Book Review: Red Dog

Coenraad de Buys was the great grandson of French immigrants who farmed in the Cape area of South Africa from the seventeenth century. His grandfather and then father married Cape Dutch women and had numerous children. When his father died of suspected poisoning, the seven year old boy chose to live with his sister, Geertruy, raising livestock he received from his father’s estate on her husband’s farm. By the early 1780s Coenraad had his own farm and had taken a common law wife of slave descent. He became one of a number of white and coloured people who were on the Xhosa side in the frontier wars against the Boers and then the British. Due to his stature and self-confidence his antics became legend.

Willem Anker has taken the known facts about this larger than life historical figure and woven a tale of day to day living on the raw and brutal South African frontier. As well as Europeans trying to force their ideas of civilisation onto the native population, the warring tribes of indigenous hunters and pastoralists are seeking alliances that they believe will prove advantageous. Cattle rustling is common. Ivory is bartered for guns and ammunition. Women are commodities to be given or taken.

From an early age Coenraad values his freedom. He nurses a hatred for his mother who he blames for his father’s death. He also hates his brother-in-law who regularly beats him until the boy leaves to live elsewhere. By taking a coloured woman as his wife, Coenraad ostracises himself from much of the white community, including his wider family. He struggles to settle to farming with its government mandated laws and expectation of submission.

“A bureaucracy understands maps, not land. A company does not understand war, it flourishes in meetings.”

“The commission does not succeed in persuading the Caffres of the principle of private property”

When farmers mistreat the natives who work for them, complaints can reach tribal leaders who may then have the farm burned to the ground. With the wars in Europe at this time, including the French revolution, there are changes to deal with and growing resentment. Farmers cannot rely on central support so take matters into their own hands.

“all news is half a year old here. It is uncertain who is ruling us”

“The devil take equality and fraternity. But liberty sounds like a good idea.”

Coenraad lives a savage lifestyle and his ruthless treatment of, particularly, the bushmen he encounters is described in distressing detail. Written as his own account of his life, there is occasional acknowledgement that some of the scenes depicted may have been embellished, perhaps to ensure other vicious men remain wary.

“Everybody wants to rule and nobody wants to follow”

“revolutions end up making bureaucrats of the most hardened rebels”

Coenraad befriends a local chieftain and crosses the border to live amongst natives taking multiple wives including the chieftain’s mother. During this period he befriends a missionary to whom he acts as interpreter. He tries settling to farming again but is forced to leave after he testifies against a white women who has been torturing and murdering her slaves.

With no wish to return to the Cape colony, Coenraad, once again, packs up his by now large and complicated family and heads north.

“If the law says a man can no longer be what he is, then it’s time to clear out”

“If you want to start behaving like a free human being, your boss must make you less than human”

Coenraad, not for the first time, has a price on his head. As a result he struggles to trade for ammunition. Empty guns prevent him from defending his cattle. After a lifetime of fighting and periods of feral existence, his aging body is failing.

The story is lengthy and brutal.  Coenraad travels around the country, murdering and thieving, taking whatever pretty woman catches his eye whilst expecting his wives to remain loyal. He is base yet a fine orator. He seeks learning whilst meting out death without apparent empathy. His attempts to settle in one place offer him the chance of wealth but his refusal to bow to authority, including that of society and the church, leads to periods when he must fight alongside whoever rules the land he has moved on to.

The narrative pulls no punches in evoking the cruelty and violence of the time and place. The natural beauty of Africa barely merits a mention. Coenraad’s sexual urges are described in detail. All of this adds to the portrayal of a man whose reputation became a part of his currency – a cloak he wears with pride and alacrity.

The structure and writing style work well in bringing to vivid life a torrid country and its vying people. It is not easy to accept how humans and animals were treated but this is a part of South African history and an aid to understanding subsequent issues that still reverberate. Coenraad’s story offers a perspective on complex aspects of European empire building. It is a fascinating if at times gruelling read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

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Book Review: A Long Shadow

A Long Shadow, by Caroline Kington, is a family saga set on a farm in the English West Country. It includes mystery, history and suspense. There are beautiful people and admirers vying for their attention. There are unpleasant characters and, by the end, the reasons behind their behaviour. There is the death of a farmer, Dan Maddicott, and a trail of clues to keep the reader guessing if his demise was accidental or something more sinister.

