Jason Staggie has never written a novel before, but don’t hold that against him just yet because there are a few other reasons why his debut novel Risk doesn’t quite live up to the expectations it creates for itself.
The book is a modern tale of a cosmopolitan group of friends in Cape Town who, bored with their usual vices and maybe a little out of social rebellion, decide to play a high-stakes game of dares with each other that soon spirals out of control.
Staggie’s characters are a fresh cross-section of post-1994 South Africa and the topics he explores are nuanced, even with most of the key players in the throes of drugs, alcohol and sexual tirades. You’ll hardly ever read about interracial relationships being written in this way, hardly ever witness the historical pressure of apartheid on today’s black youth communicated so honestly, and hardly ever be forced to ask as many questions about our country as you surely will do at the end of this book.
When the story begins, you steel yourself for a raucous high-octane adventure with cerebral thought-provoking moments akin to A Clockwork Orange or anything Chuck Palahniuk has ever written, and this does happen for a while.
But then the break-neck pace of the novel gets in the way of any real in-depth exploration of the issues it brings up. By the time you’re settling into one of Staggie’s intriguing social commentaries, the wheels are moving again and before you know it, before you can yell “Slow down!”, the story is over.
If you’re in the mood for a volley of hairpin plot-twists and racy action, then this is exactly the book for you. But if you’re looking for an intelligent, creative examination of present-day South Africa, then the risk just isn’t worth it.
Never Let Go
Based on the coincidences in his life, Gareth Crocker brings us Never Let Go, a gripping novel that combines mystery with science fiction. Crocker has received international acclaim for his debut novel Finding Jack and Never Let Go proves that Crocker’s success was not a fluke.
The novel starts when Reece Cole’s daughter is shot dead in his arms and he then reaches for his own gun. He tries to commit suicide because he is unable to live a life without her. However, after unexpectedly surviving, Cole must begrudgingly return home from hospital.
He begins to notice something strange – his daughter’s handprints appear daily in different positions on the kitchen window. A visit from a medium and another suicide attempt later, the doorbell rings. A man claiming to be a scientist leaves an envelope for Cole in the post box. The envelope contains a six-word letter: “I can bring your daughter back.”
Initially, Never Let Go seems a bit clichéd. Its comparisons and occurrences appear to come out of a typical action film. The story is set in America, which targets an international audience but reinforces the feeling of mediocrity. This feeling is completely done away with, however, from part three where the pace picks up and the actual storyline develops. The storyline requires an open mind and the lack of a degree in applied physics to make it believable. It melds together time travel and deja-vu with coincidence to create unexpected possibilities and uncertainty both for the characters and the reader. The characters keep the storyline grounded as their reactions and emotions are portrayed realistically and insightfully, possibly the result of Crocker’s degree in psychology.
Never Let Go is sectioned off into chapters of only three or four pages. This makes it an easy read for those that don’t read often as well as for avid readers who feel the need to finish the chapter before putting the book down.
Death, recovery and the afterlife are all familiar topics in literature, yet Never Let Go manages to break away from the typical presentation of grief and healing by delving into a well thought-out theory of resurrection. Dealing with a universally uncertain topic gives Crocker freedom to deliver an exciting culmination to a novel that becomes progressively more captivating.
After Tears follows the life of UCT law student Bafana Kuzwayo and the challenges that he faces. His initial problem is that he has dropped out of his final year at law school and his aspiration to become the first advocate in his family has been smashed. He leaves the Cape and returns to Soweto. His problems at home persist and he has to deal with the rising guilt of not telling his family the truth. They are already calling him “Advo” as they believe that he has passed the year with flying colours, but he keeps dodging his mother Rea’s questions about his results.
He often talks to his uncle Nyawana, who spends his time drinking J&B, chatting up ladies at his fruit and vegetable store and smoking copious amounts of dagga. Bafana also drinks and smokes but hides this from his affectionate mother. To add to Bafana’s problems, the family is in the middle of a housing ownership dispute because Rea wants to sell their house to pay his university fees. Bafana cruises around with his uncle’s cronies Zero and PP and shares many conversations about life, women, politics and HIV with them. The book often reinforces stereotypes found in South African society by stating people’s opinions on political and social issues.
