Book Review: Wan


This review was written for and first published by Berfrois.

“And then the officer said, be grateful we keep you safe in your house, meneer, don’t worry about the other people. You said she’s a young lady, this Black? She probably ran off with someone, what d’you expect. Probably doing something she shouldn’t be”

South Africa in the 1970s was a country moving towards change. Those in power were fiercely opposing this through intimidation and with outright violence. The black population was required to live and work as their white overlords permitted. Although many of the privileged settlers felt disquiet at the situation, few would risk their lifestyle to make waves. Those who did so were punished severely.

Wan is narrated by Jacqueline Kline, a talented artist married to Howard, a corporate lawyer. The couple have two children, Helena and Stephen. When the story opens, Jacqueline is living in New York, recalling an interview she once had with a journalist who failed to capture anything of depth. Jacqueline has a story to tell, one she has never shared with anyone. What follows is her attempt to get across the nuances and fallout of a life altering mistake.

In 1972, the Kline family were living in the suburbs of Johannesburg. They owned a comfortable house with a large garden containing several separately built stone rooms. Some were used by the black servants, routinely employed to help with domestic chores and general upkeep. In a more secluded spot was Jacqueline’s studio where she painted. Near to this was a room used for storage that would be cleared at Howard’s behest to house a white activist, Joseph, whose presence upended Jacqueline’s calm and careful routine.

Jacqueline was born and raised in Villiers, a small town situated on the banks of the Vaal River in the Orange Free State. Her parents continued to live there until their deaths. The wider family were close at this time, exchanging regular phone calls and visits. The necessary secrecy surrounding the housing of Joseph added a stressful dimension to the relationship.

Although enjoying the benefits of her position, Jacqueline is aware of South Africa’s history – although the schools did not teach this to the children. She dislikes gold and diamonds, repelled by their connotations. She reads of the regular deaths of black miners – numbers rather than names. She still resents Joseph’s presence due to the potential dangers it brings. Her gradually changing feelings towards him cause a further unsettling.

The evocation of time and place is exquisite. Dawn Promislow’s story is told in spare, yet layered, prose that while precise is also sensuous. Unfolding events are recounted with care, the narrator seeking honesty in her mining of memories. Tension is built through a moving timeline – the now and the then – readers made aware of changes before key details are shared. Although a common frame around which an author may build, here it works seamlessly, adding a further dimension.

Side threads offer a wider perspective of life in 1970s South Africa, for both the black and white populations. A new maid causes concern when she is beaten by her boyfriend and then disappears. Another maid has a ‘drink problem’ and the reader learns she imbibes methylated spirits – cheap and easily obtainable. There are regular police raids on servants’ quarters as workers without the correct passes are sought for persecution. White residents may share their homes with black servants, entrusting them with the care of their children, but pay little heed to their wider needs or concerns.

In amongst the growing turmoil, Jacqueline seeks peace in her painting, something that stalled when Joseph moved into their garden room. Prior to this her days had been carefully structured, with periods of rest and creativity – obviously easier when others do the work. She comes across as insipid on the surface, yet with barely acknowledged depth of feeling that she keeps carefully in check. As on the Vaal River, avoiding dangerous currents could be lifesaving, for her family at least.

What emerges is a tapestry depicting the complex ripples created by small acts and omissions. However sympathetic she may have been, Jacqueline was still complicit. Eventually she had the choice to leave South Africa, but not the effects of her behaviour.

The author may be commended for her incisive acuity, offered without sacrificing detail. The history, character development and shades of familial relationships are skilfully rendered, but it is the subtle artistry in the use of language that makes this book such a joy to read.

An impressively compelling, sensitively contoured and beautifully told tale.


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.

Book Review: You Will Be Safe Here

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Like many countries colonised by Europeans over the centuries, South Africa has a distressing history of entitlement leading to brutality. A population of disparate groups evolves, with each believing the land is rightfully theirs. War and political change lead to festering resentments passed down through generations. Inculcated prejudices can result in the dehumanisation of those considered other for a variety of reasons.

