I have just emerged from a six-book Liane Moriarty feeding frenzy. Why had I never heard of her before? Anyway, I hadn’t and then serendipitously, she turned up in both my real life and my online book clubs – in the same week. Moriarty is an Australian writer whose novel Big Little Lies (I read it) just debuted at number one on the New York Times bestseller list. And I can tell you why: her novels are strongly crafted, but not too artsy; her characters are warm and witty and full of foibles that make you want to be friends with them; her plots are intriguing without being full of red herrings and obvious tropes. My only criticism, and it is a mild one, is that they are the most middle-class books I have ever read. Joanna Trollope has been ousted from the pillar of middle-classery. There is nary a poor person, nor a homeless one, nor one of colour in any of the novels. It’s a world of yummy mummies, intrigue at the school gates and shenanigans in the Sydney suburbs. However, and this is what rescues the novels and I’m sure what has shot Moriarty to the top of the bestseller lists, she writes with such teasing wit that her characters laugh at themselves being middle-class at the gates of Sydney schools – and you laugh with them. Comfort reading at its absolute best.
So having sadly finished Moriarty’s entire oeuvre, I wrote to an Australian friend asking if she knew her. She didn’t but she did recommend the next writer into whose work I am now diving – Elena Ferrantes. An Italian whose work was first translated into English in 2012, Ferrantes has become a writing sensation. Described as an angry Jane Austen (you had me at that), Ferrantes has caught the public’s imagination as she refuses to do any publicity or put a face to her name (and she writes superbly). According to Wikipedia, she has admitted that she is a mother, which means she probably is female. I am reading the first of her Neapolitan novels My Brilliant Friend, and have the second and third ready to go on my e-reader. Things are dark and dreary in Ferrante’s work, there is relentless poverty but there are souls that shine out of the darkness. There will be a binge, I can predict it.
Since it is Christmas and things come in trios (wise men, etc), I have a third writer in mind. Both my mother and brother have devoured the Patrick O’ Brian novels, and he has named his Lab puppy Jack Aubrey. In honour of the less famous Jack, I plan to read these next.
Do you have any writers upon whose work you binge?
I recently had a lovely interview with crime fiction aficionado and editor extraordinaire, Jonathan Amid of litnet.co.za. He asked great questions and I really enjoyed answering them. Here are the first two:
Charlotte, Balthasar’s Gift: A Maggie Cloete Mystery, is a terrific debut, one that strikes a neat balance between lively pacing and frenetic action and carefully considered social commentary. Why did you decide that the crime fiction genre was appropriate for the story you wanted to tell, one that returns to South Africa under the presidency of Thabo Mbeki?
Thanks for your kind words, Jonathan. I always knew that the first book I was going to write would deal with the way Thabo Mbeki’s presidency refused to face up to HIV/AIDS and thus consigned a generation of people to their death, not to mention depriving hundreds of thousands of children of the love and protection of their parents. It was and continues to be such an acute tragedy – and one which South African fiction writers have up to this point largely ignored.
The first draft was literary fiction, written from the points of view of Lindiwe, Sanet and Francois Bezuidenhout’s wife Samantha. The very bare bones of the story were laid down. Then, one dark and rainy night, as I drove my sleeping family home from Berlin, it dawned on me that the best way to tell the story was as crime fiction and that it needed to be told from the perspective of a journalist, who could both pursue the murderer and frame the story for the reader. That was the night that Maggie was born.
How did your previous experience in the field as a former journalist relate to or influence your approach in writing fiction? How did your research make the writing easier?
I was very happy to use my experience as a journalist in South Africa in the early 1990s to flesh out Maggie’s work life. I was a very impressionable 18-year-old when I first worked in a newsroom at The Natal Witness, and the newsroom politics, strife between the journalists, competition for headlines and bylines really struck me. I was quite starstruck by some of the journalists I worked with, especially the investigative reporters who, along with the photographers, seemed so tough and cool. I was such a novice, and the newsroom is a sink-or-swim environment, but so many of them kindly saved me from drowning.