Before laying the groundwork for the main storyline, the reader is introduced to Susan who, as a teenager during the Second World War, fell pregnant to an American GI. Her cruel stepmother packed her off to a house of shame where such fallen women would give birth before handing their babies over for adoption. Susan plans her escape but ends up in an equally perilous predicament. The story moves back and forth between Susan’s subsequent life and that of Kate, Dan’s wife, at the start of the new millennium.

A third timeline details Dan’s life, cut short when he dies due to the discharge of a shotgun. Dan’s family have owned and run Watersmeet Farm for generations. Although an only child he has many cousins, two of whom, Max and Mary, he saw regularly throughout his childhood. Their visits to the farm ceased after an episode on a tenant’s property that inflamed a long running enmity. Jem and then Frank Leach are thorns in the side of the Maddicotts, but ones their landlords have little appetite to displace.

Dan lives within a close knit community and becomes the envy of his many friends. Until the BSE and then Foot and Mouth crises his farm prospered. The cattle he raises are regarded as of high quality. Dan wins the hand of the beautiful Kate who becomes his loving wife. We learn of their meeting and courtship; we are introduced to their two small children. That Dan’s death occurred shortly after he took out a life insurance policy has set local tongues wagging and causes his grieving widow to dig deeper into the farm’s history.

There are many supporting characters adding colour and shade. Dan has a loyal farm manager who supports Kate after her husband’s death. There are other farm hands who have varying inter-rivalries. Dan’s mother is calm and supportive and also a terrible cook. Kate’s mother in Cambridge is garrulous and selfish, blatantly favouring her younger daughter, the enchanting Emily.

Kate’s admirers include Max, an old flame. She grows closer to a widower who owns and runs a nearby farm. Her friends include Mary whose marriage suffers its own challenges. Acquaintances rally from across the country when Kate requires assistance. Despite the difficulties encountered over time by characters – domestic violence, alcoholism and homelessness, culls of livestock – at its heart these people have an enviable support network.

The tragedies, the comic characters, the question of how Dan died, keep the reader turning the pages. The writing is polished and well paced with a structure that maintains interest. The denouement tied up threads without changing characters’ behaviour.

There were few snags in the writing. I was, as ever, irritated by the need to mention a woman’s soft breasts. I was perplexed that pubic hair could be described as silky. Can people have button eyes? – I couldn’t picture what this meant. Such minor issues can be accepted when the tale, although in places idealistic, held its reader’s attention.

I enjoyed the moments of humour such as the older ladies’ competitive grandparenting. Emily was granted a great deal of power but perhaps men do fall so hard for a pretty woman who showers them with attention. Ivan was, unusually, an MP I regarded with a degree of empathy.

The setting offered an interesting perspective on farming with its never ending demands and ingrained duty. Taking Kate, a city girl, and placing her far from her burgeoning media career, much to the chagrin of family and friends, allowed the financial problems Dan encountered and then didn’t share with her some authenticity. The difficulty young farmers had finding partners now that women expect greater support and autonomy was just one of several asides to ponder.

This is a book worth considering if looking for a tale that is neatly written and not particularly demanding. Rural drama with sufficient variety and suspense to maintain reader engagement.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Lightning Books.

Book Review: You Would Have Missed Me

You Would Have Missed Me, by Birgit Vanderbeke (translated by Jamie Bulloch), is the latest release in Peirene Press’s ‘There Be Monsters’ series. Based on the author’s childhood, it is told from the point of view of a young girl whose parents have fled East Germany for the West with their daughter just before the building of the Berlin Wall. The adults embrace the materialism of imported American culture, buying goods on credit in an attempt to emulate remembered wealth from their pre-war years. The child considers her parents’ conversations proof that their lives were so much better before she was born, and perceives a correlation.

The story opens on the girl’s seventh birthday. She understands that, once again, she will not be receiving the kitten she has longed for since they left the refugee camp for the assigned two bedroom flat where they now live. Her parents do not listen, believing they know best what is good for her. In her view, since moving to the West, they have done what they can to remove every source of her happiness.

Back in the East her grandmother would care for her while her mother was at work. She remembers: the large house and garden, the fun of visiting uncles, delicious food. Now she subsists on the bland offerings her mother cooks, denied even water when thirsty as her mother believes it will give her worms. Any friends the child makes are derided as beneath her family’s social standing. She is banned from visiting adults whose company she enjoyed at the camp after her mother questions their morals.

