Onke Mazibuko’s debut novel The Second Verse, is a new coming-of-age tale with authenticity and humour that delves into the psyche of a teenage boy. Bokang Damane is a 17-year-old boy living in East London in 1998. With his parents’ marriage is falling apart, and feeling alienated from his friends, he finds himself in trouble at school for writing an essay about suicide. Covering roughly two years in Bokang’s life, The Second Verse deals with teenage anxiety, awkward crushes and finding one’s place in the world. It also explores deeper issues such as addiction and mental illness.
The novel’s most substantial element is the protagonist. Bokang is a painfully believable teenager whose inner
monologue is both witty and often deeply sad. He is obsessed with art and rap music, has a crush on a girl who is entirely out of his league, and does not fit in at his prestigious all-boys school. As the novel continues, he struggles with his mental health while navigating the turbulent waters of his late high school years. As well as writing fiction, Mazibuko is also a practising psychologist, which clearly informs the depiction of Bokang. Though the novel takes on a particular perspective, many aspects of Bokang’s character are relatable to anyone who has experienced uncertainty about their future. Since the story is told from his point of view, the narration takes on Bokang’s speech patterns an affected imitation of the American rappers he loves, local slang and a bit of Xhosa. Though this narration draws the reader into Bokang’s mind, it can feel awkward at times, and highlights aspects of 1990s culture that have not aged well (including the occasional use of slurs). The book’s timeline also includes several time skips, which indicate Bokang’s developing maturity, but also create pacing issues that may leave the reader feeling detached from the characters.
Though The Second Verse is concerned with Bokang’s social life and mental health, it also includes a heartfelt and
harrowing exploration of his family dynamics, especially the fraught relationship between him and his alcoholic
father, which forms the core of Bokang’s anxiety. Though he recognises his father’s destructive behaviour, he still
wishes to have a relationship with him. The development of this relationship is authentic and well-developed, with the author unflinching in his depiction of the conflict between a parent and child, and the consequences that addiction can have on a family. Another fascinating aspect of the novel is Bokang’s attitude towards his culture he wishes to undergo the traditional Xhosa initiation into manhood, but also wonders whether such a tradition is, in fact, outdated. His view toward these cultural traditions is also a source of conflict in the novel, presenting an interesting and nuanced question surrounding the contrast between tradition and modernity.
The Second Verse is a well-written, funny, and often tragic story that does not shy away from dark themes, but embraces them as part of life’s complications. Though the book does suffer from pacing issues, it still allows the reader to understand Bokang fully and wish for him to succeed. As both an entertaining story and a deep exploration of a teenager’s inner self, it marks the arrival of an admirable new literary voice.
The Second Verse is a well-written, funny, and often tragic story that does not shy away from dark themes, but embraces them as part of life’s complications.