There is a huge difference between writing news and writing fiction. Although I have always earned my living as a writer, I started writing Balthasar’s Gift only when I turned 39, because the idea of writing creatively was very scary. It took me many years to get up the courage to really commit to writing a novel.
My reading tends to err towards literary fiction, so I always imagined that I would write with great literary flourishes. It surprised me, as I churned out the drafts of Balthasar’s Gift, that my style was quite spare. One day, I hope to write literary fiction with long run-on sentences, deep metaphors and burning ideas.
I don’t think the research made my writing easier, but it helped with two things: getting the facts right and developing empathy both for people who have HIV/AIDS and for their carers.
So I am writing, but there’s always time for reading. Here, in handy list form for ease of use, are my latest five-star books:
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
Eat, Pray, Love was a Marmite book. Some loved it, others hated it. I was amongst the lovers. But that aside, the raging success of E,P,L gave Gilbert the money and time to research and write The Signature of All Things, which is the book she was born to write. It is the big, bold, open-hearted story of Alma Whittaker, a nineteenth century botanist whose research takes her in the same direction as Charles Darwin’s. Gilbert says she was inspired by Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, in which the author writes historical fiction with a modern sensibility. This was exactly what I loved about Gilbert’s novel. I also loved it on sentence level. There was deep, deep sentence jealousy.
Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes
Lauren is a superbly talented South African writer. Her last couple of books have gone to auction at Frankfurt Book Fair and earned her huge advances. She is a genre-busting wild child, presently sporting pink hair. Her latest is set in Detroit and focuses on the efforts of a female detective to find a serial killer. What starts as a crime novel spirals into a deftly managed horror story. It is vast in imagination and bold in its reflection of the twenty-first century sensibility, replete (in a good way) with Facebook posts, Reddit conversations and journalists manipulating the Internet for cheap fame. Stephen King should look to his laurels.
Eleanor Marx: A Life by Rachel Holmes
Loved this. Marx’s big-hearted youngest child got most of her schooling at her father’s feet, and grew up to be a tireless trade unionist, journalist, writer and campaigner before committing suicide in her forties. She forced the suffragettes to consider working women in their campaigns, forced British trade unionism to be more international and fought on every side for workers’ rights. She is a fascinating human being and Holmes does a great job bringing her to life. If we’re talking modern sensibility, then Tussy (as was her nickname) was the epitome of this with her absolute refusal to countenance the mores of her time.
All my Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews
I am an unabased Toews fan. I love everything she writes, mostly because no matter how tragic the subject matter, it is always thread through with dark dark humour. The same goes for her latest novel, about two sisters, emotional refugees from the Canadian Mennonites, who have gone on to make their lives outside the sect – Elfrieda as a concert pianist, and Yolanda as a messed-up normal person. Most of the story is told at Elfrieda’s bedside in a mental institution where she is recovering from her latest suicide attempt and contemplating her next. Witty, tragic, beautiful. This book is hard not to love.
Ute Carbone and I hang out in the same writers’ space. When her first novel, Blueberry Truth, was published by Etopia Press in 2011, I remember remarking on the gorgeous cover and making a note to myself to read it. Two years later, I got off my backside and did so – and what a reward it was! Blueberry Truth is an exuberant, delightful story about Verbena (Beanie), her quartet of sisters and a damaged little girl called Blueberry who takes Beanie’s heart. Ute writes with a warmth and charm that bubble up through her storytelling and which make the reading experience truly effortless. It is a special skill, which I love as a reader and which, as a writer, makes me pretty envious.
Ute was kind enough to come and join me at Charlotte’s Web for a chat about her novels – there are many!
I’ve just finished reading Blueberry Truth, which I loved. Correct me if I am wrong, but it was your first published novel. Was it the first novel you wrote or do you have manuscripts under the bed?