The mother is determined that her family will climb the ladder of social success. Her much younger husband struggles to contain his anger at the hand life has dealt him. The girl is frightened of her father and with good cause. She longs for someone wise to talk to, someone such as the fun and friendly doctor who arranges treatment for her injuries.

Children have no choice but to accept the decisions made for them by their parents. Remembering her earlier life, the child does not understand why they became refugees and why adults lie about so much when questions are asked. In viewing life through her eyes the reader is shown how ridiculous many aspects of adult behaviours can be and how futile their often hollow aspirations. Children see through the social blather and observe more than they are given credit for.

The ridiculousness of the mother’s desires add much humour. She hankers after possessions and experiences that, when grasped, will always fall short. Likewise she longs for an ideal daughter, one who is quiet and pretty and does not scuff her shoes or cause damage in the home. The child knows that she is a constant source of disappointment and must find a way to live with the hurt this causes.

“You get used to disappointments, but in the long term they make you feel cold and empty inside, and you begin to lose heart.”

Instead of a kitten the child is given a globe along with presents from people who have shown her kindness in the past. From these gifts she concocts a means to get through the moments of strife she faces at school and at home. Despite her parents’ inability to listen, she finds her voice. It gives her hope that she can navigate her way to a better future.

The nuance and wit in the writing raises this astute tale of childhood hurt to a level both haunting and sanguine. The treatment of children, seen through the eyes of a child, is a reminder that parents are fallible and, too often, selfish in their motives. The refugee element adds a layer of poignancy. Subtle and compact, this is a deftly affecting yet entertaining tale.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Peirene Press.

Monthly Roundup – May 2019

May turned into a month of short breaks away from home as my husband had an unanticipated four week lull between work contracts. We made the most of his free time to book some last minute holidays. Thus I have done a great deal of walking but not so much reading.

I posted reviews of thirteen books over the course of the month: eleven fiction (one translated), a poetry collection, and one non fiction title. I attended no literary events.

As a break from bookish posts I wrote about my trip to Wales and the hotel we stayed in.


Random Musings: Wanders in Wales

For anyone interested, my short breaks in London, Edinburgh and Appleby are recorded in pictures on my Instagram.

In anticipation of the trip to Edinburgh – planned as my elder son’s uni accommodation needed to be cleared for the summer – I read a book set in the city that has been lingering on my vast TBR pile.


In the Blink of an Eye by Ali Bacon, published by the Linen Press

I also read two other books I have been meaning to get to for some time. I feel privileged to be sent so many titles ahead of publication but this does lead to a situation where picking up books I have purchased feels almost like an act of subversion.

 

The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau by Graeme Macrae Burnet, published by Contraband
The Accident on the A35 by Graeme Macrae Burnet, published by Contraband

I reviewed a double bill of fabulous fiction from Salt Publishing – both of these titles are well worth checking out.

 
Haverscroft by S.A. Harris, published by Salt
Good Day? by Vesna Main, published by Salt

Two heavily promoted titles from the bigger publishers were enjoyed – Tiger more than Plume. I suspect Plume will appeal more to the author’s demographic; certainly it is getting column inches in the mainstream media.


Plume by Will Wiles, published by 4th Estate
Tiger by Polly Clark, published by riverrun

I highly recommend both of the following titles from smaller publishers.

 
A Devil Comes to Town by Paolo Maurensig (translated by Anne Milano Appel), published by World Editions
Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, published by Granta

I reviewed one non fiction title which led me to respect hardworking midwives, and all on the NHS frontline, even more.


Hard Pushed: A Midwife’s Story by Leah Hazard, published by Hutchinson

I posted three reviews originally written for Bookmunch

   

Being Various, New Irish Short Stories edited by Lucy Caldwell, published by Faber & Faber
You Will Be Safe Here by Damian Barr, published by Bloomsbury


The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus, published by Penned in the Margins

Finally, I updated my post on Literary podcasts to include those I regularly enjoy listening to when working out at the gym.

As ever I wish to thank the publishers who send me their titles to review – the arrival of a book parcel makes my day.

My thanks also to those who share my words across their social media platforms. Your support is always appreciated.

Book Review: The Perseverance

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

What?

I am a one-word question,
a one-man
patience test.

What?

What language
would we speak
without ears?”

