April 2007, Fiction
Jacana Media, 328 pages
ISBN-13: 978-1770091900, Available on Amazon
It’s a rare book that will keep me up into the wee hours of the morning, fully engrossed, and unwilling to let go even for just a few hours of sleep. When I put down Fred Khumalo’s Bitches’ Brew it was with a deep sense of satisfaction; I’d just read a fascinating story.
The novel is told in an epistolary form – as a series of letters between the two main characters, Zakes and Lettie. Through these letters we learn about their lives, their shared love, the circumstances that shaped them, along with their joys and regrets. Lettie, a retired shebeen queen, is from Maseru, Lesotho and later moves to Durban, South Africa as a young woman where she meets Bra Zakes, an amateur musician and hustler. Theirs is a relationship of missed opportunities, for lack of a better phrase.
What I enjoyed most about this story is that it celebrates life and love. Though Lettie and Zakes struggle individually and together, this does not overshadow life and living. They both inhabit a world that constantly knocks people down, often through no fault of their own. Those who survive and thrive are not always be on the straight and narrow but given the backdrop of harsh township life where it’s a dog eat dog existence.
Khumalo is unapologetic in his description of township life, and the hard choices people have to make. He strikes a delicate balance by not make excuses for the people, or passing judgment. The violence he describes is neither glorified nor minimized to protect the reader’s sensibilities.
An important theme in the novel is the role of music. Khumalo reveals himself to be great lover of jazz. If the book title Bitches Brew (named after Miles Davis’s gold album released in 1970) isn’t a clue, this quickly becomes apparent as each chapter is headed by a song title. Zakes has a love for music, and as a young man travels the country performing; he uses it for self-expression.
That said the book isn’t without problems. There is violence against women that is merely glossed over and not tackled within context. This is especially true of Sis Jane, Lettie’s best friend and business partner; her story is so tragic and miserable. Lettie is shown as being fiercely independent – she travels to Durban as a teen in search of an erstwhile lover but upon arrival deems him unworthy and launches her life in a different track, her choice to be a shebeen queen though not unusual for the time is still rather bold for a young woman and her decision to remain a single mother to multiple children – but the author let me down by not amplifying these strengths and instead falling into the trap that portrays women in townships as victims of their womanhood and enslaved to the love and lust they hold for the men in their lives.
This detracted a little from my overall enjoyment of the book but it not so much as to stop reading in frustration. Khumalo is a gifted story teller, and I hope his subsequent books build on what he did with Bitches’ Brew.