Hi Charlotte, I’m tickled that you liked Blueberry! It was my first published novel, but actually the fourth I’d written. I’ve got a large pile of work under the bed. I’m slowly, but I hope surely, starting to dust off some of those manuscripts and put them out into the world. Of Blueberry’s predecessors, two of the three manuscripts are still tucked into the back of the closet, collecting dust. The other, a women’s fiction called Dancing in the White Room, is under contract and is scheduled for release in March of next year.
Dancing in the White Room is a gorgeous title. Do you always use colours in your titles?
Thanks Charlotte. No, not all of them have colors. Though now that you’ve mentioned it, maybe from now on… Actually, the title for this comes from a ski term. It’s a book set around skiing, the main character’s significant other is an extreme skier. For a long time, I didn’t know what to call it, it was ‘the ski story’ on my computer, and then I came across Dancing in the White Room, which is slang for skiing through powder snow so deep you can’t see anything but white. It was kismet. I knew I had found a title.
I love that image. For me, skiing is associated with fear – as is writing. Do you have any writing-related fears (that you are prepared to acknowledge?)
Who me, scared? She said while looking over her shoulder and biting her lip.
I’m a big ‘fraidy cat when it comes to writing. Facing a blank page is always scary. There’s a fear that the story won’t work out as I’d envisioned it–and honestly, it seldom does. And the fear that it won’t be as wonderful as it is when it’s just a kernel of an idea floating around in my head–and truly, it’s never as brilliant. Once I get past those fears and have managed to write the story, there’s the fear of sharing, a fear that I’ll be like those singers on the talent shows, the ones who can’t hold a note but think they can, who get up there and bravely sing off key while the rest of the world wonders why they ever thought they could sing.
I read somewhere that if you’re not at least a little scared when you write, then you might not be doing it right. I try and keep that in mind.
Face the fear and do it anyway is my motto too. Now, tell us about your other published novels.
It’s gotten to be a long list, Charlotte. I’ve been very lucky to have found some small publishers who like what I write. These past few years I’ve gotten to polish up some of those old manuscripts we talked about earlier and get them out into the world along with some newer works. So, let’s see. I’ve got three romantic comedies available through Champagne Books.
The P-Town Queen is a wild romp of a story about a shark researcher who has lost her grant money, gotten a divorce and is living with her retired fisherman father in Provincetown (P-Town) Massachusetts and a guy who is running from a mob boss hit by living under an alias and pretending to be gay (P-Town has a vibrant gay community).
Afterglow is chick lit with a bit of a twist. The main character is a kindergarten teacher in her fifties who finally asks her philandering husband of 30 years for a divorce. Through the course of the book, with the help of a slightly crazy best friend and a love affair with a much younger man, she gets back on her feet again and finally, once and for all, learns to stand up for herself.
Searching for Superman is the more traditionally romantic of the three, though it still has a lot of quirky characters. The lead is a young woman who is looking for the perfect man–a guy a lot like superman. She meets an ordinary guy dressed as superman for a kid’s birthday party and figures he’s not the real deal. But, of course, he’s just the right guy for her. The book is set in and around and old theater that teaters on the edge of being torn down.
Then I have a trilogy of short stories called The Lilac Hour available through Turquoise Morning Press. The stories are love stories and they are linked in that the main characters are women from three generations of the same family. I’m currently working on a historical novella series. The novellas all revolve around the same two characters– the daughter of a wealthy ship builder and a sea captain. The books are set in and around clipper ships in the 1850s. It’s a real departure for me to write, but I love being able to stretch my wings and try new things. The first two parts of the series, Sweet Lenora and To the Wind, are available through Champagne. The third part comes out next year, in April. Part four currently resides in my head and I’ll soon have to sit down and commit it to words.
And, if that weren’t enough, I have two books coming out next year. Dancing in the White Room, which I’d mentioned earlier, comes out with Turquoise Morning Press in March. It’s women’s fiction, with a strong female protagonist (I love strong female characters) and is set in Lake Placid, NY (not too awful far from where I grew up) The main character is a ski patrol woman who is living with an extreme skier who likes to take death defying risks. It’s a lot about whether or not this is a love worth keeping and at what price.