Raymond Antrobus is: a poet; a teacher; a son; British Jamaican; Deaf. All of these attributes colour his writing in this, his latest poetry collection.

The Perseverance explores not only experiences lived, or shared with the author, but also the effects of heritage and culture across generations. He writes of how language is used and how this varies in time and place. What does not change is the near universal insistence that those who communicate by signing adapt as best they can to enable understanding by the hearing.

“How do you write me when I am visual?

“How will someone reading this see my feeling?”

Antrobus writes of his father with whom he had an, at times, difficult relationship but who he cared for during the two years prior to the older man’s death. He writes of his wider family in Jamaica where he visits regularly. Themes of grief and dementia are touched on alongside misunderstandings and the search for forgiveness.

Poems that explore the D/deaf experience are both enlightening and powerful.

“I know the deaf are not lost
but they are certainly abandoned.”

In ‘Miami Airport’ an official is accusatory and unsympathetic even when he realises the traveller cannot hear.

“you don’t look deaf?
can you prove it?”

A sequence of poems written for Samantha share the story of a Deaf Jamaican woman whose mother believed the Devil had taken her child’s voice. There is a lack of appreciation that the deaf have their own language, and anyone can learn it.

Many of the poems are searing in effect. Although not vitriolic there is no shying from the way D/deaf people are treated and how this can lead to isolation.

“Before, all official languages
were oral. The Deaf were a colony
the hearing world ignored.”

‘Two Guns in the Sky for Daniel Harris’ tells of a man shot dead by the police when he was stopped and attempted to speak. His language was sign which meant moving his hands. In the moment this was translated as a threat to safety.

A need to belong, to find acceptance, is a recurring theme delivered with finely balanced potency. A mixed heritage can sometimes lead to dual rejection. It is possible for deafness to be regarded as difference rather than disability.

Any Cop?: Notes at the end of the book explain the inspiration for each of the poems included. Although of interest these were not imperative. The writing is accessible; the subject matter and emotion clear. The author takes the reader into his territory. Awareness gleaned is a sobering reminder that to fully understand a situation it must be lived.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: The Accident on the A35

“The smaller the town, the more inward-looking its residents.”

The Accident on the A35, by Graeme Macrae Burnet, returns the reader to the small French border town of Saint-Louis where the author’s debut novel, The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau, was set. Now being described as a series, this latest work focuses on an investigation being carried out by Chief Inspector Georges Gorski, the head of the town’s police force. An eminent and austere lawyer, Bertrand Barthelme, is found dead in his car following what looks like a road traffic accident. His attractive widow, Lucette, asks Gorski to look into why her husband had been driving in a location that made no sense given where he had told her he would be that evening. Lucette had understood that he dined at a club every Tuesday after work, and had done so for as long as she could remember.

The story is told from two points of view: Gorski, and the lawyer’s teenage son, Raymond. At seventeen the boy is trying to establish his desired persona. He carries with him books he believes will impress his peers. He discusses Sartre and experiences a frisson of excitement when considering self-harm – the drawing of blood to shock and rebel.

Gorski is still coming to terms with his wife leaving him. He enjoys the freedom he now has to drink heavily whenever he chooses but misses her company despite their mutual irritations. Attracted to Barthelme’s widow, he agrees to look into her husband’s whereabouts on the evening of the lawyer’s death. He uncovers a potential link to a murder investigation in Strasbourg.

Raymond, meanwhile, finds a scrap of paper containing a scribbled address in a desk drawer in his father’s study. He sets out to uncover who lives there and if his father visited the night he died. Distracted by a girl, Raymond allows himself to act in ways he has never before dared. He is pleased with the change in himself despite antipathy triggered.

“In Saint-Louis, it is frowned upon to have good posture, or to walk purposefully along the street as if one is in control of one’s own destiny. If asked how one’s business is doing, the customary response is: ‘Could be worse,’ or ‘Just about surviving.’ Anything more upbeat is reckoned insufferable boasting.”

The evocation of small town life includes the suggestion of casual racism and homophobia – an acknowledgement that such prejudices exist within groups and are generally overlooked or accepted by acquaintances. The attitudes of the police are affected by an individual’s demeanour and social standing. There is a desire for admiration, especially from those regarded as superior.

