, and it may never replace them. It may send someone into your life that you don’t expect, and that person, who didn’t exist in your mind before the moment of their arrival, can come to consume your every thought either for good or for bad. We never know what goes on in the lives of others and I think this means we have a responsibility to tread lightly, to act with kindness, to give people the benefit of the doubt. This can be painful at times because not all people are good people. Some may choose to hurt us, and others may enter our lives to heal.

This was Liebenberg’s first book and it certainly is an incredible debut.

Book 24: Paige Nick: A Million Miles from Normal

Books I've read
fiction, women, south africa, south african, Paige Nick, New York

A Million Miles from Normal

Sometimes life fucks you. That’s probably the understatement of the century, and I suppose it’s a bit crass, but it’s the truth. Plain and simple. So when it does your immediate options are generally:

1) Remain in a heap on the floor and cry, indefinitely, whilst attached to an IV drip of nutella and wine; and

2) Run away.

A Million Miles from Normal is about the second option, although it does involve a fair amount of wine too. It’s only natural. It follows the story of Rachel Marcus, who was a high-flying ad exec who reaches a situation where you has to pursue option 2 (above). In style she pursues it all the way to New York, land of overpriced apartments and a lack of Five Roses Tea. There she seeks out a new life to replace the old one she left behind.

Reading it felt like reading some of my favourite authors for this type of story – Marion Keyes, Fiona Walker etc. Rachel is a little like Bridget Jones, but with a South African disposition and humour, and better balance. She’s a person who has clearly experienced something extremely difficult, and is not fully on the mend emotionally at the time we meet her, but she is trying damn hard and she is doing it with wine and good shoes. Her choices in men are a bit suspect, as are all the men in the story with the exception of Brian, her neighbour’s husband. I liked how strong the bond between Rachel and Sue was, and how ultimately they rescue one another rather than being rescued by any of the male characters.

The contrast between the real life of working a shit job and living in a shit apartment and the glamour of the ad world that you normally see or imagine was great. I also had never thought much about the poor people who have to write adverts about socks before, but when next I see one I will clap for their effort.

A Million Miles from Normal is light, funny and entertaining. Nick is a South African writer, who has released two fiction novels, written a million columns also available in book form, and who will have a new book out in 2016. She’s also part of the famous trio that are responsible for the Girl Walks In series.


Book 23: C.A. Davids: The Blacks of Cape Town

Books I've read
The Blacks of Cape Town, women, fiction, South Africa

The Blacks of Cape Town

Every family has things they’d rather people not know, or at least, not people outside the family. Whether your family is large or small, it’s likely that someone in it has a secret (I mean who hasn’t watched Bold and the Beautiful?), or something that they’d simply rather not tell anyone. The thing is though, it’s really hard to escape people who are related to you. They tend to hang around, alive or dead, their presence and impact continuously felt.

The Blacks of Cape Town follows the story of Zara Black, a historian who has travelled overseas to escape a family history that has been hidden from her until the very recent past. She’s an interesting character – fascinated with the past yet fleeing from the present of her own. The plot follows her telling of the story of her family as it catches up to her, thousands of kilometres away from South Africa in the USA. It explores the themes of betrayal, of family, of kinship and identity amongst migrants or foreigners, and of family.

The most interesting part I found about the story was the idea of memory. Of course, our memories are all subjective. We may remember someone as an idyllic and wonderful part of our history, but what if that person was merciless and cruel to someone else. Does that really change who they were for us? Are we able to understand people as anything other than our experience of them?

I often say that I don’t like to make decisions about people based on the opinion of others, which can sometimes feel extremely naive. After all, if the majority of people tell you that a person is a manipulative and conniving person, what is the point in giving them a chance? But, on the other hand, I also feel like people are often shaped by others expectations and opinions of them, so isn’t it worth trying to allow them to be better? Not in a Disney romance type of way, but in a real effort to allow people to occupy a space as a better and good person? Isn’t it better to be disappointed when you’ve given someone a chance than hard-hearted from the start?

I loved the way that Davids wove the present and the past because I think for many of us that is how we live. The things we’ve done and the people who have influenced us, whether they are family or not, whether they are in our lives currently or not, still feel very much alive. This is a book that explores that tenuous link, or rather tenuous separation, with style and strength.

Davids is a writer and editor, from South Africa. The Blacks of Cape Town was published by Modjaji books and is available for purchase here.