Confessions of the Sausage Queen is the craziest book I’ve written to date, with an ensemble cast of quirky characters who run willy nilly through the pages in an effort to save a small town’s biggest employer, the local sausage factory. It comes out with Champagne Books in July of next year.Then, of course, there are the manuscripts unfinished on my computer, the ideas still in my head, and three novels, several shorts and a few novellas still in the back of the supply closet. I’m going to have to live to a hundred to get to everything. Even then, I’ll probably still have a pen in my hand because I won’t be done.
Wow! You’re prolific. Five published books, two coming out next year and a series of novellas in the making! How do you combine life and writing? (Please don’t tell me you also have a full-time job …)
Not so much prolific as stubborn. I try to write at least a something everyday. For years, I wrote in little chunks of time, late at night after everyone was asleep, or while waiting for an appointment, and so on. I taught a writing workshop, so that kept me in good writing form. Currently, I don’t have a full time job and my kids are both grown, so I have more time to devote to writing. Balance has always been a problem, though. More recently, the challenge is carving out the time and space to write with all the other things that go along with being an author–doing edits, writing promotional pieces, and keeping up a blog and a website.
Well, while we’ve been talking I’ve downloaded and started reading The P-Town Queen, so you have a new fan. Thank you so much for the lovely chat.
Thank you, Charlotte. It’s been a pleasure chatting with you. I hope you enjoy The P-Town Queen.
Patricia Dusenbury is my publication day sister. Our debut crime novels launched on the same day – mine in German and in print, hers in ebook form to the world. Pat’s novel, A Perfect Victim, is an elegant crime thriller that tells the story of Claire Marshall, a professional house restorer who is caught in a web of deceit, lies and fear when one of her clients dies. Still coping with the untimely and tragic death of her husband in a house fire, Claire is emotionally bereft and struggles to cope with daily life, let alone becoming prime suspect in a murder case. Set in the suburbs of New Orleans, A Perfect Victim is spare and evocative. It is also the first in a trilogy featuring Claire Marshall.
I asked Pat some questions about her writing process and the route to publication.
1. Pat, thanks for joining me at Charlotte’s Web. Uncial Press just published A Perfect Victim. Is this your first novel or do you have a couple of manuscripts under the bed?
APV is my first novel and I have about one and a half more written. Together they are a trilogy, following Claire Marshall, my protagonist as she recovers from the shock of her husband’s sudden death and builds a full life for herself. Each book is also a murder mystery, and the last two include elements of romance.
2. How long did APV take you to write? And are you a planner or a pantser?
I wrote APV on and off for ages and as a total pantser with no idea what I was doing. About five years ago, I finished it, wrote off to lots of agents, and started writing a sequel. I went back and forth with an agent for almost a year, meanwhile working on book #2. The agent eventually lost interest, but by that time I had two books and parts of the third.
By then, I’d learned a bit; for example, you probably should put your first novel in a drawer and leave it there. It’s a learning experience. But I didn’t want to put two and a half books in a drawer, so I went back and totally rewrote APV. This version was accepted for publication by Uncial Press. APV has changed a lot since that first version. My approach to writing also has changed, and now I’m more of a planner.
3. What is your relationship with writing? It is something you came to late, or have you always loved it?
I enjoy writing, and have always written something. Over the years, work required me to write lots of reports, analyses, even an occasional political speech. After completing an especially dry document, I would joke about owing the world a poem, but when the time came I decided to write a mystery because I’ve always read mysteries. This turned out to be a lot harder than expected. The difficulty plus the vast room for improvement keeps me engaged.
4. Writers tend to be avid readers. Which are your top five books?
My all time favorite book is The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. Other favorites change over time. Today the next four would be Bel Canto, To Kill a Mockingbird, A Prayer for Owen Meany, and In the Lake of the Woods. My favorite genre is mysteries, and I’m a huge fan of Donna Leon, Dennis Lehane, Michael Dibdin, John LeCarre and Kate Atkinson to name my current favorites.