You Will Be Safe Here explores a number of such prejudices. It opens with a short prologue that introduces sixteen year old Willem Brandt as he is taken to a New Dawn Camp by his mother and her fiancé. They hope that the military style training regime will fix Willem, turning him into what they regard as a normal man.

The story then jumps back from 2010 to 1901. Written in the form of a diary, this section covers a month in the life of Sarah van der Watt whose husband is away fighting with Afrikaner commandos in the Second Boer War. The British army are trying to crush resistance to their occupation by rounding up Afrikaner families along with their slaves. Possessions are sifted through and confiscated before homes are burned to the ground. The people are loaded into trains and taken to segregated camps – the population thereby concentrated and contained. Knowing what is about to happen, Sarah and her six year old son, Fred, are preparing to leave the farm they have wrested from the veld.

Sarah is asked by the British soldiers to sign an oath of neutrality. In refusing she condemns herself to live in conditions that grow ever harsher. She will come to pay a heavy price for what she regards as necessary loyalty.

“I hate the Khakis but hand-uppers disgust me because they surrendered, they gave up the land we fought the Zulu for at Blood River. God cannot grant their prayers.”

The irony of her actions – that she considers the country that her forebears took and then cultivated with slave labour to be rightfully hers – doesn’t cross her mind.

Sarah’s diary offers a picture of day to day life in the camp. It is a stark portrayal of starvation, disease and death. The British may not have actively murdered their prisoners but in Bloemfontein they did as little as they could get away with to keep them alive. Over the course of this war, more civilians died in the British concentration camps than soldiers on the battlefield.

The second section of the story is set in Johannesburg, starting in 1976 when sixteen year old Rayna is assaulted on her way home from school and falls pregnant. In an attempt to avoid a scandal she quickly marries. The union is not a success and her husband leaves to work in the northern diamond mines. Financially supported and mostly left alone, Rayna quietly shuns societal conventions. Leaving her son with the home help, she finds work and then has a second child.

The timeline moves forward through the decades during which Rayna becomes a grandmother and the political situation in South Africa alters in ways she struggles to accept. There is a perception of encroaching violence resulting in the white population living behind walls and installing increasingly high tech security.

Meanwhile, the Afrikaner children choose to speak English when together – the language of their parents now associated with school.

The story enables the reader to better understand the differing backgrounds of contemporary white South Africans. Prejudices portrayed are not just based on race. The penultimate section, detailing Willem’s time at the New Dawn Camp, is a chilling indictment of homophobia. It also serves to pull each strand of the tale together.

The writing is deft and compelling, illuminating a terrible history with quiet competence and humanity. Despite their flawed thinking, their skewed sense of the ‘natural order’, the characters are presented with a degree of sympathy – as the product of a blinkered heritage.

The author writes:

“The Boer Wars (1880-81 and 1899-1902) are no longer taught in British or South African schools. They are now almost fondly remembered as a great Victorian adventure, the stuff of Boy’s Own stories.”

“Camps like New Dawn still operate across South Africa. They are for white boys only and run by former soldiers […] who believe that one day white South Africa will rise again and finally right the historic wrongs of the Boer Wars.”

Any Cop?: It is horrifying to consider the cruelties so casually meted out in camps set centuries apart. Based on actual events, this story is both powerful and tragic. It offers a vital lesson in where prejudice can lead.


Jackie Law

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.

Book Review: Reconciliation for the Dead

Reconciliation for the Dead, by Paul E. Hardisty, is the third book in the author’s Claymore Straker series of action thrillers (I review the first two books here and here). In this latest work the reader is offered the protagonist’s backstory as a young soldier in the South African army. Clay is fighting for the country he loves alongside comrades he trusts with his life, several of whom he counts as friends.

The book is told over two time periods: 1996 when Clay is being interviewed by the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission about his actions fifteen years previously which resulted in his dishonourable discharge from the army; and a detailed account of these actions in 1981 when, as a twenty-one year old soldier fighting in Angola, Clay stumbles across a top secret initiative with an aim he struggles to comprehend.

As a story that depicts many of the realities for those fighting a war on the ground, the detail is often graphic and disturbing. Whilst gruesome it is never gratuitous, offering a truth too often hidden behind the facade of glorious military victory. Clay has been raised by family and society to love his country and feels proud that he is defending it against enemy states. When his loyalty is tested by the heinous actions of those he has been informed are allies, everything he has believed in until now comes under strain.

