Feb 28, 2013

Love Games: Episode 4

Feb 22, 2013

The Boy Next Door by Irene Sabatini – A Review

September 2009, Fiction
Little, Brown and Company, 416 pages
 ISBN-13: 978-0316049931, Available on Amazon*
(*I read the digital version, though I also own the hardcover)

The Boy Next Door is set in Zimbabwe from the early 1980s through the late 1990s. In it the author focuses on racial conflicts which underlay the history of the nation – from colonial rule when the country was known as Rhodesia to post-independence times. At the centre of it all is the story of Lindiwe Bishop and Ian McKenzie, she is of mixed race (coloured) and he is white. The story of their lives unfolds along with that of the young nation, and we witness along with them mass migration of white people escaping what they see as a decline in their fortunes, the frustration of liberation fighters trying to reintegrate in society and later the economic decline that sends the country into a tailspin.

The narrative begins in the early 1980s. Lindiwe and her family live in what was previously an all-white neighbourhood. She’s a quiet 14-year-old when the area is rocked by the arrest of the boy next door; he’s accused of setting his step-mother on fire. He is later cleared of the charges and it is then that he and Lindiwe spark a friendship; despite all parental warnings against this, on her part. They are an unlikely pair, as he’s a few years older and little world weary. This bond endures of the years.

The second part of the book is set in the early 1990s, six to seven years after the close of the first. Lindiwe is a young woman at university and Ian is working as a photojournalist in South Africa. They have maintained contact through the preceding years, and when they meet again in person the draw between them exists still. An unexpected secret Lindiwe has been keeping changes the course of both their lives. Sorry no spoilers. J

In the third half of the book is where the story really takes off for me. Ian and Lindiwe are together as a couple, and have to confront various situations as adults. The relationship remains tenuous and they are thoroughly tested by circumstances of their own making and others not. They are each changing, as is the country around them and the question remains will they make it? 

As I finished reading this book, I was left thoroughly dissatisfied. I just couldn’t connect with either of the main characters. I found myself liking and disliking them at various turns, and ultimately found little to redeem them. Yes, they are human and have flaws like we all do but the author couldn’t sell me on reasons to care about either of them and their story. They changed over time but still seemed stuck by circumstances of the past and present – family disharmony, the racial undertones, etc.

Furthermore, there are family secrets that each uncover throughout the book. It was agonising for me because each secret seemed to ask more questions than it answered, and it just didn’t come together. I mentally threw up my hands in the air and asked “why should I care?”

What I did enjoy about the book was Sabitini’s vivid descriptions of Zimbabwe’s main cities, Bulawayo and Harare. She breathes life into them and they almost become secondary characters in the book. As the fortunes of Zimbabwe change as to do those of her people and the beautiful cities in which they reside.

Unfortunately as a complete package this was not the book for me. And I would have a hard time recommending it.  

Feb 21, 2013

Love Games: Episode 3

The hiatus is over - episode 3 of Love Games. 

Feb 15, 2013

51 Mounds of Earth

Standing there on the red earth I turn my head towards the setting sun. The beauty of it is lost on me. It cannot lift the sorrow I feel, neither the dejection nor the anger.

I’m alone in this place of sorrow. The wailing has stopped; the platitudes have been repeated ad nauseam. Yet, I cannot bring myself to accept the horror. I reject it.

I close my eyes remembering what unfolded here a few hours ago.

The families arrived first in hired vans, buses and personal vehicles. They were a large mass of people propelled by the enormity of their grief; each and every person dealing with their personal loss. I saw the confused children unsure of what to do in the midst of the commotion, the wailing, and the clang of shovels hitting the dirt.

As the hearses drove in, a brief moment of silence fell. All that could be heard was the soft purr of engines running. We stood, shock still as 21 vehicles rolled towards us.

Someone, I’m not sure who, cried out “shiMwandu bakuleta mucitumbi!” The silence was broken.

The dignitaries came last. They came in their sleek motorcades, flags flapping briskly in the breeze. Under the big tent they sat, exchanging words we could not hear. At us they talked – “we are united today as a nation in this grief. We share the burden together.”

As I heard these words I looked at the grandmother now responsible for three orphaned children. A pensioner already struggling, is she comforted by these words? What burden is being shared with her? The three frightened children now without their mother, will we unite to help them once the tears shed today have dried?

Lifting my camera I snapped a picture. They are the human faces of this tragedy. It is their stories that must be told and re-told. In the face of our greatest tragedies we boldly proclaim “Never Again!” It is my job to remind us of these promises as we stare into the sorrow filled eyes of those who lost someone. We cannot forget, and we should not forget.

It’s getting dark now and the cool breeze sends a slight chill through my body. I take one last look at the mounds covered with flowers now wilted from the sun’s harsh rays. They are only part of the story. They represent the 51 lives lost on that road notoriously known as Hell Run.

51 mounds of earth holding within them the bodies of somebody’s mother, father, sister, brother, son and daughter. Nameless and faceless no longer; they will remind of us of the promises we made this day – Never Again. 

-   The End -

Feb 6, 2013

Dog Eat Dog by Niq Mhlongo – A Review

July 2012, Fiction
Ohio University Press, 224 pages (Originally published by Kwela Book, 2004)
 ISBN-13: 978-0821419946, Available on Amazon

Dog Eat Dog is the brash debut novel by young South African writer, Niq Mhlongo. It’s a first-person story set in 1994, the year of South Africa’s first post-apartheid elections. This historic event is a major counter point in the book, “the moment that most of us had been waiting for years to experience."

Dingamanzi ‘Dingz’ Njomane, the protagonist, is a street smart kid from Johannesburg straddling two worlds – one familiar to him, living in the impoverished townships and the new, as a student at the University of Witwatersrand. The story opens with a reflection of Dingz’s frustration at receiving yet another “letter of regret” from the University Bursary Committee.  

As he’s faced with the possibility of not attending university due to the lack of financial aid, Dingz bullies his way into the bursary office and demands an audience with the person in charge. He’s tired of being ‘fobbed off’ by bureaucrats and exaggerates his family’s plight to make his case more sympathetic. In his words, “I was not ashamed that I lied. Living in this South Africa of ours you have to master the art of lying in order to survive.”

What follows is a first-hand view of Dingz’s life; his interactions with friends, classmates, and authority figures. Dingz and others are learning to capitalise on the new world order, where they can be ‘dogs’ eating other ‘dogs.’ While at the same, old structures stubbornly remain in place, like the white students in university whose affluence and family connections make it easier to get excused from exams, and to be less stressed about finances.

Dingz’s carefree and often reckless attitude makes for an entertaining read but at times I couldn’t help but cringe at some of his antics, like the elaborate scheme he hatches to obtain an aegrotat (certificate excusing a student's absence from school for reasons of illness). I had to keep reminding myself that he is a 19 year old university student, and as such his immaturity isn’t far-fetched. He and his friends are trying to navigate adulthood as the world around them is in flux, with rules of the game constantly changing.

To be completely honest, I wasn’t prepared for this book. When I picked it up I was fully aware of the fact that it was set in South Africa’s 1994 and would deal with the long term effects of apartheid and so forth. However, reading almost nonchalant descriptions of the notorious Apartheid police and how they harassed the black population jarred me, as did the demeaning vulgarity. Not that I was unfamiliar with the history but because it’s not something I confront on a regular basis and is not a part of my past.

The subtle elements of racism and xenophobia in the backdrop are a chilling reminder of where South Africa has been and the forces that still exist. This is a highly readable book; certainly not for the faint at heart or anyone looking for a light read.