5. I love Kate Atkinson too! You talk about many rewrites with APV. Where do you find the energy, the resource inside yourself to keep going?
I have a head like a rock, perhaps from beating it against brick walls until the walls crack. My husband assures me this can be very annoying. However, it kept me going through the multiple rewrites.
6. What are your top tips to aspiring writers?
I would advise aspiring writers, myself included because I aspire to get better, to listen to what people you respect say about your writing and think about the best way to use their advice.
Find out more about Pat and her books on her blog: patriciadusenbury.com. As an economist, she was responsible for writing numerous dry reports and is now trying to atone for that by writing novels that amuse and engage the reader. She has been married to the same man for about a million years and lives with him and two Alaskan Malamutes in Atlanta, Georgia. They met on a blind date. Pat is not on Twitter, as she is busy hoping it is a passing fad.
In the twenty years since democracy, there has been a groundswell of South African literature. Once two behemoths – Gordimer and Coetzee – strode the land, but the freedom of the new South Africa has brought a freedom of creative thought and a wave of writing. Now we have South African crime fiction (rivaling that of the Scandis, so I hear from reliable sources), South African romance and young adult fiction, South African distopian fiction and even South African chick lit. Margie Orford, Deon Meyer and Lauren Beukes are household names to book lovers.
I have recently read two South African debut novels that are worth mentioning in their similarity of purpose. Both are novelisations of true events. In both books, the writer is both narrator and character, writing fiction out of fact.
The first is called False River and it is written in English by Dominique Botha, whose mother tongue is Afrikaans. False River tells the achingly tragic story of her older brother Paul, a poet and renegade whose brilliance could not be contained by an ordinary life and who died of an overdose in London when he was 27. As the first two of five children, Dominique and Paul were allies. The novel charts both Paul’s trajectory and Dominique’s as she goes from being adoring little sister to anxious guardian to one of his mourners.
False River is beautifully written. It contains passages of such breathtaking poetry, so deeply anchored in the landscape I know and love, that it is worth reading for the language and imagery alone. If Paul was a poet, Dominique is one now.
However, she is also a storyteller, and this is a novel. For the reader, there is a layer of tension, a discomfort, in knowing that it tells a story that is real. When asked in a recent SATV interview why she chose not to write a memoir, Botha said that “… memory is incredibly fallible and we can’t rely on it, so when you go back and recreate something you either have to be incredibly factual or you have to acknowledge the fact that retrieving a memory is committing a first act of fiction.”
Asked why she took so long to write this first book, Botha said that at first she felt too much in his shadow to write. However, she realised many years after his death that his memory was fading and that she had a strong compulsion to put pen to paper and write it down. As someone who knew Paul and many of his friends loosely disguised in the novel, I am glad she did. Not only do we have a new voice on the South African literary scene and a story that is a gift to the reader, we also have a way to remember our friend. Here is a scene from the end of the book:
Time flies and time stands still. We pass through time. She is not swayed by us. The vlei spills into the pan. A moorhen glides. Willows drop braids into water. Buried flowers in the darkened garden strain against the soil.
By sunrise all the women from the stat were sweeping and cleaning around the house. They had come unbidden. Ma stood by the window watching them. Martha edged her upstairs to change.
The protocol of solace marked the hours.
The second novel from fact I have recently read is One Green Bottle by Debrah Anne Nixon. The narrator is a woman named Jennifer Hartley, whose idyllic life on a KwaZulu-Natal farm is marred by a series of panic attacks that eat away at her self-esteem and grip on reality. She is hospitalised in a local psychiatric ward. The novel charts her series of stays on the ward, the people she meets and endures there and, after losing her marriage and custody of her children, her eventual tentative recovery and release.