Author Niq Mhlongo constantly uses creative and entertaining metaphors to describe the life of his main character. However, some of his comparisons are so outlandish that the credibility of the statements is lost. Quite a few Sotho words are used in direct speech and if one understands the language, a greater degree of humour is added to the reading experience. Township slang is also used which, if you are familiar with the way taxi drivers talk to their clients, makes the interactions highly amusing.
The book is simply written and this adds authenticity to the plot by emphasising that Bafana is not academically inclined, making it easy to believe that he failed his exams.
After Tears will grab you, make you laugh and consider the harsh realities that a large number of struggling youths in Soweto face. With so much pressure on him to be a success, Bafana must make some tough decisions that will make or break his future.
We Need To Act
Following his previous title We Need to Talk, Jonathan Jansen’s We Need to Act is an interesting and intellectual read that does well without the pretence of academic verbosity. This book is a collection of articles which have been published in The Times where the vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State (and former Tuks dean of education) speaks about the state of school and tertiary education in South Africa
Each article is three to four pages long in this 296-page book and this gives them enough space to be thought-provoking and informative but not tedious to read. They are not arranged chronologically, but under relevant headings that all begin with “We need to…” and this reflects the action-driven nature of the book.
The introduction starts off with an anecdote describing how a concerned veterinary sciences student, who collected stray cats on campus and sterilised them, approached Jansen for aid in making this initiative take place on a larger scale. This story doesn’t have the stuffy nature of writing often associated with serious topics such as education.
Jansen speaks about how most of the positive changes that we see in our country are not due to the countless policies drafted by the government, but by individuals who take initiative and use their own resources to help or participate in a cause. Several other brief stories about students and schools are mentioned to make the reader aware of the common thread in successful initiatives, which is self- or community-driven motivation not influenced by the government.
The book includes an explanation of student politics, public schooling and government policies that seldom push towards practical implementation. More controversial issues are discussed, like the current culture of entitlement and to what degree tertiary institutions should bear the responsibility of “nursing” students through feeding them, transporting them and clothing them when this might impair their opportunity to learn to work for themselves.
Jansen emphasises the social depth of education and communicates this directly to the readers by offering advice and by being straightforward about issues. He talks about how most students who participate in violent protests are those who are failing or do not have a strong educational foundation and how some tertiary policies the government wants to put in place are a result of their not being able to tackle those problems appropriately at school.
The articles have a conversational tone which makes them easy and enjoyable to read even for people who do not have a predisposed interest in how the country’s education system works. It is a relevant and engaging read for any student or parent wanting more information on how they are affected and can themselves affect education.
As South Africans, our view of the future of our country ranges from happy optimism to doomsday pessimism. The majority of those who share the latter opinion have one thing in common: they are all woefully uninformed.
Enter Raymond Parsons, economic analyst and author of Zumanomics Revisited, a sequel to the original Zumanomics: Which way to shared prosperity in South Africa?
Parsons is a professor at North-West University Business School and the deputy CEO of Business Unity South Africa.
A collective effort by Parsons and other senior economic and political analysts, the first instalment of Zumanomics was well received ahead of the 2009 elections. It outlined the weak points of the South African economy and what policies could possibly be implemented to promote shared growth. Zumanomics Revisited is Parsons’s individual assessment of how those policies have functioned, the current state of the South African economy and what road forward should be taken.
Zumanomics Revisited is by no means a casual read as knowledge of basic fiscal and economic concepts is essential to enjoying the in-depth analysis. However, Parsons provides plenty of explanation which makes it possible for anyone to understand the information he is conveying. A series of graphs and charts embedded in the text make the ideas and information clearer and the result is a thoroughly interesting read.
Zumanomics Revisited is a must-read for any South African voter who wants to know exactly what the real result is of the filled-in ballot after hours of endless queuing on election day. It is impeccably written and worth every fluctuating rand of the purchase price.
The Imagined Child
South African writer Jo-Anne Richards’s fifth novel The Imagined Child sees her exploring issues of parenting, guilt and resentment, adjustment to a new environment, lost and new love, and crime, all in the short space of 325 pages.
