Book 31 – Diane Awerbuck – Home Remedies

Books I've read

Home Remedies, Diane Awerbuck, fiction, south africa, women

Diane Awerbuck’s Facebook statuses are some of the funniest things I’ve ever read. Her short story, ‘Leatherman’, had me smiling (jealously) at its cleverness. She curated/edited/organized a collection of stories ‘the Ghost Eater and other stories’ that I have a short story in, and when I met her in person at the launch, she was funny. Like seriously funny.

So, I assumed that Home Remedies was going to be a comedy of some sort, or at least a comedic reflection on a life lived in Fish Hoek (unarguably one of the strangest places in Cape Town – it’s like a time capsule, but from not long enough ago). That folks, is why you should read the cover of books, and not buy them just because you want to be as funny as the writer. But still buy them (especially when they’re written by African women writers) because they will never ever disappoint you when they surprise you.

Home Remedies follows protagonist Joanna Renfield. She works in the Fish Hoek Valley Museum of Natural History and has just got a new boss (a struggle veteran with an identity crisis) because a skeleton in the museum has been linked to Saartjie Baartman. Hidden away somewhere in the museum are Baartman’s labia, and the boss wants them back. Joanna’s home life (with her husband and her small son) is something she has a sort of fickle ambivalence to. She so wanted it to be better than it was, but it just wasn’t better, so she keeps on keeping on feeling mildly disappointed with it all. Until one day a box with strange smell appears on the side of the road, and things begin to change.

The story speaks to the fragility of the peace created in small towns like Fish Hoek, and internally for most of us who are privileged enough to go about our lives free from violence in the home. It contrasts an ordinary life with extraordinary circumstances, highlights the violence of history and present, and presents the difficulty that comes when you make decisions about your life that made sense long ago, but don’t make any sense now. ‘Familiarity and contempt’ as Joanna describes it.

Awerbuck writes a tight sentence, and there are so many parts of the book that met my expectation of hilarity – like when Joanna’s asked if she’s found Jesus and replies that she didn’t know He was missing. She’s equally adept at crafting sentences that pierce through the veneer of the accepted situation and through this highlights the backdrop of fear that many of us live with.

One of the most magical and strange scenes in the book is the ‘toad moon’ scene. The imagery of the toads crossing the road with the protection of people shortly followed by a scene involving the extreme malice and violence of people was incredibly powerful.

So although this wasn’t the comedy that I had wrongly assumed it would be, it was a brilliant read, dense with history and present.

Book 29 – Zukiswa Wanner – London Cape Town Joburg

Books I've read

Zukiswa Wanner, London, Cape Town, Joburg, African women, writing

I play this new game when I go to book shops. If they don’t have an ‘Africana’ or ‘South African’ section, I look at covers, and if they interest me, pick them up hoping that they’ll be an African women writer. So few are.

I think that’s one of the things that has stood out for me during this whole project which is coming to an end at the end of this month – WE NEED MORE AFRICAN WOMEN WRITERS ON EVERY SHELF IN EVERY BOOK SHOP IN THE WORLD. I’ll save this rant though for my last post for this year of reading though, and get back to the extremely enjoyable London Cape Town Joburg. 

I loved the cover of this book, and that’s what caught my eye in the shop. Of course, I knew already that this was a South African fiction from the Kwela Logo so that meant I could pick it up without hesitation. It is Wanner’s fourth book which is impressive in itself.

I was also attracted to the story because I’ve lived in all three of those cities. I wanted to know – what about London, Cape Town, and Joburg? What do they mean to the characters in this book? Is setting enough to carry a story? And I suppose for any reader of any book, I wanted to know whether the writer/protagonist thought the same things I did about those places.

The story begins with the main characters – Germaine and Martin – in turmoil after their son has killed himself. Without knowing anything about the characters you immediately feel for them, the space between what used to be their ease with each other. The discomfort of loss and silence and a pain that is not able to be expressed in words. Told by both of them, you get the feeling that one is not telling the whole truth, but you are not sure who.

Then, you go back to the beginning with them. You meet them when they first met, and the strength of those chapters where they have abruptly and wholly fallen in love at (almost) first sight, and somehow you manage to convince yourself that it will all work out. That the start of the book that you just read will somehow not turn out to be true.

I loved the scenes where they first met – the excitement at meeting someone who you connect with so strongly, of the questioning whether that feeling could be real, and of being unsure about things. I loved it because it was so clear that they were both trying to rationalise love, as some form of self-protection, while at the same time just knowing that this was it. As they grow together, they become such a strong team that even two moves and various career changes can’t shake them.

Suddenly though, something does. And at the end you wonder, can they get back. Because for them a home is not a place. Home is each other.

Wanner manages to capture a place through both the micro and macro things that happen there. I loved her descriptions of driving through London to go out, the ease of taking transport around to see people, and the business of the place. With Cape Town I liked the contrast between her studio and the place they lived. She made Joburg sound exciting and enjoyable (confession, I hate Joburg so this was a big surprise for me).

This book is incredible. Read it if you want to feel something.

You can read an extract here

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.

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.