Clay has killed men, this has been his job, and he cannot suppress the revulsion he feels as the memories of each death at his hands return to haunt him. He wants to do what is right yet knows he must obey orders. He is a competent soldier with a conscience, caught up in an untenable situation.

Time and again Clay is advised by friends, ordered by his commanding officers, to walk away from and forget what he has seen. He knows that this may be a wise course of action but, with the Pandora’s box opened, his endeavours take a fatalistic direction. He understands that what he has witnessed and his subsequent reactions mean his life is forever changed.

This is a powerful and evocative reminder of the true causes of war. The writing skilfully weaves action and consequence as Clay’s decisions place him in recurring mortal danger. The gradual reveal of the aim and extent of the initiative he uncovers is based on reality. Somehow, depressingly, this was the least difficult aspect of the story to read.

Yet this is not a depressing book. It challenges the reader to accept truths about the heroism venerated by the state. It offers a reminder that, whatever else occurs, a man must always live with himself.

A stunning work of fiction that I eagerly recommend. This is an all action thriller with enough substance and bite to hold any judicious reader.

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

This post is a stop on the Reconciliation for the Dead Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

Reconciliation for the Dead will be published by Orenda Books on 30th May 2017

Book Review: What to do with Lobsters in a Place like Klippiesfontein


What to do with Lobsters in a Place like Klippiesfontain, by Colette Victor, explores the all too familiar battles being fought between necessary progress and the fear of change. Set in a small town near Springbok in South Africa it opens with the delivery of a tank of lobsters to the general store. The locals have never seen anything like it and cannot understand what the proprietor, Oom Marius, can have been thinking of bringing such a thing to a place such as Klippiesfontein. Change is frowned upon by the land owning white folk and city ways are regarded with suspicion.

Oom Mariius was trying to impress one of his lady customers but his mind is soon distracted from her by an announcement by his wife. They must travel to Cape Town which means leaving someone else in charge of the store. Oom Marius asks around town but can find nobody willing to step in to help. Eventually he settles on a radical solution which will upset his peers far more than a tank of crustaceans; he announces that his coloured assistant, Petrus, will be running the store in his absence.

The Afrikaans population is appalled and vows to close the store down rather than allow a coloured man to assume such responsibility. The racism and tension rise although not all of the residents are comfortable with the angry men’s actions. A few openly stand up to them while more continue to support the store quietly. A tipping point is reached when one of the vigilantes is turned down for a job by a coloured man and vents his anger in a drunken rage.

The story develops at a gentle pace but is constantly simmering beneath the surface. The lengths some will go to maintain a status quo that suits them is a world wide problem. The residents of Klippiesfontein appear more appalled at the idea of boiling lobsters alive than in confronting their treatment of fellow men.

In this tale the author explores the unasked for impacts of change on those who are oppressed. It looks at rifts within families when views differ. It shows that even those who have reaped the benefits of progress can still struggle to stand up for that to which they are entitled.

As a simple example, although segregation had been outlawed, areas of towns remain coloured or white. Those who stray outside boundaries find themselves feeling uncomfortable when they are stared at. It can easier to stay away.

The story contains much humour alongside the pathos but I found myself feeling angered and saddened. This is how things are and it is hard to see by what means change may be effected. Education plays a part in raising up those living in poverty but they also require opportunity. Perhaps it is the privileged who now need educating, although they seem much less willing to learn.

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

Out of Africa

Browsing through the blogs that I follow this morning I came across the latest instalment in Duncan Swallow’s ‘advice’ series, How not to be killed by a wild buffalo | nobodysreadingme. The memories came flooding back as I remembered the day that I was charged by one of these beasts. Canny readers will have worked out that I survived the experience, but it got me thinking about the various other encounters that I also survived whilst on a memorable trip to Southern Africa in the nineteen eighties.