One Green Bottle is a searing account of mental illness and does a brilliant job of evoking the hopelessness of those caught in its coils. While it is less obvious than with False River that the narrator and the author are one, there are clues. The novel is dedicated to ‘fellow sufferers of mental ailments’, the main character writes pages of a novel while she is incarcerated and an afterword from a psychiatrist talks of Nixon’s struggle and catharsis.
However, for me it became evident in Nixon’s descriptions of ward life that this was no creative imagining of the despair, bleakness and grinding exhaustion that is long-term mental illness. I had to put the book down several times while reading, in order to regain the energy I needed to go back into the wards. Despite her simple sentence structure and compassionate and often loving descriptions of Jenny’s fellow inmates, Nixon pulls no punches. She is brutally honest and reveals a system that is failing its patients, both at a structural level and in the inability of psychiatry to do much more than throw experimental cocktails at their patients in the name of healing.
While two books don’t make a trend, it was interesting to read False River and One Green Bottle back-to-back. Both tell acutely personal stories cast as novels and, whether read as fact or fiction, both take the duty of care to show that while loss and tragedy are part of the human condition so too are hope and love. As Botha’s final poem says,
So my big moment a couple of weeks ago was a review in Die Welt, one of Germany’s four national newspapers. A friend kindly translated it for me.
Two viruses on the loose in Africa’s sick-house
Charlotte Otter wields an angry pen as she paints a portrait of South African society. It’s a violent society, infected by the viruses of crime and AIDS, fractured by ethnicities, cultures and social difference.
South African journalist Charlotte Otter lives in Germany and tells the tale of Maggie Cloete, also a journalist, who is trapped in the chaos of South Africa’s violent society.
While desperately asking ourselves why some of the most peaceful European regions – those which enjoy some of the lowest crime rates worldwide – produce most of the bloodiest crime novels, we stumbled upon a theory, which we decided to adopt and spread here.
This theory claims that it is especially those who are spoiled by external peace – authors and reader alike – that are in need of fictional murder. They need it, if you wish, as anathema, as a protective spell, so that crime does enter their boring, peaceful reality.
This is a charming theory, which we can discard without any regret. The fictional murder business is booming, qualitatively and quantitatively, and it’s booming in one of the world’s most torn and violent societies: South Africa.
Better than any documentary: South African crime fiction
Generally, this fiction is extremely hard to digest; without ornament, full of clashing sentences and concepts, as bloody as the country itself. These are stories that echo deeply in the place they are set, in the post-apartheid land of an only superficially appeased community.
As a result, we find novels that tell you more about South Africa than all the reporting on the 2010 World Cup combined.
They tell you about degeneration, the clash between social strata, and do so till the former townships stand in flames again. These are stories about conflicts between races, between the healthy ones and those who are eaten alive by disease; conflicts between golf players and trash collectors.
Charlotte Otter is in good company
Deon Meyer writes these stories, and Roger Smith. So does Charlotte Otter.
One has to explain Charlotte Otter first. She worked as a crime reporter and learned her writing in South Africa. Then, she moved to this completely different place, Germany, and took her husband and child with her.
Otter – we imagine her in her mid-forties – lives in Heidelberg. Rumor has it, that she is also somehow involved in IT.
Balthasar’s Gift is her debut novel. And it fulfills all necessary requirements for a socially relevant crime novel – and this according to textbook. Pietermaritzburg has found its place on the map of crime.
Pietermaritzburg lies in the KwaZulu-Natal province. It is populated by 200 000 souls, surrounded by lovely nature and beautiful parks, and finally, characterized by the extreme gap between the ridiculously rich and the bitterly poor, between the healthy and the soon-to-be dead AIDS patients. There are more ethnicities here than the German Bundesliga has clubs.
One morning, a body lies on the steps of the HIV House, the mission that helps those infected with the virus. Balthasar Meiring, son of a brutally conservative Boer farm father, has been shot.
