Book Review: The Reactive

The Reactive, by Masande Ntshanga, offers a snapshot of life in South Africa under the shadow of AIDs. Its protagonist is a young man named Lindanathi who is HIV positive. He spends his days getting high on drugs with two friends. All three are familiar with death having lost close family members. Lindanathi carries a burden of guilt following his younger brother’s death.

The trio are intelligent and articulate yet appear lacking in ambition. Perhaps it is the circumstances of their time and place that leaves them devoid of hope in a better way of living. They trade the drugs Lindanathi is given for his condition, using the proceeds to keep them supplied with alcohol, tobacco and glue. They hold down jobs they do not care for yet accept as their due.

The story, such as it is, unfolds slowly. An uncle gets in touch with Lindanathi calling in a promise made when his brother died. A mysterious client offers an unusually large sum of money for a supply of drugs. There is a disturbing scene played out with prostitutes. There are accusations of cultural appropriation.

Although working through these various plotlines the narrative provides cognisance more than action. In one scene the trio of friends are smoking on a beach pondering the history of a place where two foreign armies once fought over which of them owned the natives. Slavery is a shadow that has not fully dissipated, skin tone still affecting life’s possibilities.

Lindanathi had achieved a place at university but chose to drop out, causing a rift with his family. He drifts through each day seeking only chemical sensation. Whilst feeling compassion for the impact of his compromised health on his mental wellbeing, his inability to believe in a future for himself, it is hard to like his character given his actions.

The temperate prose and teasing out of the backstory engage the reader in a subtle yet substantial tale. I did get lost in places, failing to understand the significance of certain scenes, particularly involving the masked man. When reading any book it is necessary to interpret an author’s intended meaning. I suspect important elements of this tale were lost in my translation.

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