I had spent the previous summer working on a kibbutz that was located on the Gaza Strip in Israel. Although this was a known trouble spot I was unfazed by the potential threat of bombings or shootings. I had, after all, spent my entire life up to this point living in Belfast during the worst years of The Troubles. The constant army presence was nothing new and I was more intrigued by the fact that young women were required to complete National Service alongside the men. As a feminist this was something that I fully approved of; I wished to be treated as an equal and it just didn’t happen where I came from.

Volunteers on the kibbutz lived in a separate area from the kibbutniks and we partied hard. I learned to drink beer and to smoke cigarettes that summer, habits that I all but gave up as soon as I returned to my homeland but which added to my enjoyment at the time. I encountered my first scorpions and poisonous spiders, and developed an allergic reaction to biting insects which caused liquid blisters the size of saucers to appear on my legs.

The kibbutnik nurses sent me to an off site medical centre for treatment. After a long wait I was seen by a doctor, but I have no idea what he thought because he spoke no English and I had no understanding of any other language. My blisters were opened and my legs bound in gauze. After that the kibbutniks treated me as if I had some sort of plague, which got me out of a lot of the work details I was there to perform.

One of the other volunteers at the kibbutz came from Zimbabwe, but had Irish ancestors and an unfulfilled wish to visit the emerald isle. Being an hospitable Irish person I offered him an open invitation to come stay with me any time he wished. A month or so after I flew home he surprised me somewhat by phoning to say that he was taking me up on my offer.

His timing was perfect. I still lived with my parents at this time, but they had a holiday abroad planned meaning that I had use of my father’s car and did not need to abide by their rules. I borrowed a tent and spent ten days driving around Ireland with this boy, a most scandalous thing to do at the time. We had a fabulous trip and even managed to locate the graves of his long dead relatives. We asked around and found a few people who remembered the family; Ireland proved itself to be the welcoming place it purports to be. My parents were not so impressed when they returned home and discovered what I had been up to in their absence.

Having partaken of my generous hospitality my new found friend reciprocated, telling me that I would be most welcome in Harare any time I chose. I decided this was too good an opportunity to miss, bought a plane ticket, and spent the three week Christmas holiday travelling around Zimbabwe and South Africa with him.

We camped on the borders of Zambia and Mozambique, hitch hiked from city to city, took a lift with a trucker friend into the wilderness; but the most memorable trips were those made to the Zambezi River, and with his family to Victoria Falls. I was seeing wildlife that I knew only from zoos and television documentaries, in their natural habitat.

I wanted to take photographs of everything. When a large spider started bouncing towards me I was delighted. ‘Look! a bouncy spider!’ I cried as I captured the image, whilst those who knew better ran to escape from one of the most poisonous beasts around. Waiting for a lift by the roadside I wandered up to a group of baboons to photograph the cute little babies before my host dragged me away as the enormous, angry looking mother moved in to protect her young; apparently they are killers too. I was not allowed to approach the elephants who came to drink from the motel swimming pool, and was advised against attempting to get close to the hippopotami and crocodiles in the rivers. I did get to hold a baby crocodile at a tourist attraction; it wee’d on me.

I met the buffalo on a trip down the Zambezi River in a small motor boat. The game keeper carefully pointed it out and then became highly agitated when I stood up in order to photograph it better. The beast raised it’s head, then lowered it menacingly, haunches rising, and charged. I was nearly thrown out of the boat, into the crocodile and hippo infested waters, as the gamekeeper enacted a hasty turn and full throttled escape. I was sworn at quite a lot but was more upset that I didn’t manage to capture on my camera that magnificent beast in full charge. At the time I had no concept of the danger to us all.

Needless to say the trip was awesome. I saw a herd of wild zebra running across a plain, flamingos taking flight in formation and slept out in wooded areas surrounded by the sounds of wildlife I could not even name.

Africa was a land of beauty, poverty and huge inequalities. I argued with one of my welcoming and hospitable host families over apartheid and their treatment of the coloured servants who lived in a hut at the end of their garden, required to live away from their families. I slept in a bed that had shotgun damage in the ceiling above and fleas in the sheets. I was fed the most delicious and enormous steak I have ever eaten.

Thirty years later I still remember the sights and sounds of Africa: the colour, the dust, the welcome. It is an awesome place. I am grateful that I was granted enough luck over judgement to survive to tell my tales.