The good spirit of Pietermaritzburg
Balthasar was the good spirit of Pietermaritzburg; saviour of orphans, widower to an AIDS victim, gay, blond, tall, with the stature of a praying mantis turned human. It could have been a typical South African cause of death: robbery gone bad.
But it wasn‘t. At least, this is what Maggie Cloete thinks, and she’s bound to know. In her capacity as crime reporter for the Gazette, she has been hunting criminals for more than ten years, perpetually chasing after them on her Yamaha named ‘The Chicken’.
Just a couple of days before he died, Balthasar called Maggie, and asked her to investigate the case of Sven Schloegel, a German quack who was selling an inefficient herbal treatment to unsuspecting families. The treatment was so expensive, that they were not only unable to afford the (actually helpful) retroviral medicine; they were also forced to incur debts with an infamous local crime lord.
The overture to what will hopefully be a long series
Balthasar’s Gift is the angry, quick and brick-smashing overture to what we hope will be a long series. As is it with overtures, we already encounter all the things that Maggie Cloete will deal with in the future.
This is what she’ll have to face: The two viruses that are destroying Africa, AIDS and crime. The novel shows/Maggie witnesses how AIDS changes society, how it scares and shames its people, destroys families and children; how it takes hold of children and kills them cruelly. How medical education is subject to archaic rituals and sick ideas, like the notion that sex with very young virgins cures the disease. This is why Balthasar’s Gift also tells of the rape of a two-year old girl.
Medicine is helpless, because the government is incredibly inactive, ignorant and incompetent in its dealings with the epidemic, an epidemic that kills thousands on a daily basis, a disease that hollows South Africa from the inside, that pulls it into a moral abyss; that simply tears it apart.
A cohesive picture of South African society
And Charlotte Otter does more: She paints a cohesive picture of South Africa’s recent history, and does so with ease. She illuminates the state of mind of the last survivors of Boer society.
While she entangles societal analysis and characters effortlessly, there are some very see-through and redundant literary maneuvers. It is not just due to our general distrust of art editors that we could have passed on the very blond art editor of the Gazette.
Some turns are very obvious in their task to cloud the straight line of investigation. At some points, the plot jumps awkwardly around corners, just like a young springbok leaping over the scrub.
Be that as it may. The abysses of Pietermaritzburg/KwaZulu-Natal are much more exciting than those of Stockholm, that’s for sure. Fearless, upright, engaging spectator Maggie Cloete grows on you, whether you like it or not, and she has to continue.
I’ve been gobbling up The Hunger Games trilogy in tandem with my two daughters (they’re reading it in German) and while many of the scenes are incredibly moving, there were no parts of the books I needed to reread for the beauty of the words. Collins is brilliant at plot and she has a cast of memorable characters, led by the inimitable Katniss (such a superstar heroine compared to the dweeb who MC-ed Twilight, name utterly forgotten). I have images in my mind from the novels, whole scenes washing around in my head, but no words. Collins is a world-builder, a plotter and an ace at character, but perhaps not a poet.
The second book I’ve bounced through this week is the much-awaited (by me) The Obamas by Jodi Kantor. Longterm blog readers will know that I was an averred Obama fan. I howled big salty tears at his inauguration, had his poster up in my office and even stopped highlighting my hair in solidarity with his peppery side-burns. Like many, I grew disillusioned with his apparent inability to ring the changes and rise above the bipartisan US politics as he promised the world he would. When we moved house, his poster was relegated to the garage.
The Obamas is a very reasoned attempt to explain why this disillusionment happened for so many, how much it frustrated the first couple and how hard they are both still working to bring changes that will make differences in ordinary people’s lives. My respect for him was largely restored (though Guantanamo and the treatment of Bradley Manning are still blemishes), and my respect for Michelle Obama is hugely increased. I read The Obamas for facts and for the insight of Jodi Kantor, a journalist who followed them closely for years and interviewed hundreds of people for the book. It was engrossing, but dry.