Richards does this through the story of Odette, a writer for a popular TV soapie who leaves the crime-ridden city of Johannesburg for what she hopes will be a quiet, new start in the small Free State town of Nagelaten. This new start, however, is shaken when elements of Odette’s past appear to unsettle her present.
Odette’s escape to Nagelaten comes after she is robbed at her home in Johannesburg. The novel constantly points out dissimilarities between the urban and rural areas and emphasises the extreme to which Odette is an outsider in her new surroundings.
Flashbacks allow the reader to gain insight into the past that Odette is so intent on keeping buried and refuses to come to terms with. These flashbacks increase when her troubled daughter Mandy returns from the UK. Mandy, who suffers from so-called learning disabilities, is a suspect in the murder investigation of a baby she had been looking after.
This subplot creates suspense and intrigue in the novel and Mandy’s nonchalant reaction to her possible incarceration makes the reader want to delve further into the novel to discover the outcome of the story, even if this means reading through countless pages dealing with Odette.
Odette is stubborn. She seems to dislike talking about herself or her problems, but at times she can be self-indulgent and self-obsessed and this becomes rather aggravating. Readers will be torn between becoming incredibly frustrated with Odette’s character and sympathising with with her and relating to her on a personal level.
Throughout the novel we see Odette trying to deal with her guilt as a parent and her resentment towards Mandy and other family members. The title of the novel, The Imagined Child, reflects this in a way. At first glance you would never expect the story to follow the course that it does.
The novel seems like another tedious story of a crime victim who struggles to deal with the wrongs that have been done to them. But after a few chapters the reader realises that this is not the case. Although the novel definitely has traces of a kind of post-traumatic stress induced by the experience of crime, it is not the main focus of the The Imagined Child.
Odette’s struggles and love life rule the plot of the novel. At times, this seems a bit mundane and pointless but the last few chapters of the book make up for all the tiring ones that came before it.
The ending is truly the strong point and climax of the story as it answers all the questions that the reader develops throughout the novel.
The Imagined Child is essentially an easy read. Overall, the novel does not require much concentration for sense to be made of the plot, but it does require patience from the reader to stick it out to the end because it is here that Richards really makes it worthwhile.
The Childhood of Jesus
JM Coetzee’s latest novel The Childhood of Jesus presents the reader with a strange world that is difficult to understand. The novel centres around two characters, an old man and a young boy, who are given new lives in a fictional place called Novilla where they will be given new names and will be encouraged to forget the past. The characters meet on board a ship as they cross the sea to get to this new life. The old man is Simón and the young boy is David. Simón’s main goal in this new life is to find David’s mother.
The promise of a new life can be alluring but Simón feels unfulfilled and estranged. He isn’t the same as the other people living in Novilla. They are good-willed and helpful, but they are never passionate or emotional and Simón believes that it is passion that will fill the void in his life.
Is he insisting on the primacy of the personal (desire, love) over the universal (good-will, benevolence)? And why is he continually asking himself questions instead of just living, like everyone else?
These are the questions that Coetzee poses in The Childhood of Jesus. This lack of passion makes Simón feel like he and David are living in a state of limbo and the reader is caught in this state with them. Coetzee achieves this feeling with his trademark straightforward style. His short sentences and brief descriptions not only make reading an otherwise complicated and unnerving book quick and easy, but also add to the feeling of being caught in limbo.
The Childhood of Jesus is existential and is more focused on ideas than on action.The plot progresses, but the characters don’t go anywhere and they never seem to escape the state of limbo that they find themselves in. In this way, the novel is reminiscent of works like Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett or Boesman and Lena by Athol Fugard.
Added to this is Coetzee’s refusal to reveal anything in his narration. The reader never really knows who Simón and David are. The reader never knows where Novilla is and the reader isn’t told why Simón would believe that he can find David’s mother without having met her before. Coetzee leaves these questions, and many others, open for interpretation. Coetzee’s refusal to be decoded is entrenched in the title of the novel, which is just as baffling as the story itself.
David and Simón’s story is not one that is tied to Christianity. Certain critics have linked David to an allegorical figure of Jesus, but this is not fitting either. David is a boy, and although he has strange and revolutionary ideas, he is selfish and throws tantrums. He isn’t a Christ-like figure. But that may just be the point. Coetzee is not a novelist who can be read purely for enjoyment. He wants to make the reader mull over what he has presented to them in his novel.
