Book Review: What Happened To Us

What Happened To Us, by Ian Holding, is a slow burner building to an intensity that lingers beyond the final page. Set in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, in the tinderbox of an approaching election, the narrator is a young man recalling a pivotal few weeks in his life when he was thirteen years of age. Danny is a privileged white kid, heavily influenced by parents who are resentful at the changes being made in a country that no longer protects their interests. Although vaguely aware of the issues they must now face, the teenager is cosseted by an exclusive community that eschews its darker skinned neighbours.

The story opens with Danny cycling near his home making a nuisance of himself. He recognises that his actions are childish. He is bored and irritated by a relentless heatwave. As he makes his way back to the large, gated property where he lives with his parents and older sister, Rebecca, he becomes aware of three men heading in the same direction. He is agitated by the thought that they seek retribution for his recent foolish behaviour. When the gate bell rings while he cools down in the back garden swimming pool he ignores it, fearing a reprimand he prefers not to face.

Danny’s family life is happy and largely carefree. He harbours the usual teenage angsts – an increasing interest in girls, how he appears amongst his peers, irritation at the demands made by his parents – but with a stable home life is shielded from wider worries. He shares porn clips in a WattsApp group with friends from his expensive school, plays FPS games on his Playstation, messages the girl next door who he occasionally crosses the wall to meet in secret. It is a life of braais and tennis club and family time, a routine made comfortable by the oft berated staff who live out of sight at the edge of the garden.

The first hint of unease caused by the trio of overall clad men is followed by further phantom ringing at the family gate and then a suggestion by a coloured classmate that Danny’s father is in financial difficulties. What transpires is that the government is threatening to confiscate the business assets of the white community. Danny’s father is attempting to counter this by partnering with the classmate’s father, a wealthy banker with powerful political affiliates.

With all this in the background, and the heatwave exhausting the close-knit community, Danny’s home is broken into while the family sleep. Locked in his room for his own safety, the boy can only guess at the nature of the invasion. The fallout is a fracturing of everything on which his easy life has been based. Added to this is Danny’s unspoken guilt. He fears that the attack, which has left his sister traumatised, is the work of the three men, and that he is to blame.

The unfolding story is skillfully written with a continuing ramping up of tension. In the aftermath of the robbery, Rebecca is the family’s main concern. Danny’s parents are unmoored by their inability to protect. Their boy is sidelined. His coping strategies are harrowing. His determination to somehow help leads to a devastating conclusion.

Contemporary Zimbabwe with its beauty, heat, widespread poverty and political difficulties is sympathetically evoked whilst acknowledging the challenges faced by all who live there. There is selfishness and racism, corruption and violence, children being raised to perpetuate their parents’ prejudices. The voice of the narrator comes across as authentic, a recognition of the difficulty adults have communicating with young people, and vice versa. The tale offers a window into the psychological damage caused when property cannot be protected and personal safety is at constant risk.

This is a powerful, haunting novel in which setting and culture are key. The heart of it though is a wider perspective on the side effects of conflict and political upheaval. It is a recommended read.

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

Book Review: An Ounce of Practice

This review was written for and first posted on Bookmunch.

Leo Zeilig’s An Ounce of Practice is a sweeping exploration of human connections and a search for meaning beyond mere existence. It is a journey driven by sex, politics and idealism. The flawed characters are radicals fighting for personal freedom and a better way of living. They are striving for a Promised Land, unable to be present and satisfied, unwilling to accept.

The protagonist is Viktor, a member of the teaching staff at a London University where he is prevaricating over completing his PhD. Viktor struggles with his everyday situation and seeks a cause to champion. Having befriended members of the outsourced cleaning staff, many of whom are illegals, he becomes involved in their campaign for worker’s rights. His contribution is to document their protests on his blog.

Through these workplace connections Viktor is put in touch with a group of resistance fighters in Zimbabwe and acquires an interest in their struggle. Eventually he will be coerced into visiting, to gain his ‘ounce of practice’.

In London, Viktor lives with Nina. They embarked on a passionate love affair but soon grew discontented. Viktor has detached himself from Nina’s attempts to facilitate understanding of her needs, leading to rows that drain his energy. Despite moments of clarity when he recognises his flaws they serve only to pull him further into self-contemplation. For all his efforts to make a positive difference in the world, his focus remains on himself. Even their daughter, whom Viktor adores, struggles to maintain his attention.

When Viktor travels to Harare he is perturbed by the crumbling infrastructure and disparate living conditions. He joins a small group of socialists who eagerly pontificate on revolution. He meets NGOs enjoying their pampered lifestyle whilst ‘helping’ poverty stricken locals. He is told of the former socialists who gained power but then grew out of touch, travelling the world fund-raising, always business class.

The sweeping narrative can at times feel bogged down in the details of the radicals’ polemic. It is worth wading through these sections for when the pace once again picks up. The section set in Bulawayo is tense and pivotal, although does little to improve Viktor’s naval gazing and insatiable need for affirmation.

Viktor is not the only conundrum. Biko, the cogent student radical, the future hero of the movement, trades the fine jacket his dying mother worked and saved for a year to buy for a few moments on a sofa with a girl. Details are shared of sweat, phlegm, mucus and semen. The reader is offered little respite from the messiness of being alive.

Although this is partly a tale of a white man’s attempts to save Africans, there is no glossing over the locally endemic corruption. Easy answers do not exist for a problem centuries in the making.

Their flaws may make many of the characters difficult to like but they add depth to the complex personal and political situations.

Any Cop?: There is little to raise the spirits in this tale despite the many well meaning efforts. What it does provide is rich food for thought.


Jackie Law

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.