It is almost a prerequisite for any South African author to write a novel concerning the greatest of South African literary themes: apartheid. Lately, it has produced stale and forgettable offerings: the genre is saturated with contrived, unoriginal voices.

Into this swirl of recycled narratives comes The Dubious Salvation of Jack V, the debut novel of London-based, South African-raised author Jacques Strauss.

And what a breath of fresh air it is. Two things count in its favour: its relatively short length and the charming sincerity of the narrator, Jack Viljee, whose views of the world are both naïve and surprising, funny and incisive.

The plot is simple: Jack is an 11-year-old boy growing up in Pretoria in the late 1980s. His mother is English and his father is Afrikaans. He has a younger sister. He spends most of his time with his domestic worker, Susie. His life is perfectly suburban, but when this life is disrupted by the arrival of Susie’s son, Percy, things get a little more complicated. Jack loves Susie like a second mother and sees Percy, who is angry and dangerous, as intruding into his ordered life. And when Jack betrays Susie, he begins to realise that life is not as straightforward as he always thought.

The simplicity of the plot is the book’s greatest strength. The politics of the time are constantly present, even in the comfortable domestic delusion of Jack’s world, but Strauss never allows it to dominate his narrative. Instead, it manifests itself in small ways in his hero’s life – in the stories Susie tells him, in the behaviour of a friend’s parents, in discovering his sexuality, in the small tensions of a bilingual household – allowing Jack’s childlike reactions to these relatively normal events to speak volumes about the darkness and the dangers of the time.

Jack’s world includes homophobia, abuse, racism, religious prejudice and great instability. But much like Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, Jack is utterly relatable. He gives the novel an affable and bracing voice, allowing Strauss to handle his themes – loyalty and betrayal, loss, morality, truth and the power of lies – with a deft and readable ease.

Strauss has a smart and original style. He has created a funny and thoughtful story, a captivating record of the experience of growing up in a confusing world. Both undeniably South African (readers from Pretoria will find scenes from the city especially touching) and remarkably universal, Strauss has done what so many have tried and failed to do: reinvigorate a tired genre. For that alone, he should be applauded. This is a great book.

Cover ilustration: Louse Z. Pomeroy


Website | view posts