Avid readers, or readers who are intrigued by existentialism, will be enthralled by the novel’s constant questions and unique ideas. But for readers who are not interested in the absurd or philosophical movements, The Childhood of Jesus might become frustrating. Like Simón, you might not enjoy philosophy classes about the “chairness of chairs”.
Kennedy Gihana was a Tutsi during the Rwandan genocide. A simple story would cast Gihana as a victim, but Jacques Pauw’s Rat Roads destroys the possibility of such a simplistic interpretation of the world. Gihana was a victim, but not an innocent one. As a Tutsi soldier, he not only experienced suffering, but also inflicted it.
Ethically, this is confusing. In Rat Roads, Pauw constructs a narrative that explores the conflicting ideas of victim and perpetrator. The title indicates the moral duality that the book confronts, a rat road having both positive and negative connotations. It can be a path used by ordinary people to avoid robbers on the main road or a path used by robbers to find isolated victims.
Rat Roads cannot escape Pauw’s background in journalism. He remains astonishingly objective throughout the book. He does not make it easy for the reader to pity Gihana, but does not harden the reader towards him either. His writing is poignant and simple with a frank tone that at times seems detached. He uses beautiful descriptions but does so sparingly, which prevents him from sensationalising the story. Pauw tends to apply a narrative style to the paragraphs in which he discusses the Rwandan landscape and reverts to a journalistic style when he is speaking about Gihana’s life and the genocide. In this way, Pauw contrasts the beauty of nature with the horror of history.
Pauw’s vivid description is absorbing and makes Gihana’s story seem very real. This shows great skill from Pauw, but is problematic for the reader as they cannot remain as detached from the story as Pauw seemingly is. His writing does not allow for an easy reading of the book. Instead, he forces the reader to confront difficult and serious questions about the human capacity for such barbarity.
Pauw’s technique of mentioning a specific event, either in Gihana’s life or in Rwanda’s history, and then zooming out to provide broad context is beautifully constructed, though it can become repetitive.
He uses elegant descriptions to create an idyllic image and then breaks this down with harsh, factual reporting. The narrative constantly builds suspense, but does not create a way for this tension to subside and this becomes frustrating.
In the book’s acknowledgments, Pauw says that he wanted to tell another story of what he calls “the godforsaken place” of Rwanda. Through its brutal honesty, Rat Roads evokes a sense of hope that is grounded in reality.
While Pauw allows neither Gihana nor the reader to escape from the past, he presents both with an awareness of redemption and possibility.
Apocalypse Now Now
Apocalypse Now Now is Charlie Human’s first book and has been published in both South Africa and the United Kingdom. Set in Cape Town, it follows the grim adventures of a 16-year-old high school student who doubles as the boss of a porn syndicate run in his schoolyard. Baxter Zevcenko soon discovers that he isn’t as normal as he makes himself out to be as he gets sucked into the dark underworld of the supernatural when his girlfriend disappears.
Zevcenko is accompanied by Jackson Ronin, a hired “Herbalist and Supernatural Bounty Hunter”, who becomes Zevcenko’s mentor. The protagonist struggles to save the woman he loves and the entire world, all while trying to stay alive during every battle fought.
The book isn’t just filled with horrific monsters and gory scenes. Humour is always present, distracting the reader from noticing the incredible pace of the rising death toll with the turn of every page. Incorporating humour into a book about unmerciful evil isn’t something many writers can do, and even fewer writers manage to do it well.
The course of events might sometimes seem too irrational, but when you have to save your girlfriend, fight zombies and travel between dimensions, you don’t have time to stop and wonder about logic.
Human’s decision to make Zevcenko so unlikable is ingenious and, ironically, makes the reader get even more involved in the story.
On the other hand, having a main character that is a typical know-it-all rebellious teenager, together with the ever-present mention of high school, might make it hard for older generations to form a personal relation to the story.
The immense amount of violence and pro-league fantasy is another element that not all readers will have an appetite for, but for others it might be what makes the book so exciting.
Whether you are a regular reader or the “I’ll wait for the movie” type, Apocalypse Now Now will be worth the time spent on every page.