The writing is taut and accomplished with character studies a key feature. Although somewhat heavy on description, the plot moves along at an engaging pace. Certain male habits, true to life and serving a purpose in the narrative, were distasteful to read. The men are drawn more vividly than the women, whose supporting role is largely based around sexual attraction.

Readers who enjoyed Adèle Bedeau will likely relish this sequel. I enjoyed it to an extent but with reservations. While welcoming the original take on crime fiction and the frequent dark humour, I couldn’t get past my dislike of prurient detail. However well formed the characters, there are certain personal habits I prefer not to consider.

The Accident on the A35 is published by Contraband.

Book Review: Being Various, New Irish Short Stories

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Being Various is the sixth volume of Faber’s long-running series of new Irish short stories. In her introduction to the anthology, guest editor Lucy Caldwell ponders what makes a writer Irish. Must they be born on the island? Live there? Have parents who raise them to identify with their Irish heritage? She writes:

“I wanted to look, too, at where the new ways of Irish writing might take us. The fresh narratives, perspectives and multiplicities that are coming from immigration to a place so long and persistently defined by emigration.”

Each fiercely intelligent tale from the impressive who’s who of contributors offers a window into the differing impacts Ireland has on those steeped in its culture and prejudices. All the stories were commissioned especially, from writers whose work was first published after the Good Friday Agreement. It is a showcase of contemporary Irish literature.

There are tales that draw the reader in then leave them with ambiguous endings. ‘Stretch Marks’ by Elske Rahill tells of a difficult pregnancy that causes the suffering mother of four to feel she is a failure. ‘BrownLady12345’ by Melatu Uche Okorie looks at modern dating from the perspective of an immigrant who is lonely but unsure what they are looking for or how to achieve the desired connection. ‘The Swimmers’ by Paul McVeigh contains a disturbing undercurrent as a son tries to please his father. The reader is left to interpret each thread of suggestion for themselves.

Clarity is captured through Magic Realism. ‘Pillars’ by Jan Carson explores mental health following marital breakdown, when acquaintances are uncomfortable acknowledging such issues, even when they are made glaringly obvious. ‘The Lexicon of Babies’ by Sinéad Gleeson offers a picture of segregated privilege through state accepted competitive parenting – this odd little tale is beautifully fable-like. ‘Echo’ by Stuart Neville is poignant yet fierce – the story of a family unravelled by grief and the subsequent conspiracy of silence, violently enforced by a mother whose culpability remains veiled. ‘The Eclipse’ by Darren Anderson employs powerful imagery to portray the last days of an elderly woman whose mind has inexorably deteriorated. The love and care provided by her relatives is rare amidst so many depictions in this collection of the damage caused by family. ‘The Adminicle Exists’ by Eimear McBride is an emotive cry for help from a woman whose partner needs care yet poses a threat to her safety. ‘Wings’ by David Hayden is a painfully sad tale of the conspiracies and denials surrounding childhood abuse. ‘Lambeth’ by Jill Crawford offers an excellent depiction of the complexity inherent in an area’s gentrification. There are levels of wealth and poverty, threat and safety. Change may be resisted but is, and always has been, inevitable. ‘Alienation’ by Arja Kajermo is an unusually honest portrayal of Ireland from the point of view of a foreigner. Visitors may be welcomed but those who choose to stay face: prejudice, passive aggression, rejection for looking or acting different. ‘Colour and Light’ by Sally Rooney is fabulous story telling. Set in a seaside town it tells of two brothers, close in some ways yet rarely sharing anything of themselves, and a woman who briefly passes through their lives.

There are tales within this anthology that particularly resonated and others enjoyed but with less impact. Only one struck me off key – ‘The Downtown Queen’ by Peter Murphy. Its subject was memories – of a time when the narrator was part of an in-crowd enjoying sex, drugs, rock and roll. He interacted with famous musicians and their coteries in the early, raw days preceding meteoric careers. The tale felt to me to be trying too hard to be knowledgeable and artful – something that may appeal more to those with an interest in the 70s music scene. My negative reaction may be a dislike of the protagonist as much as the writing. I am rarely impressed by those who name drop for anticipated audience effect.

Any Cop?: For a collection of twenty-four stories, to enjoy all but one is pleasing. The quality of the writing is high, the subject matter piercing. There is humour amidst the darkness and a clear reflection of the Irish spirit in all its shades. This is as good a collection of short stories as I have read this year.

 

Jackie Law