Now I’m doing a third kind of reading. I’m late to the party with Lorrie Moore’s A Gate At The Stairs and I knew in advance that I was likely to enjoy it, given the many glowing reviews. But I had no idea how much. Moore is in love with language. She delights in great sentences and I am having to read some of them twice or three times just for the fun, the lightness, the poetry that they offer. Here is one where the main character describes the mosquitoes on her parents’ farm:
Mosquitoes with tiger-striped bodies and the feathery beards of an iris, their wings and legs the dun wisps of an unbarbered boy, their spindly legs the tendrils of an orchid, the blades of a gnome’s sleigh.
And here’s a great pair about the strangeness of coming home after having left for university:
At home in Dellacrosse my place in the world of college and Troy and incipient adulthood dissolved and I became an unseemly collection of jostling former selves. Snarkiness streaked through my voice, or sullenness drove me behind a closed door for hours at a time.
I’m only 63 pages in, so I have a lot of great sentences ahead of me. Sigh! What a lucky, lucky reader I am. I can tell that Lorrie Moore is about to be put on the list of favourites and her back-list hunted out.
To use my husband’s favourite software analogy, reading The Hunger Games is like eating popcorn (light, fluffy, but oddly compelling), reading The Obamas is like eating broccoli (healthy and enlightening), but reading A Gate At The Stairs is like eating the perfect meal at the perfect moment with the perfect person. It’s apt. It’s delicious. And it’s memorable.
The books I love most are the ones I press on others, saying, ‘You must read this. Absolutely, you must. Ignore the wet patches where I read it in the bath, the tear stains where I wept, the coffee blotches where I spluttered with laughter, the lint from my handbag when I carried it around with me, the small drops of blood where this book dived into my veins and took up residence there with its beautiful sentences and refused to come out. Ignore all these, and read this book because you will be better for it.’
This year, I’ve had the privilege of reading five books that I want to press on people, bloodstains and all:
Ali Smith There But for The
This is the book that got away, the one that should have topped the Booker and Orange Prize lists and didn’t. Smith is the queen of sentences, of the poetry of words, of rhythm and of little short sharp electric shocks that bite you at the full stop. I’m not a re-reader but this is a book I will return to.
The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst
I’m only on page 326 and still have another 250 pages to go, but this book is also making me jealous on sentence level. For example, ‘He spoke German nicely, keeping an amused pedantic eye on the slowly approaching end of his sentences’ is exactly what speaking German feels like. Hollinghurst’s descriptions of English social situations are masterly – the double of layer of what is happening and being said and the undercurrents of what is being felt and thought. I’ve never seen another writer do it as well. He also writes beautifully about desire. It’s taking me forever to read, mostly because I am savouring every mouthful.
Dodie Smith I Capture the Castle
I rampaged through this in a day. It’s hilarious and wistful, and the protagonist Cassandra is superbly charismatic. One of those books you dive into and when you look up again, you can’t quite believe that the world is the same because you are changed on the inside. Glorious.
Jennifer Egan A Message from the Goon Squad
Sadly, since I read this as an ebook, I can’t foist a blood-stained copy on anyone, but I can urge you, urgently, to read it. It has a similarity to There But for The, in that it covers a cast of characters vaguely related to each other without much in the way of what creative writing teachers would call a plot arc. Not to say it’s plotless, not at all, but the value is in the way she draws her characters (sharp lines, funny, often hard). Egan also shocks and surprises on sentence level and, as it turns out, that is a quality that makes me love a book.
Which leads me to – ta dah! – The Charlotte’s Web Book of the Year:
David Grossman’s To the End of the Land
I cried when I read it, cried when I described it to my book club and I get a lump in my throat when I think about it now. This novel is a punch in the solar plexus, a long slow gentle punch that you only wake up to about 400 pages in. It rivals one of my other favourite novels, Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved, for its depiction of grief and it throws the messy, neurotic, fearful underbelly of parenting into the light. Read it if you dare! I recommend tissues for the tears and something stauncher for the blood, for it will haunt you.